Tourism was dead ages ago. Travelling is dying, if not already dead. What’s in right now is contributive immersion. Here me out.
I have two months before my next stop. Thought I would take advantage and travel a little. But, a different kind of travel. Less about seeing, more about being in my head. Less about meeting people, more about reading, writing and thinking. Less about experiencing, more about retrospection. Or something like that.
There was this other weird feeling I was battling before I started this two-month “adventure”. I wasn’t that excited. Here I was, with two months of freedom to travel to wherever I wanted. This luxury that most people crave. This bundle of time that not many people have. And look how spoilt I am. I am not even excited.
Excited or not, I was doing this. I started in Holbox. This quaint, secluded island in the north-east nothingness of Mexico. I remember a random Mexican entrepreneur had mentioned it to me way back in 2017, and it stuck. Aside from the usual commentary of it having stunning beaches and tranquillity, it was also supposed to be Mexico’s best-kept secret. At least back then. Now it’s probably Mexico’s “best” kept secret — in quotes, with a winky face right next to it.
There is this steaming irony while being a tourist. A hypocrisy of sorts. I, a tourist, want to travel to a place where there are no other tourists. I, me, MINE and no one else. Besides my friends, of course. And some local people who I can somewhat communicate with. You know, to get a “local” experience.
Holbox is now infested with tourists. I took a local bus from downtown Cancun to get there. When I got to the bus station, I was wondering which gate I had to be at. So, I did what most tourists would do. I looked for a gate with a line of tourists. And there they were, like a bright orange buoy in a sea of locals. Backpacks, flipflops, an air of superiority and yes, I fit right in. They were also going to Mexico’s “best” kept secret. Obviously. Comforting. Easy.
Holbox is stunning. With or without tourists, the beaches are pristine. The water, as blue as turquoise. No cars, only golf carts. No real roads. Tiny. Hammocks in the middle of the ocean. Bioluminescent plankton sparkling in the blackness of the night sky. Birds, crocodiles (saw three of these salt-water beasts), mosquitos, flamingos. Sandbars stretching into what seems like the middle of the ocean. Sunsets as pure as the painting of a ten-year-old — cloudless, round, perfect.
And then there is capitalism. Opulent hotels, customized tours, yoga (of course), a lot of tourists, a lot of UTL (Universal Travelling Language / English). People travelling in twos, threes, fours. Folks from literally all over the world speaking tongues hard to decipher, bonding over how accents make things sound funny. “How are the beaches?” Beaches are sometimes mispronounced in translation as “bitches” because “e” = “i” in Latin languages, etc. Queue a plethora of pun-tastic jokes, especially among the men. “The beaches in Holbox aren’t as fun as the beaches in Cancun.” Ha. Ha. Crude. But funny. A good way to bond, apparently.
I heard the same pun-ny jokes in Costa Rica. “The beaches here are so beautiful.” After five days in Holbox; reading, thinking, observing and not making friends, I made my way to San Jose. I was done with beaches and wanted some hiking, mountains, forests, waterfalls. Waterfalls. Waterfalls are special. Yes, go chase them waterfalls if you can.
A friend of mine was travelling in Costa Rica as well. Isolated with all this isolation, I thought I’d join him for a couple of days. He was “Twaling.” It’s apparently this new concept where you travel with a local. So, we had Adrian, our local, taking us around. He wasn’t really our guide. He was like an acquaintance who quickly became our friend. He took us to places he found cool, sometimes off the beaten tourist-y path, and sometimes on it. In a short five days, we got more of a local vibe then we would have if we did things ourselves. We rappelled down waterfalls not infested by tourists. We saw a giant seven-hundred-year-old tree of peace, leaf-cutter ants, sloths, scorpions, armadillos, monkeys, spiders, snakes. We stopped in the middle of nowhere to drink coconut water and sugarcane juice without fear. We sat alone in natural, volcanic hot springs in darkness lit only by the candles that Adrian had strategically placed. Yes, an upgrade. But how long can you get a local to just show you around?
Costa Rica is a spectacular mass of land with everything you can imagine. It is a well-run country that decided ages ago to get rid of its army and invest this extra money into education. So, you genuinely sense a general level of development across the board. Almost all of Costa Rica (~98% apparently) is run on renewable energy — hydro, wind, solar. The government also thought it would make sense to invest in making tap water drinkable. Sounds expensive but apparently the medical costs you save from reduced water-borne diseases very much offset the extra cost of purifying water. Plus, it is just a good thing that Governments should do. And, like any intelligent Government, Costa Rica also decided to make the most of the tourism potential that nature had blessed it with.
So somewhat like Holbox, Costa Rica boasts a string of fancy hotels, natural reserves, hanging bridges, ziplines, a lot of tourists, a lot of UTL and typical touristy inflation — shit’s expensive. They also go the extra mile by making things as eco-friendly as possible. “This is an eco-friendly wildlife reserve with a perfectly constructed hiking trail, spotted with comfortable benches every hundred meters to rest, and we are working on making the hiking path wide enough to meet global accessibility standards for the less fortunate.”
