Friday, May 25, 2012

FTTN: San Juan-La Rioja- tourism vs. traveling

I assume that if I wrote about this subject right after the visit to Valle de la luna, it would have come out quite different. Lots of negativity about the whole guided tour thing, trying to distance myself and what I usually do from that kind of tourism, etc. But after the tour in Talampaya, only one day later, in which I enjoyed myself quite a bit, I changed my mind. It goes to show how much strong opinions are sometimes fluid and quick to change.
Does the distinction between a tourist and a traveler really exist? Is there even such a thing as a “traveler”? And if there is, which one am I?

The answer, like always, lies in the middle. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare somebody that goes to one city for one week, visits the main sites, goes to a few museums, eats in several restaurants, does some must-see attractions and takes some photos to somebody that spends a few months in an area (a country, a continent, etc.), lives the land and the language, visits many different places (some touristic, some not) and really gets into the atmosphere and the rhythm of the place.  But, first of all, it should be said that most “travelers” I met aren’t like that. They chase the usual attractions, spend most of their time with other travelers – often their compatriots (Israelis are notorious for this) – and don’t  necessarily get too deep into the local history and culture. Not that it’s obligatory, it’s just what seems right to me to do in a trip like this. I mean, if you’re not going to know and meet people from new places, learn about the place you’re in, talk about subjects you usually don’t talk about and try to know at least a little of the local culture, then why even leave your own country or city? There’s obviously many good answers to that question, but in my opinion and definition, those goals are essential for it to really be “traveling”.
And still, I know exactly when I’m leaving and where to, I’m still a tourist, a temporary foreigner who comes to enjoy another land, with minimal responsibility and accountability. But I digress…
The Valle de la luna tour had all the things I dislike. Driving fast from one point to another, get out of the car for five minutes to take photos, listen to a short and superficial explanation (sometimes wrong…) and back to the car. No time to stop, take in the view, move along at your own pace. Might as well watch a documentary or a powerpoint presentation about the place (OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the point I’m trying to make is clear, I think). The noise, the speed and the lens of the camera all get in the way between you and the place you’re in. That, at least, was the feeling I left the national park and the tour with.
But a day after that, in Talampaya, in a guided tour that was done in quite the same way, there was a better guide, a fun and lively group, a bit of group togetherness… there was just a general feeling that was more fun and satisfactory, a completely different experience. To say nothing of the “tour” in El Chiflon, that can easily qualify as an “authentic” experience.
 So where is that elusive line, between the tourist and the traveler? Is it a matter of time and duration? Of attitude? Of freedom? Or is it just a psychological need to feel like you do things better, in the way that is right, and that you and those who are like you are winning the unofficial traveling competition?
There’s no doubt that there are very different kinds of tourists. There’s no doubt that each person has his/her own way he likes to travel, and the way s/he thinks it should be done. You can call it whatever you like, the content is the same. In the end, it’s mostly just playing with words…

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