Can We Travel Without Being Tourists?

Richard Burton in Arab garb, from the frontispiece of his Travels to Arabia.

One of my friends often teases me about my love for travel by saying that most likely, as a child, my mom stuck a plane ticket instead of a pacifier in my mouth! This largely is true. Some of my fondest and most transformative memories from childhood happened when my mom took me with her to different cities, towns, and remote villages in Iraq. I learned so much from the way she interacted with people in different languages, as well as the way people shared their thoughts in stories with her. Another moment from childhood that sticks in my head to this day is of an elderly neighbor sipping coffee at our house conversing with my mom about traveling, and she said “Well, the old Arab saying goes ‘only travelers really see places. Tourists only see what they go to see.’” It wasn’t until years after that moment, when I left Iraq and started to explore the world, when I learned the great difference between being a traveler who lets life happen to him; who never knows what and when they may stumble upon some of the most interesting, disturbing, painful, or challenging situations, versus being a tourist whose dream is to see the Eiffel or Pisa towers, Big Ben, or some famous church, mosque, or temple. Tourists only see what they go to see. In a strange sense, tourists may miss seeing everything except what they go to see. In doing so, many tourists remind me of the insightful words from the English philosopher, John Ruskin, who declares that “modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” There is so much life on the sides, the margins, in dark alleys, in parks, and remote villages that most tourists never get to see, and thus never get to feel and capture the real spirit of the places they visit. And thus, Dear Readers, I ask: can we travel without being tourists? Indeed, can we stop being tourists altogether? Can we begin to master the art of getting lost; the art of finding hidden gems, beauty, or simple experiences after which life is never the same?

Over the years, as I traveled to so many countries across the continents, I have had countless conversations with travelers and tourists alike. I have learned so much from all, and I’m deeply grateful for what I have learned, but I can’t help sharing a pattern I have observed about tourists: they often come across as not only individuals who weren’t profoundly altered by their travel experiences, but also, in many cases, I find them to be more narrow-minded and sticking to their old beliefs and values as if what they already know is and remains the only truth in the universe. Many encounters with tourists have proven to me that, for many, travel is a way to confirm their biases and worldviews rather than challenge, expand, disrupt, and turn their worlds upside down. It is like people who only watch TV news channels or read books that confirm their prejudices and beliefs of being from the “best, most wonderful, most civilized country in the world,” or such nonsense. Many tourists I have observed project the boring image of a couple walking hand in hand, dressed up in typical sporty Western clothes and gear that are supposed to make them look simple and humble, but such clothes and gear are not only more expensive than they look, but they also are carefully selected to make them look like they are from wealthier and more “privileged” countries – i.e. typical tourists. You often find them walking from one souvenir store to another buying items made in India and China, regardless of which country they are visiting. You see such tourists on prearranged tours led by carefully selected tour guides that each country chooses and even monitors to ensure that the version of the knowledge and information they provide about the country’s history, culture, and politics are completely aligned with that of the elites and political leaders of that country. For example, if the country is Westernized, embraces capitalism, or has a political elite that is supported or appointed by Western countries, one would always hear stories about how in previous times the country suffered from dictators, poverty, and lack of freedoms, and such superficial propaganda, but now everything is wonderful, hence you, the tourists, are able to come here and tour around safely. And, by the way, there is a Starbucks and KFC nearby, if you get hungry. And, of course, western tourists can never visit a place as tourists, unless that country is “liberated”, embraces capitalism and the “free market” model, and is rid of any political leaders that are considered adversaries to western elites. Otherwise, no matter how safe the country is, it would be listed on every western government’s site with “do not travel” warnings highlighted in red, and the reasons are always due to “violence, terrorism, and crime.” No country is safe for western tourists until it is liberated by western elites, and until it is full of Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, and other dominant western brands. This perhaps explains why the perspective and worldview of many tourists not only are not expanded after traveling, but their perspective is arguably narrowed further after touring countries. A good example that comes to mind is a conversation with an American tourist, who I consider a typical tourist. This gentleman told me that he loves the beaches and the weather in some Central American and Caribbean countries, “despite the fact that many such places are known for violence, theft, and crime.” He then went on to say, “well, I kinda don’t care about safety as long as I stay in safe and gated areas and hotels.” So, in such an example one might ask: what can this tourist really see and learn about any country he visits with this mindset? What can he really see in gated and heavily fortified apartment complexes and hotels near pristine beaches? It is clear that such tourists not only don’t see anything, but clearly they don’t even want to see, reminding us of the old Persian proverb that goes “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind.” Such tourists also remind us of the insightful words from the English poet, Thomas Hood, who wrote “Some minds improve by travel, others; rather, resemble copper wire, or brass, which get narrower by going farther.” Going father is not enough – what matters is the extent to which we master the art of seeing, knowing, and sensing the world as we go farther. Perhaps only travelers who know how to get lost and even be vulnerable can get close to seeing? Traveling, on the other hand, Dear Friends, is not only the art of getting lost, but true travelers, in a sense, never return home. If they do return, they never see home the same way they did before leaving. They begin to see the foreignness of home after experiencing being at home in other foreign lands. Over the years, as I wrestled with becoming a better and more adventurous traveler, I was so fortunate to encounter and learn from many travelers who were genuinely interested in exploring places in an anthropological way, which is often about getting to live like locals the best way we can; trying not only to see things the way they are, but to understand how they become the way they are; challenging and disrupting the notion that avoiding strangers, depressing neighborhoods, or sketchy parts of town is not necessary when we visit other places. I believe it is no coincidence that many great writers and poets around the world did not only master the art of traveling, but also made sure to impart their experiences and insights about what it means to be a good traveler.

