I tried to be a good traveler. I really, really did.
I did the off-the-beaten track thing for a grand total of five months: first in the jungles of Northern Thailand and then in Malaysia.
I self-butchered a chicken.
I became BFFs with a Malaysian rice farmer.
I ate noodles every single day for the entire month that I was working on the sailboat.
I hiked to the top of a tea plantation in tattered pants.
I’ve seen more temples than I can shake an incense stick at.
I tiptoed through a tour of an Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) field in Laos as our tour guide gleefully pointed out cluster bombs.
I’ve battled bed bugs, mosquitos, monster spiders, grasshoppers the size of France and wild dogs.
I shared a hostel dormitory room with four drunken twenty-somethings. (Okay, so maybe it was only for one night. But they were really, really drunk and I was really, really sober… and really, really old).
I’ve traveled by taxi, tuk-tuk, pickup truck, train, metro, motorbike, mountain bike, rubber dinghy, long boat, speed boat, jet ski, luxury yacht, budget airplane, mini-bus, local bus, overnight bus and “VIP” karaoke bus.
I’ve done the good traveler thing.
Sure, I holed myself up in a few hotel rooms until housekeeping showed up to throw me out. I had a couple meals that consisted entirely of potato chips, chocolate bars and Diet Coke. I went to the mall. I drank overpriced lattes. I had a tantrum in the middle of the Low Cost Carrier Terminal of the Kuala Lumpur Airport and was tempted to throw my luggage at a few airline employees.
But, overall, I’ve been really, really good.
Even though, at heart, I’m a bad traveler.
Exploring a new country and discovering a new culture is really great and all, but you know what also is really great?
Exploring cable channels! And discovering how long you can attach yourself to your couch before your pajama pants start to fuse to the upholstery! (Sounds pretty great, huh?)
One of my favorite things to do while living in Japan was to camp out in my living room while watching cable television or, should I be feeling particularly industrious, the entire DVD box set of Mad Men Seasons 1-3.
Occasionally, I’d rustle up enough energy and a proper pair of pants to shuffle my way to the grocery store, a short five-minute walk away from my apartment, to grab a bottle of wine and replenish my cookie supply.
Or if I was feeling neither the energy nor the desire to put on proper pants, I’d scurry to the beer vending machine on the nearby street corner.
Since taking up my new volunteer teaching job and moving into my own place in Chiang Mai three weeks ago, I’ve settled back into my old pattern of doing things. I don’t have a couch or any DVD box sets these days, but I do have a pretty comfy bed and free cable TV. On most nights you can find me curled up on my mattress, downing a pile of Pad Thai, a can of beer and maybe a cookie (or twelve) while watching Law & Order.
When I do get out of my apartment, it’s to go to work or to meet friends for lunch or drinks. I haven’t read any guidebooks or brochures. I haven’t been to any museums. I’ve only been to one temple in the entire three weeks I’ve been in Chiang Mai, and that’s only because I happened to be walking past it… on my way to lunch. I’ve taken approximately three photos since I’ve arrived here, and two of those photos were of my breakfast (see above).
I know this is bad of me. I know I should be out exploring my new city. I know I should be discovering new things. I know I should be on a journey towards self-discovery… and not, say, a journey towards obesity and bed sores.
I know I’m a bad traveler because the Internet told me so. You see, there’s no shortage of travel blogs and websites out there ready to dole out advice on how to travel and provide definitions on what is and what is not “good travel.”
A good traveler is someone who researches her destination before she shows up and has memorized approximately thirty-nine essential phrases from her “Essential Phrase Handbook for the Good Traveler.”
A good traveler eats food from carts pushed by toothless men and would never dream of going to Starbucks.
A good traveler makes friends with the locals and could easily ride for twelve hours in a rickety bus with a baby on one knee and a goat on the other.
A good traveler stays in hostels and truly believes a bed is merely a place to sleep (and not a place to watch endless episodes of Law & Order, eat all three of her meals and write long, whiny, self-involved blog posts).
A good traveler travels for the sake of traveling… and not, say, for the sake of whining.
A bad traveler, on the other hand, isn’t entirely sure why she travels. She doesn’t have a guidebook or a phrase book or a clue. She needs regular doses of chocolate, the Internet and tequila to keep herself sane. She spends more time interacting with Facebook friends and Twitter followers than she does with the locals and their goats. The bad traveler whines and pouts and threatens to throw her luggage (but only when the goats make her do it!). The bad traveler doesn’t see a bed; she sees a bubble — a lovely bubble that comes complete with Internet access, cable TV and chocolate.
