For years, I considered myself “a real backpacker”. This was a very serious designation to me in my early twenties. It meant that I used only hostels, hand-washed my clothing, chose the cheapest forms of transportation imaginable on the face of the earth, and constantly danced that fine line between nourishment and intestinal infection.
This designation also meant that I eschewed anything viewed as “touristy”, as the Tourist label was inherently fatal to my sense of adventure. There existed a rift between Backpackers and Tourists in my mind then, which I found to be quite common amongst the hostel crowds through Central America in 2008. Somehow, though we were all foreigners and technically touristing around, it didn’t mean we were tourists, for god’s sake.
Throughout my early 20s and even through my late 20s, I’ve mostly avoided hiring tour guides. It started as a moral issue – I’m a real backpacker therefore I don’t need guides – and eventually morphed into a money issue – a guide would be nice but money’s pretty tight right now.
At any rate, I prided myself on the fact that I could explore a new and strange city by myself. If I climbed a pyramid, I was alone, breezing past the tour groups stalled at a particular lookout point, trapped in monotone conversation about the surroundings. Being able to navigate around the cosmos with only my Lonely Planet Guide and a couple hundred dollars was, for me, the biggest indicator that I had succeeded.
And the opposite of success? Being crammed into turibuses with the foreign masses, all the 5’8”+ frames squeezed behind too-small seats, blonde hair ablaze, or worse yet, being part of the uniformed tour groups ambling stoically through pyramids.
But then I went to Copan in 2008, as part of a 3 month jaunt through Central America as a single female real backpacker. I was 21 at the time – a bit too young to realize some of the actual perils that awaited someone like me on such a trip – but damnit, I had my Lonely Planet and a couple hundred dollars and an appreciation for history that could have reincarnated an ancient Mayan if I tried hard enough.Copan is a hallmark stop on the Mayan Trail. I was prepared to wander the ruins myself, per usual, but the night before my visit to the ancient ruins, I met a man named Chozo, who worked as a tour guide at the site itself. On picnic tables in the balmy Honduran night air at my dirt-cheap hostel, over cigarettes and jewelry bits, he regaled me with stories about the ruins. I was practically salivating on this stranger as he expanded upon basically everything that had ever interested me about Mayan History. I was American Putty in his Palm.
It didn’t take long for me to beg that he be my personal tour guide the next day.
The next day, Chozo and I met at the central plaza and made our way toward the ruins. He showed me tombs, explained the significance of their alignment, pointed out political references in the stonework, highlighted exactly where the ancient elite took their concubines for their “appointments”, helped me up when I slid in the mud, led me through underground tunnels, and, most importantly, shared his wealth of knowledge about the ancient Mayans.
He also showed me the plant-based material the Mayans used to use to stain clothing and skin. I rubbed it onto my forearm, feeling insanely primal and alive. It was, and perhaps still is, one of the most exciting moments of my life.
As a freshly graduated Ancient Civilization Enthusiast, the experience left me breathless and itching to jump into a time machine. I had hired a tour guide, and I had hired a good one.
If you would have passed by us on that particular day in Copan, I was the gape-mouthed girl towering over the squat Honduran man, eyes sliding back and forth from the ruins to his face. I could have listened to him for days, even under the scorching Honduran sun. A new feeling bubbled in my gut: Chozo had taken what would have been an incredible-by-default visit to Copan and turned it into a holy-crap-amazing visit to ANCIENT Copan.
What had I missed on my other visits on the Mayan trail?
I had assumed that simply seeing the ancient ruins was fascinating enough – inhaling their essence, sneaking into former tombs, stealing discrete touches of ancient stone. Wrong. Learning the secrets behind them was a whole new level of fascinating. Not out of a book, but in real time, while choking on the humidity of the jungle, hearing it all in articulate, melodious Spanish from a man who knew what the hell he was talking about.
We’ve all had the sub-par tour guide experience, right? The package more interested in lumping tourists into one big manageable group, as opposed to really imparting knowledge and fascination. I lucked out with Chozo, and I knew it then, and I still know it.
The lesson I learned via Chozo was two-fold.
Despite the “tourist” title hanging heavy over my head throughout Copan, I realized the label was what I made of it. Chozo wasn’t – nor any guide, really – any threat to my backpacker esteem, because no good traveler will ever pass up the chance to earn about a foreign culture or history more deeply.
Furthermore, that day I realized that hiring a tour guide has no say in whether or not one is a tourist. We are all mf’ing tourists when we’re on the road, despite our personal classifications, despite what our ego wants to think, despite what our grandest intentions are for the trip.
As long as we are passing through – backpacking, flashpacking, slow travel, long travel, vacationing or otherwise – we are simply tourists.
But that doesn’t have to have to negative connotation it did for me at 21 years old.
Tourism is what you make of it.
And according to this article in Wikipedia, throughout my decade of traveling the world, I stand accused of the following types of tourism:
Creative Tourism: Tourism related to the active participation of travellers in the culture of the host community, through interactive workshops and informal learning experiences. (Editor’s Note: Such as, living in Mexico in 2006; in Guatemala in 2008.)
Experiential Tourism: or “immersion travel” (Editor’s Note: This constitutes the bulk of my existence these days.)
Dark Tourism: This type of tourism involves visits to “dark” sites, such as battlegrounds, scenes of horrific crimes or acts of genocide, for example: concentration camps. Dark tourism remains a small niche market, driven by varied motivations, such as mourning, remembrance, education, macabre curiosity or even entertainment. (Editor’s Note: Part of my reason for traveling to Europe in 2009 was to visit concentration camps…though I would call it for educational and remembrance purposes, not entertainment.)
Social Tourism: Social tourism is the extension of the benefits of tourism to disadvantaged people who otherwise could not afford to travel for their education of recreation. It includes youth hostels and low-priced holiday accommodation run by church and voluntary organisations, trade unions, or in Communist times publicly owned enterprises. (Editor’s Note: Pretty much all of my trips ever. Minus the Communist times part.)
Our early 20’s are there precisely for learning these distinctions in life – that there are no actual distinctions except the ones we arbitrarily assign. We’re just people, doing things that interest us, in ways that feel most comfortable or right at the time. And that’s okay. It’s what you want to do, and that’s okay.
I don’t know that you’ll ever catch me in a big group of foreigners wandering in well-timed tour groups throughout the notable sights of any particular country. You might still find me on the fringe, debating over the tour guide, wondering if I have enough money to afford the hostel and that expensive bottle of wine I wanted to get later…but you WON’T find me sneering at the tour group like I used to in my relative youth.
Let’s explore the world, people. It’s a huge place, and there’s room for all of us. However you want to see the world.
Just go do it.