Over time, I have collected many insights that, to me, profoundly capture the value of being a traveler and the mindset we need to embrace to master the art of traveling. The first example that comes to mind is Leo Tolstoy’s beautiful words, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Aldous Huxley reminds us that the more we know other places, the more we are humbled about what we thought about ourselves and our own countries. Huxley writes “to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  The Chinese writer, Lin Yutang reminds us that a good traveler is one who doesn’t know where they are going, but the perfect traveler is one who forgets where they came from.  The Syrian writer, Ghada al-Samman declares that “vision is more transparent at airport transits covered with gray dawns, drowsiness, exhaustion, and the smoke of departing planes.” The Palestinian poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, captures a feeling that I frequently experienced at airports as she writes, “I realized that I travel too much on the day I began tidying an airport as if it were my bedroom.” I, too, have come to feel “at home” in airports. I see myself always making sure to keep things tidy and clean as if they are my home! Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from Russia goes further by insisting that everything we own should be packable! He advises: “Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” Solzhenitsyn’s words strongly resonate with me not only as a traveler, but as someone who lost his country and everything dear after the Iraq occupation. I literally left my country with nothing but multiple languages I was lucky to grow up speaking; my knowledge of the world geography, which one of my biggest hobbies since childhood; the beautiful people I met in all my travels; and my memories of everything I experienced in Iraq that many alienating forces insist on erasing, while I insist on never forgetting. Perhaps this explains why my travels to different countries didn’t prove that Iraq is the greatest country in the world just because I was born in it. Instead, I saw beautiful bits and pieces of Iraq everywhere, and Iraq taught me to feel as if I am from everywhere.  The Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, shows the ultimate benefit of traveling as he writes: “Sometimes you have to travel a long way to find what is near.” This is akin to Socrates’ “know thyself.” Can we know ourselves without knowing as much as possible about everyone and everything else? Can we really find what is near – often right under our nose – without going as far away as we can from home and all the familiar parts of life that disguise and even bury what we need to see most? The Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, writes: “They weren’t real travelers: they left in order to return.”

Traveling, I have learned, is not all about the touristy and the beautiful places as we see them in tourist guides. Traveling can be frightening in many ways, most important of which is the realization of how much sadness, pain, impoverishment, and despair exist next to, behind, under, over, and above the mountains, the blue lakes, the pristine beaches, the highly rated hotels and restaurants, the well-designed museums and historic and cultural sites, the fancy shops that, in many places, most locals can neither access nor afford. There are places so sad that the fanciest building one can see there is the airport! There are other places where the airports are run down and depressing, but once you step out of the airport, you discover that such places are full of life, meaning, and physical and spiritual nourishment. There are countries, namely the developed countries, where everything looks shiny and perfect, yet as soon as you enter, you encounter so much loneliness, depression, hate, racism, and lifelessness. Things are never as they appear at first glance. Traveling leaves us with more questions than answers – it is so bittersweet. There is something sad about traveling, because as you discover the enormous amount of life and living that exist in all these places and hidden corners, you are left with two contradictory feelings: first, traveling strongly confirms the idea that one can only see what one is intellectually, spiritually, and physically prepared to see. It is precisely what the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, means when he writes: “Travel is the traveler. What we see isn’t what we see but what we are.” Everything we encounter depends on our palate in the same way tasting food is that encounter between the food and the palate. Second, there is something excruciatingly painful about leaving a place as soon as you begin to feel at home. There is a deep sorrow in knowing that all the things, places, lakes, wildflowers, animals, and people that we encounter will continue their lives without us. Even more painful is the realization that there are many more lives and much more beauty that we will never get to experience. It is a feeling akin to what many writers experience when they write a story or a poem in which they feel fully alive, yet they also know that as soon the piece of writing is finished and the work is out in the world, they will feel that painful void and loneliness as if they have just lost a very dear friend. The only solace they have is that their beloved piece of writing will continue to have a life of its own in the hearts and minds of readers. The reader’s bodies and minds become like a shelter that protects the life and the meaning they have put on paper. With all that, dear Readers, is it fair to say that traveling is life itself? It is like seeing endless beauty, pain, desolation, beautiful hearts and minds, and nature through the windows of a fast-moving train where everything is fleeting and impossible to capture. So, what remains as travelers travel to all these distant places around the world, you may wonder? What remains, in my experience, are those rare moments and encounters that tourists may never capture. They are encounters where the people, places, and things in them remain alive in your head, always leaving you with the question of: what happened after I left? With that, I’d like to leave you all with some – out of many – such encounters that I have experienced in different places, which, to this day, remain fully alive in my memory.

