Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.– Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux is both one of the great travelers and one of the great travel writers of our time. He is well known for both his works of travel and adventure fiction, such as The Mosquito Coast (1981), and for his non-fiction based on his own travel adventures, such as The Great Railway Bazar (1975). I believe that he thinks of himself as a traveler, and not as a tourist. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been” because they do not, for one reason or another, experience the places that they have visited. There are many ways that tourists can visit a place and not experience it. Some may only stay at large, generic hotels and have similar experiences wherever they visit; some may travel in large groups and consequently do not meet local people; and, some may spend so much money that they are economically separated from the places they visit and do not experience local culture. On the other hand, “travelers don’t know where they’re going” because they are often so immersed in the cultures and the experiences of the places that they are visiting, that they do not know what is coming next. They live in the moment and are willing to let whatever is happening now dictate what will happen next.
I came to Vietnam not knowing what to expect, and I wanted it that way. Too many people go on vacations to ‘fun’ and developed places, and that was not something that I was interested in. The life of the ‘traveler’ has far more appeal to me than the life of the ‘tourist’. I have lived in Vietnam for nine months now, and I have taken full advantage of my time here and the experiences that were available to me. I chose Theroux’s quote because it defines the type of experience that I want to have when traveling. I don't want to go to a non-stimulating place like Hawaii or southern Spain and sit on a beach. I want to go somewhere off the beaten path and meet the people that live there. When I came to Vietnam, all I knew ahead of time was that I was going to be here for a year, and that I had to go to school on the weekdays, but other than that it was an open book. I didn’t know where I was going. This is the message Theroux conveys: that a traveler doesn't need an itinerary, but instead chooses to deal with things as they come, and make the most of it.
For me, the most compelling part of an adventure is not knowing what’s around the next corner, and my time in Vietnam has certainly been an adventure. One of my first and most humorous experiences in Vietnam was getting hopelessly lost in a cab on the way to a soccer field deep in a crowded neighborhood. At that point in the year, about seven days in, I couldn't speak any Vietnamese, and the driver spoke no English. Eventually after a long and trying process, we found my destination. But, as awkward and difficult as the drive may have been at the time, it makes a great story and it built character and resilience in me. That's another great part about traveling, if all I did was sit in my room and not make the effort to go to the fields, I would have missed out on an opportunity to learn and expose myself to solving problems. Arriving at those fields made possible another adventure - refereeing soccer in a foreign country and with players who spoke a foreign language. I could have said to myself that these barriers would make refereeing too difficult as it is hard enough without the language problems, but again I would have missed out on the amazing cultural experiences that refereeing soccer provided me. I definitely had no idea where I was going next when I was refereeing soccer (other than quickly to someplace with air conditioning!).
I was fortunate to have a host family with lots of relatives who lived in many different places around Northern Vietnam, and we often traveled to meet them. One day during the Tet Holiday, without notice I was woken up by my family at five am, put into a waiting car, and was off to meet family relatives in Thang Hoa, a small city about two hours south of Hanoi. Although the unexpected wakeup wasn't too pleasant at the time, it’s moments like this that only a traveler experiences. I was off to meet a large group of people I had never met or heard of before. Questions raced through my mind: would they like me? How awkward is this going to be? Will anyone understand anything I can say in Vietnamese? Of course it turned out like every other family experience I’ve had here: with incredible hospitality and friendliness. Of all the many family members I met, the person who stands out the most is my mom’s uncle. He was a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army. He fought against both the French and Americans in the two Indochina wars. He was very old, but with the help of my dad, who translated for us, he told me some war stories from the opposite perspective that most Americans would hear. I had no idea I would meet this fascinating man; until I did.
I think that most people who travel are not willing to get outside their comfort zone. They avoid the risk of making some potentially embarrassing mistakes, and yet in the process, they also avoid the possibility of meeting new people and experiencing their cultures. These people are tourists. It is more difficult, but I know better than to allow myself to feel comfortable all the time when traveling. Getting out of my comfort zone and exposing myself to new things is healthy; it makes my life interesting; and, ultimately, can be incredibly rewarding. Theroux says, “travelers don't know where they are going”, and I am a traveler. I came to Vietnam not knowing what was going to happen to me here. I just strapped in and enjoyed the ride.