It was the morning of another travel day. We were in the elevator on the way down, carrying our backpacks and ready to check out from the hotel we had stayed in. A woman rode with us down to the ground level and asked us:
“Are you on a holiday?”
I wanted to answer no, but instead, I said yes and smiled. It was easier that way because how could I have explained during those 40 seconds it took to get to the ground floor that this thing that we do is not a holiday, it’s something different?
In the world of travel, there are mainly two reasons to travel: to go on a holiday or to do business. It’s a question they ask when filling out visa forms or arrival cards on the airport, it’s what the locals ask us when we stop to chat with them: are you on holiday?
It’s like the stereotype for travel that makes it easier for people to place you, a foreigner, in their minds: either you’re on holiday just enjoying life or you are traveling to make money.
But as you might now, stereotypes are often very black and white and never quite tell the truth. The same goes for our ‘being on holiday’. For us, being on holiday would mean not having to care about your budget that much, it would living the life of leisure and drinking mojitos instead of the cheapest beer.
That’s not what we do. The choice between holiday and business completely leaves us out.
So, what are we doing if we’re not on a holiday?
Someone might say we are tourists. But isn’t tourist as a term a bit old-fashioned already? Back in the days, being a tourist actually meant touring around other countries – my grandfather, for instance, organized touring trips of that kind. All the travelers, the tourists, travelled in the same bus from one country to the other. Every now and then they stopped for lunch that they prepared in the small kitchen in the back of the bus.
That was being a tourist – but touring in a group is quite rare nowadays and we can’t say we would been touring the countries and cities we’ve visited (except for that hop-on hop-off bus in Kuala Lumpur), so… you can’t really call us tourists either.
One term that almost describes what we are doing is backpacking. We are on a low budget, comparing prices and staying in hostels instead of hotels, buying our food from food stalls instead of going to a proper air conditioned restaurant. But I wouldn’t say even backpacking is quite correct.
Yes, we carry all our belongings in our backpacks but, in the end, we carry our backpacks very little – from hostel to the taxi to the bus to the taxi to another hostel. We aren’t counting every penny, saving everywhere it’s possible and we don’t only stay in hostels with 6-bed dorm rooms and a shared bathroom.
So, no. We are not backpackers either, even though we are getting close.
So, for the rest of the world, we are on a holiday because we are tourists or backpackers but all of them are somehow wrong. What are we then, if we don’t fit in any of those descriptions?
The best description I’ve come up with is that we are simply living our life while observing the world and society around us. (You might even call it exploring but that sounds too much like a cliché so let’s just stick to observing.) The core elements of being on holiday, being a tourist or a backpacker aren’t a part of our trip, of what we do.
Instead, both me and my partner are critically observing what we see and trying to figure out where the world is going. We wonder why people do things in a certain way when there are more practical and efficient ways of doing those things. We observe the infrastructure, the social norms, how they think and act. How tourism affects these countries we visit and observe.
Many of our observations are critical and yes, it does eliminate some enjoyment from those moments on the beach or chatting with locals or other backpackers. But for us, and for me… it’s hard to close one’s eyes from seeing all the things that are so crooked in the places we visit. It’s difficult not to see the amount of trash thrown away on the ground or in the sea. It’s hard to close my eyes from all the stray cats, the beggars and the efforts of trying to trick money from tourists.
(And still you see other tourists, backpackers and people on holiday go on about their lives in complete blindness. I wonder how they can ignore what they see.)
So, “are you on a holiday?” really should get a completely different answer than a simple yes with a smile.
But I don’t know if that woman in the elevator would have understood us.