On the Road

Can a Traveller Ever Be a Tourist?

So there you are, sitting at a desk somewhere trying to hold down a real job and boring all of your colleagues with stories of backpacking around Asia. Yes, they say, you were away for a long time and went to many countries that don’t have proper bathrooms, we’ll ‘like’ your album on Facebook, just please stop talking about your travels…


True to Paul Theroux’s aphorism of ‘tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going’ you look down upon their forays abroad: their weekend in Marrakech, their city breaks to Vienna – what can they really have learned in such a short trip?

And yet you slowly begin to realise that for most people there’s a straight up choice between having time or money. When you were travelling on a budget of 5 euros a day you could camp out by a temple for a week or longer without even needing to check your email. But now that you have enough money to actually go wherever you want, you no longer have the time to stay there for more than a few days. Your boss expects you back, after all.

So despite your reservations, you find yourself looking up Easy Jet fares to European capitals that you can reach in a couple of hours and, whereas you would once have just roughed it in the forest outside town and walked in the next day to stroll around aimlessly, now you reason that you might as well get a cheap hotel room, you can afford it, and if you’re only going to be there for the weekend then you might as well check out the sights. What chance do you have of meeting some locals in 48 hours and making new friendships anyway?

You head off for your weekend break without a guidebook (you haven’t completely lost your hard-core traveller snobbery) but you decide there’s nothing wrong with checking out a few recommendations on the internet and, though you sneer at some of the worries raised on Tripadvisor about safety in European capitals, all the same you find yourself getting into heated discussions about whether the Austrians really do have a sense of humour…

Maybe you even book a night at a hostel just so you can rub shoulders with some real travellers and reminisce a little. Unfortunately most of the backpackers are just university students on a mission to get as drunk as possible and respond to your tales of travel in the Far East with “Magic!” and “Awesome!” before passing out on the floor next to their dorm bed.


You resist taking any pictures of the cathedrals and churches, instead capturing some shots of the street scenes, hoping to dignify your trip with a little ethnology. You see a few punks hanging out opposite a yuppie bar and grooving on the contrast you take a few pictures. You’re about to walk up to them to see what they think of the images when you hear them say laugh:

“Oh man, what a tourist.”