I know I should feel bad about being a bad traveler.
But, honestly, I don’t.
I tried to be a good traveler; I really, really did. But much like my attempts to be a size eight or a responsible adult, things didn’t work out so well for me. Judging from my past three weeks of activity (or, rather, lack thereof), it seems, bad travel habits don’t die — they just get reincarnated. Maybe my being a bad traveler is just part of my nature, a kind of predisposed tendency, something I simply can’t change — like the size of my thighs.
So why bother? Instead of fighting my inner bad-travel-girl, why not embrace her. (Well, maybe not embrace in the physical sense. After all, she’s covered in cookie crumbs and beer stains and after three weeks of watching crime dramas she’s started to snarl at anyone that so much glances her way.)
Maybe you, too, have an inner bad-traveler inside of you just dying to get out.
Isn’t it about time you let her go free?
1. Stick to the beaten path.
Sure, off-the-beaten path is fine and dandy — for a couple weeks. But after five months of hanging out on the road untraveled, I was ready to trade my mother in for the convenience of a 24-hour convenience store… and a decent coffee shop… and a place that serves brunch… and maybe a margarita or two.
Let’s face it: the well-traveled path is well-traveled for a reason — because it’s awesome!
My apartment in Chiang Mai is located in the uber-hip, expat-friendly neighborhood of Nimmanhaemin, which is chock-a-block with trendy cafes, international restaurants, import shops and art galleries. I’m only a ten-minute walk away from an air-conditioned mall and a quick fifteen-minute bike ride from the bustling night markets and ancient temples of the Old City.
But, honestly, unless I’m meeting friends in town, I don’t stray too far from my neighborhood. In fact, I don’t even stray too far from my building. At the intersection in front of my apartment complex there are two convenience stores, a cafe that serves all-day breakfast, a smoothie shop and a Mexican restaurant. As far as I’m concerned, this is what an intersection in heaven would look like!
2. Don’t blend.
When I lived in the UK, I tried desperately to look like one of the locals. It helped that I was naturally prone to pastiness like most Brits. I took up wearing scarves knotted jauntily around my neck and polyester tops from the Top Shop. I bought a pair of platform shoes I could barely walk in and started saying things like “dodgy” and “posh.” Should I have had a few pints, I’d break out in an accent I had practiced while watching endless episodes of East Enders (Back then I didn’t consider my penchant for watching television programs in a marathon-like fashion a form of “bad traveling.” Instead, I considered it research).
While living in Brazil, I took up wearing spandex pants and tight tank tops. I listened to Brazilian pop music, watched Brazilian soap operas and even feigned a mild interest in soccer. Briefly, I imagined I was a good dancer.
Living in Asia is a different story. I don’t look Asian. I don’t fit into any pants sold in Asia. I don’t understand Asian TV. There’s really no pressure for a white girl like me to blend in.
I wouldn’t even say I look much like the other tourists in town. Because of the artsy, chilled-out vibe of the city, Chiang Mai tends to attract the young, hipster, backpacker types who prance around barefoot in harem pants and dreadlocks. I, on the other hand, am not capable of prancing (due to a bad knee) or doing the barefoot-in-public thing (due to basic common sense). I don’t own harem pants, and dreadlocks just give me the heebie-jeebies.
My wardrobe, these days, usually consists of a plain t-shirt, one of the two pairs of pants I haven’t managed to rip a hole in (yet) and a pair of flip-flops. After three weeks of washing my clothes in a bucket, I have reached a permanent state of rumpled. Rather than looking like a hipster, I just tend to look homeless.
3. Eat whatever you want. Even if that whatever is a cheeseburger.
I love Thai food. I love food sold from carts by toothless men. I love trying new things… especially if those new things happen to be deep-fried or sausage.
But you know what I also love? Cheeseburgers!
Sure, eating cheeseburgers may not sound all that adventurous, but who says having a cheeseburger can’t be an authentic cultural experience? Just the other day, I sidled up to the burger joint across the street from my apartment building and ordered a cheese and beef burger. What the menu failed to mention was that this was a cheese and beef and tartar sauce burger. When the burger came out, the measly pink patty was smothered in a thick smear of the stuff. Maybe the menu failed to mention the tartar sauce because in Thailand all burgers are served with tartar sauce? Maybe the locals would never dream of eating a cheese burger any other way? Maybe I need to find a new burger joint?
