"Travel takes practice. If I'm to gain experience and get more comfortable at visiting places away from the tourist zones, then I have to take every chance I have to do it. This is one of them."
I was explaining to my paranoid mother why I was departing a week early alone and I thought the old travel takes practice line would work the trick. It did, I think. She was excited for Kristin and I to be returning to Costa Rica for a friend's wedding, and the idea of sharing a villa and surfing for a week with my high school friends and their significant others at a resort sounded wonderful to her. And it was something I had been looking forward to, but the truth of the matter was that ever since my eyes first scanned the words "all-inclusive" in the email describing where we would be staying, those two words have been like a parasite in my brain, slowly gnawing away at my desire to go and injecting small doses of toxin into my nervous system, poisoning my mood. My ideals and prejudices about resorts was going to ruin the trip for me before I even went. I knew what it was going to be like and I hated the fact that I wasn't going to travel; I was merely going on a vacation. And having not actively worked for the past 8 weeks, I didn't need a vacation.
Travel is different things to different people. Some don't want to leave the sanitized safety of a resort where they can lounge poolside and sip exotic drinks out of hourglass-shaped plastic glasses all day. They want to be pampered and made to feel special. They want their dollars to do all of the talking and, for many of them, attending one or two events posted on the daily Activity Board qualifies as adventure (if it was up to me, knowledge of the Macarena and Electric Slide would have been confiscated at the border alongside insect-infested plants and Mad Cow contaminated shoes). These people have fun, enjoy themselves, and return to work refreshed. They were on vacation; they didn't travel.
Others venture outside the boundaries of their resort or hotel to dine at a nearby restaurant (with English menus of course) or visit a made-for-tourists attraction a short shuttle ride away. They sign up for day-trips through their hotel's designated Excursion coordinator and they strike up small talk with other hotel guests who they unavoidably encounter along the way. They buy a souvenir from a roadside stand and consider their interaction a "cultural" experience and they return with their trophy and tell stories of how they were swarmed by barefoot children with tussled hair and bad teeth begging for money. These people travel in their own minds, but they're still missing out on what their destination really has to offer. They're on vacation, but their fidgety. They're not travelers, but they're not sloths either. There's hope for them.
I could tell you that, to me, travel is about meeting people far off the beaten path and conversing with folks who haven't been tainted by tourism. It's about eating where the locals eat when they're trying to sneak in a quick lunch before heading back to work. It's being accepted as if you belong there. It's not drawing attention to yourself. It's making an attempt at the local language. It's about not seeing your fellow countrymen and loving it. It's about giving more than just your money while you're there. I could tell you it means all of these things to me and more but there's a better way to explain it:
Go into Barnes & Noble and approach the "Travel Essays" section of the store (note it's not called "Vacation Essays") and pick up any of the books on display. Read the description. None of them are about lounging poolside at resorts, or booze cruises, or dance contests. They're about travel. About meeting people and about having experiences that are unique. They often involve an ounce of danger, a healthy heaping of the unknown, and most often a couple spoonfuls of misfortune. But they are tales that people want to read about. There's a reason why television sitcoms use vacation slideshows as a punchline (and often a form of torture) -- because vacations are boring to all but go on them. And once you've been on one, you've been on them all. In contrast, a true travel slideshow draws large crowds of attendees. Don't believe me: just attend the next one at your local R.E.I. store.
This of course isn't to say that adventure equals travel or that travel must be dangerous. I think the true key component is interacting with the people where they least expect to see you. Upon returning from our honeymoon eight years ago (a cruise to Cozumel and Key West), I lamented that we didn't have the time to escape the tourist zone while in Mexico. I wanted to visit small towns and really see the daily culture of Mexicans who weren't impacted by the parade-route that the cruising industry had created between the piers and nearest attractions. My father, who had been on a similar cruise once before, laughed and suggested that the folks selling their trinkets to the tourists on the buses was a cultural experience. "That is their culture" he said. I shook my head then as I shake it today.
Suggesting that visitors to a foreign land who don't leave the tourist zone actually experience the culture of the region (let a lone the country) is like saying a European visitor to Disney World gains a cultural understanding of life in America through his interaction with a souvenir retailer at Epcot Center. Visiting tourist zones in other countries is just like visiting them in the United States: they don't reflect the true day-to-day culture of that region's people. When you meet a local person in a tourist zone, they are working. Your money is the only reason they are there. Their culture doesn't place them there anymore than American culture is the reason why your hostess in Las Vegas smiles at you when you request a table for two. She's there to make ends meet. Just like the artisans at the roadside markets in Central America and the guy in the Goofy outfit at Disney World and the overweight desk-jockey in your company's IT department. At work, everyone wears a face, regardless of nationality. At work, people reflect the guidelines of their place of employment. Potheads clean up, bigots pretend to be cordial, zealots pray in whispered tones, retailers pretend to like tourists, etc., etc. Meet these people after hours on their front porch and you'll see a different person. You'll see the real them. And that is one of the goals of travel.
So now you have a better understanding of my thoughts on travel. I should point out that it's not simply ideals that I pulled from a book I read or from a show I watched on the Travel Channel, but rather through self-discovery. I've done the poolside-sloth routine and I've "explored" alongside other tourists in motorcoaches equipped with bi-lingual guides, and basically each time I've gone someplace, I've gotten a little closer to achieving what I consider travel, but I always came up short in my pursuits. It was always a fear of the unknown that got in the way.
So this brings me to Costa Rica. My friend was getting married at a resort about 80 minutes up the coast from Tamarindo, the beach town made famous by the movie "Endless Summer" and I knew ahead of time that we would be spending the week doing much of the same things that Kristin and I had done three years earlier. We would surf the same breaks and even go on the same "Adventure Trip" at the same park. It would undoubtedly be more fun this time around with such a great group of friends, but I was disappointed I wouldn't have the opportunity to see new things. Not only that, I know Tamarindo and many other beach towns on the Guanacaste province have undergone tremendous growth (condos, condos, condos everywhere you look) since our last visit and this would further sour my experience, but that's for another time. It would be a fun week, but it was just a vacation. What I wanted was a chance to practice being a traveler. A real traveler.
Next year is our 10 year wedding anniversary, and travel is on the menu. Destinations like Chile, Morocco, Peru, South Africa, and others keep rising to the surface. And with that in mind, I decided to depart a week early, get away from the beach towns and far away from the tourists and have a week of adventure and time spent being a traveler. I need the practice and the confidence. The articles to come will tell my story of the week I had as a solo foreign traveler, and also of the week I spent having a wonderful vacation with friends. I wouldn't necessarily trade one for the other, but I certainly learned more about Costa Rica, their friendly and trustworthy people, and myself as a traveler during the first week.
I hope you enjoy reading the upcoming articles as much as I will enjoy writing about them. And should this prologue-turned-rant give you pause and help you to consider your own travel/vacation practices, then let me know. Like I said early on in this essay, travel is different things to different people. And neither of them are inherently wrong. But if you want a story to tell that's unique, then you better start practicing.