Stepping off the plane after returning home from a long-term backpacking, I feel like a rock star. My family is waiting, my mom crying, shrieking, hugging. My phone blows up and everyone wants to treat me to a drink. Questions are thrown at me a mile a minute and my stories are captivating to my audience. Consciously or not, I feel pretty badass. I am a traveler. One of the elite. The brave. The minority that bucks the trend, ditches conformity to follow their own path in a whole new world. I am a long-term traveler.
Then someone asks, “How was your vacation?” That question is a sharp pin sticking me in my overinflated ego, deflating me into a thin mess on the floor.
Vacation?! VACATION?? I want to shout. It wasn’t a vacation! I am a traveler! I don’t book into all-inclusive resorts and lay on the beach drinking margaritas all day. I get off the beaten path! I connect with the people. Experience the culture. Take local transportation. Eat at the hole-in-the-wall comedors! Okay, there may be some beach-laying involved, and definitely a bit of margarita-drinking. But traveling isn’t a cake-walk! It’s exhausting. It’s challenging. It’s not some vacation.
But it got me thinking. What is the difference between travel and vacationing?
Most travelers would scoff at this question. To travelers, there’s a huge difference. Calling a long-term backpacking trip a “vacation” is an insult.
But to non-travelers, taking 3, 4, maybe even 6 months off to travel Central America, Europe or Asia does sound like a vacation. A break from work and the monotony of daily life to eat exotic foods and see gorgeous sights? Who would turn that down?
So if all I’m doing is “vacationing” why am I so self-congratulatory? Why do I feel like I’m doing some noble, important thing? Why do I see myself as some sort of low-level diplomat? Liaising with other everyday diplomats like the women selling at the market and the men walking home from the fields, a hoe slung over their shoulder. Why should I be so proud of my traveling accomplishments?
Nobody comes home from a week in Hawaii thinking, “I am a cultural diplomat of the world.”
So am I being too self-congratulatory or do non-travelers just not realize what a long-term trip is like?
Well, after much thought, I think it’s a bit of both. Yes, traveling is important. And although I’m not changing the world in any significant way, at least I’m doing something small. Besides the non-profit work we do, I think travel is important on a human level. If we lose connection with our (okay, being cheesy here) brothers and sisters around the world, we lose ourselves. If we don’t take on, at least in some part, their suffering as our own, if we don’t share in their joys and their culture, then we miss out a huge, gorgeous part of what this world is. You wouldn’t read the first page of a book and assume you’ve gotten the point, would you?
Okay, okay, I’ll get off my soapbox. So in that aspect, travel is innately and inherently important. And I’ll stick by that.
But on the flip side, travelers are extremely lucky. It may not be a vacation, but it is a privilege. I don’t mean in the way that jealous friends always say “omg you’re so lucky!!” I worked and saved for a long time to be able to travel now. And I’m proud of that. But I am lucky to be able to travel in the first place. I am lucky to come from a country where employment is available and the currency is strong enough to let me travel long-term in developing countries. I am lucky to have all my arms and legs and my health. I am lucky to be in a circumstance where I am the only one who depends on me financially and I can live my life on my own terms. I am lucky to have parents who happily house me whenever my restless legs direct me back home.
And comments like “how was your vacation?” from tired 9-5ers make me realize how fortunate we travelers really are.
But it’s still not a f*%$ing vacation!!