I won’t say that my tartar sauce cheese burger tasted very good, but it certainly did taste different. And isn’t that what travel is all about: trying something different? (Mind you, next time I’m in the mood for something different, I’ll be heading to the toothless guy manning the deep-fried sausage cart down the street).
4. Don’t speak the local language.
I know exactly four words in Thai: “hello” (sawasdee kha), “thank you,” (kobkun kha), “chicken” (gai) and “white person” (falang). Despite my rather limited vocabulary, I regularly get confused. I often say “hello” when I mean “thank you” or vice versa. (Although, I suppose it could be worse. I could say “white person” when I mean to say “chicken”… or vice versa.)
I’ve never been particularly good at learning languages. This is not because I lack some inherent language learning ability, but because I’m lazy. The only language I’ve managed to pick up with any skill was Portuguese. The simple reason for this is because Portuguese is sexy. I mean, have you heard this language? It can make mundane things like “trash” (lixo) and “I’m bored” (Estou chateado) sound sexy. Who wouldn’t want to try a little harder to learn a language like that?
After three years of living in Japan where my Japanese knowledge could be described as pathetic at best and the last seven months of traveling through countries where I didn’t speak any of the language, I can honestly say that my lack of ability to communicate or comprehend doesn’t bother me all that much. In fact, I often prefer being in the dark. It’s kind of pleasant not knowing what most people are talking about. I can imagine they’re talking about something exciting and glamorous rather than something boring or downright disgusting.
On my first trip back to the States after having been in Japan for two years, I was on the shuttle bus from the airport, when I was treated to a conversation between the couple next to me. As I sat there fidgeting with my carry-on and pretending not to hear what they were talking about, they launched into a rather explicit discussion about their, ummm, intimate plans for the evening. The next day I was standing at the counter of a drug store, when I found myself listening to a detailed description of my fellow customer’s messy bout with diarrhea. During both of these overheard exchanges, I remember thinking, “Don’t these people know I can understand them?!”
I’d much rather use my imagination rather than my language comprehension skills to figure out what the couple next to me on the sidewalk or the cute waiter at my brunch place is talking about. I’d rather imagine the couple is talking about the intricacies of Eastern religion or ancient African art or Lady Gaga’s meat bikini. I’d prefer the cute waiter be explaining his life philosophy or professing his undying love for me… rather than recounting a tale of explosive diarrhea. (Unless, of course, the waiter happens to be Brazilian — at which point, I’ll be happy to hear whatever he has to say to me even if it has to do with his bowels!).
5. Hang out with other foreigners.
In the three weeks that I’ve been in Chiang Mai, the only locals I’ve managed to “meet” are the aforementioned cute waiter at my favorite cafe and the girl at the reception desk of my apartment building. They both have been very nice to me, but I doubt either of them will be calling me anytime soon to hang out.
Instead I hang out with other foreigners like myself. My coworkers are primarily Westerners. My students are immigrants from other Asian countries. My friends are fellow travelers I met on Twitter.
It’s not that I don’t want to hang out with the local Thai people. If the local people all got together and threw a big “Welcome to Chiang Mai” party for me, I’d totally go. But it’s kind of hard to meet local people when you’re only capable of having the following conversation in Thai:
“Hello. White person. Chicken? Thank you!”
Besides, since I’m only going to be in Chiang Mai for three months, I doubt any local people would be all that interested in becoming my BFF only to have me up and leave in a couple months. My foreigner friends, on the other hand, understand the capricious nature of friendships while on the road. They also understand English — which is good because that four-word conversation about white people and chickens gets pretty old pretty fast.
6. Love the bubble you’re in.
I love having a neighborhood again. I love that I can get pancakes anytime I want. I love that the cute waiter at the cafe recognizes me. I love the sense of community I feel while hanging out with my friends. I love having deep in-depth conversations in English with my coworkers and students. I love going home at the end of a good day. I love having a home. I love my bed. I love my TV.
I’d like to say I feel guilty about being a bad traveler. But I’d be lying. I’m not a good traveler, but I still feel good. Maybe being a good traveler is much like being skinny or responsible — overrated and just not for me.