I hate feeling like a tourist when I travel. It’s time to change that

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Photographs of our travelling adventures seem surreal to me now, after two years of sequestering close to home. Which suits me fine. I’m the homebody and my husband is the adventurous one. After retirement, he bought a Tilley hat, booked a series of trips and filled his wallet with euros and dongs and baht. I cleaned the house from top to bottom in case the plane crashed. I did not want anyone to find a sticky mess behind my stove.

Our pre-pandemic globe-trotting included all the popular hot spots. Greece, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom. We went north to Nunavut and south to California.

“Where do you want to go after Omicron?” Roger asks, iPad in hand.

Long pause. “How about Calabogie?” I try. It is a gem of a resort town in the Ottawa Valley, and only a two-hour drive from home. No airport stress. No travel restrictions.

I can tell by the look on Roger’s face that he was researching destinations using a different set of criteria. Places with the word “safari” on the itinerary.

I don’t hate travel. I enjoy hearing about the history of a country from people who live there and love the place with all their hearts. The wars, the struggles, the perseverance. To observe, firsthand, the resilience it takes to live in tiny apartments or corrugated tin shacks. How ambitious people are, working long hours cooking for tourists, cleaning for tourists, transporting tourists. Meeting people in other countries offers insight into lives that are so different from mine. In some ways, much richer. In some ways, much poorer.

What I dislike about travel is being a tourist. That loathsome creature trampling around the crumbling columns of the Parthenon and wearing down the stone steps of Angkor Watt and complaining that the coral reefs are not as colourful as the photographs on Trip Advisor.

The guides I meet worldwide are gracious and kind. They study tourism in university. They are knowledgeable about history and culture but also about treachery. “Don’t wear your rings here, Madam. No jewellery.” “Stay close to me, Madam. Do not go off on your own down the alleys.” “Don’t pay so much for that scarf, Madam.”

Our guides take us by the arm to get us across busy streets as if we are naive children. I look around at the throngs of tourists and realize that, like it or not, I am one, too.

On one trip, a woman screams at the tour-bus driver to turn up the air conditioning.

On another, two elderly tourists show disgust at the amount of garbage on the beach. “We’re all responsible for this,” Roger says. “Not me,” the woman replies, “I never litter.” We refrain from explaining the difference between litter and the massive amounts of refuse dumped from freighters, cruise ships and container ships. No recycling program can keep up with the crest of plastic on every wave.

I am forced to admit my own ignorance and entitlement. At the night market in Thailand, I was hot and thirsty. I ordered a mango smoothie. It was served in a plastic cup with a plastic bubble lid and a plastic straw. And, for my convenience, the vendor slipped it into a plastic carry bag. I enjoyed that smoothie. Every drop.

Don’t feel bad, people assured me, you are boosting the local economy. Many countries depend on tourist dollars.

Do they? Are they really better off? Roger and I are lured into a tiki hut on a beach in Krabi, Thailand. “Maaaassssaaaaage,” the women call. It is irresistible. We shed our clothes and submit to competent strong hands, slippery with coconut oil. They slather it on and press their thumbs into our soft flesh until it hurts. And it does hurt. It hurts to see their children squatting in the damp corners of the hut. The baby, too quiet, in a hammock. The old mother, blinded by cataracts, squatting by a small fire, stirring rice. We lie and listen to the click, click, cawing of the women’s voices, and wonder what they are saying. Are they swapping recipes, or commenting on our pale, flabby Canadian bodies. Our moles. We don’t want to know. We ignore our vulnerability, the awareness that we are strange naked people in a strange land, with only a skimpy towel and the slippery oil to protect us from any well-deserved resentment.

The Thai women work hard. They find our pressure points and give us a big helping of whatever is good for us, just like Mama used to. We trust them without question, performing their art with superiority and self-assurance.

Oh yes, I love to massage old, ugly white people. What a pleasure! I wonder what they really think. These women are so nice. If they are faking their kindness, they are very good at it. I like them a lot.

My masseuse asks me about my bathing suit, how much did it cost?

It is a Speedo. “Eighty Canadian dollars.”

She tsk tsks. I will give her $6, plus a tip, for a 90-minute massage. In Canada, a masseuse would get more than the price of my bathing suit for the same labour. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the inequity. And yet the following day when I heard those voices calling “Massage! Madam! Sir!” I was powerless to refuse.

During the early days of COVID-19, I felt like a tourist in my own town. Negotiating new vocabulary, learning new rules, cautiously testing the new culture of compliance. Wearing a mask reminded me of covering my head and taking off my shoes to visit temples and mosques. Is it necessary? Yes. If you wish to enter this place, you will behave respectfully.

When I start to explore again I will think about travelling more respectfully, too

During the weeks and months before the vaccines, when planes were grounded and ocean liners were docked, the planet took a deep breath. A profound pause in tourism changed our thinking. I am encouraged by conversations with conscientious travellers who are sharing more ethical ways to explore this planet. When we venture forth once again, it will be with heightened empathy for humans who suffered losses greater than ours.

COVID-19 proved to be the nastiest, most belligerent tourist ever. It made a mess and refused to pay its bill. The world has been patient and granted a late checkout, but housekeeping needs to clean the room. Everybody’s waiting.

Janet Trull lives in West Guilford, Ont.

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