All this is awesome, but where has the rawness of brute travel gone? Yes, I get to see pretty things and do safe, fun activities, without any communication issues thanks to UTL, but am I really immersing myself into the culture and nature that a foreign country offers? Why go there at all? What am I even looking for when I go to a new country?
That’s the crux. What are you looking for when you go somewhere? If you’re looking for an escape, a place to recharge, then being a perfect tourist in a comfortable, touristy place is great, and power to you. If you’re keeping a count of all the countries you have visited, and the number of likes your Instagram posts get, let’s not be friends but do what you need to do.
You could also be a pitiful inbetweener. Someone who wants to genuinely travel and see and absorb and experience, but just doesn’t have the time, the budget or the passport to do so. All you can afford is a couple of weeks a year, imprisoned by your lucrative corporate carcel. Then, you can’t help but plan out every hour of every day, making the most of the limited time you have, and doing all the “touristy” stuff because not only is it easy, it is also rationally your best bet. Unfortunately, despite your traveller instincts, you can’t help but be a tourist. I get that. I was in that prison.
And then you have the gap-yearers. The “true” travellers. 365 days of travelling the world, or a continent or a bunch of countries. The freedom to not really plan things out, to take it as it comes. To fall in love and then just stick around. To live in hostels and yachts. To get wasted and then get laid. To take surf-lessons and salsa classes. To teach UTL or bartend to earn a bit of dough. To experience the world. To get “out of your comfort zone”. To be interesting. To have stories to tell.
One of the most uninteresting things is someone who wants to be interesting.
To me, all of that is not the essence of going to a new place. You can recharge in a fancy hotel down the road. If you want to rack up the number of countries you have visited to prove how “worldly” you are, why even bother spending more than a day or two in a country — just go to the capital city, take a dump at the airport, and then fly to the next capital city. Simple, and you’ve even laid your mark. I just feel sorry for the inbetweeners. I have been there, and it sucks, but honestly it isn’t hard nowadays to break out of your prison. Gap-years are better than two-week affairs but frolicking around from country to country for a couple of months at a time gives you only a flavour of the place. Tastes can be deceptive; an entire meal is what you should be looking for. And, many-a-time you get stuck with other gap-yearers like you, or with locals who are only friends with foreigners. It’s a deceptive little bubble. A bubble that a part of you wants to burst out of and a part of you wants to stay in.
Ugh, why the negativity, Anish? What do you want, why is travelling dead?
If you really want to see, understand, experience, learn and grow from a foreign culture, you must immerse yourself for a significant period. At least six months. Only in one city or town or village. And you have to be contributing there. Adding value in exchange for imbibing localness. That is immersion.
In the past, long-term travelling gave you this. But today, travelling around and just “being” is contaminated by the tourism industry. There are so many people travelling, being tourists and taking country-hopping gap-years that if you enter a country and bartend at a hostel, you’re barely getting out of your comfort zone. You’re still in that little bubble with just enough moral license to convince yourself that this little bubble is where I should be. When in fact, you’re better off bursting out of it. That’s why travelling is dead.
I lived and worked in Guatemala for fifteen months. It started with a six-month fellowship where I was leveraging my finance skills to help local entrepreneurs out. I ended up getting hired by the company and really immersing myself in the heart of Guatemala.
And no, it wasn’t perfect. Being a foreigner, I surrounded myself with enough foreigners conversing in UTL. Some of my closest friends were not locals. As much as I was aware that I did not want to be in a bubble, I sometimes was.
The saving grace was the work I was doing there — my contribution. For a majority of my time there, I was working with locals, supporting local entrepreneurs, understanding the local landscape of social impact, and living the local life. That’s what made the difference. That is where the learning, the growth and the cultural exchange happened.
And it wasn’t always fun. Learning a new language is hard. Cultural differences can be frustrating. Homesickness is always a thing. But that’s the point. No good movie, no good story, no good experience is a 100% positive.
So here I am in San Jose, Costa Rica, trying to travel for a couple of months, and I am barely excited. Some sort of societal pressure has made me want to travel and see things the old school, dead way. A part of me feels like I have earned it after the intense fifteen-month stint in Guatemala. But the truth is, once you experience true contributive immersion, old school travelling is just not the same. Tourism is even more of a joke. My sister felt this after her three-year stint in Spain, and I’m feeling it now too. But I am still going to continue. Yes, shut up, I know. I’m friggin’ human, unfortunately.
I’m glad you’ve made it this far in this long, gloomy post. I am not saying that you should never travel or never be a tourist. I am not anti-travel. Something is better than nothing, so even if you have a couple of days to get out to a new world, do it. Travel. Tour. Recharge. Experience. See.
What I am trying to say is that there is something far better out there. And it has never been easier to do it (sabbaticals, gig economy, the friggin’ internet). If you want a true, deep, pivotal, worldly experience, find a city, commit to it for at least six months, immerse yourself and contribute. And then, experience the magic.