I still wonder what happened to that elderly English couple at the traffic light on my first rainy and cold night in Liverpool. I simply asked them for directions to my accommodation, and they ended up taking me to a coffee shop, had a very touching conversation about the atrocities of the Iraq war and how they stood against it, and then drove me all the way to my accommodation. I still wonder what happened to the incredibly kind Tajik man. I simply asked for directions to the bazaar, and he insisted on inviting me for a meal with his family. He took me with him to the bazaar where I saw him pick all the ingredients, then went home and peeled all the veggies, and spent hours cooking me a Tajik meal from scratch. I still wonder what happened to the young and kind German couple who met me on a hike in Kyrgyzstan, where I experienced a sudden muscle pain that made me feel that I wouldn’t be able to descend the mountain. They sat with me for more than an hour, wrapped my leg, and gave me a drink with electrolytes to ease the muscle pain, and then came with me all the way back to the starting point of the hike. I still wonder about the stunningly beautiful Ukrainian woman with beautiful eyes full of sorrow I met on a bus ride. After a short chat, I couldn’t help sharing with her that I see many sad stories in her eyes, so I was wondering where she is from. She said, “I see the same in yours and I was wondering the same.” As we told each other where we both come from, she said “we both have sad stories in our eyes for the same reason, and it is the same people who destroyed our countries and lives.” I still wonder what happened to the woman who got on the train from Kaluga to Moscow in Russia selling socks and underwear, while beautifully singing a melancholy Russian folk song. I wonder what happened to that middle-aged Romanian sex worker I saw while walking in a poor neighborhood in Bucharest as she was freshening up her makeup and adjusting her hair using a side mirror of a random car in the street. I still wonder what happened to the elderly and incredibly kind Bulgarian woman whom I met when I got lost as I was dropped off very far from the intended destination in a little town out of nowhere in the mountains. This kind woman didn’t understand any English as I don’t speak any Bulgarian. She ran inside the bus station looking for someone who could help her communicate with me. Once she found a young couple and understood where I was heading, she got me a taxi and insisted on paying him a big amount, even though she clearly couldn’t afford it. I had to try hard to stop her from paying the taxi. As I was about to get into the taxi, I will never forget how she embraced me and teared up – I, the stranger, whom she knew nothing about.

I still wonder what happened to the young man I met randomly at a park in Paraguay and, as I asked him which neighborhoods and areas I should check out if I wanted to get a real taste of how locals live. He told me that some of such places would be dangerous for a visitor who doesn’t know the place or the language. He offered to show me around on his motorcycle. It was a heart-wrenching ride as I got to see some of the most wretched parts of town that I’d never be able to see otherwise. I still wonder what happened to the Venezuelan refugee and the flower lady I met on a refreshing spring evening while roaming the streets of Arequipa in Peru. While walking, I came upon a young Venezuelan man in the city center. I knew from his eyes, his greetings, and his tender soul that he is forever displaced like me. I sensed he is from a country they had destroyed as they did to Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the list goes on. After exchanging stories about how colonizers try to plunder other countries; how they try to displace and shatter its peoples, we stopped by a Peruvian lady selling flowers on a worn-out mat on a sidewalk. She was a woman in her late 40s, or perhaps younger as time is harsher on people struggling to earn every single morsel and cup of water to stay alive. I greeted her in Spanish and said jokingly, after picking up a bunch of flowers: “Can you charge me a local, not a tourist price for this?” She responded, as my new Venezuelan friend interpreted: “Flowers are priceless, Dear Visitor! And if it wasn’t for poverty and unfairness in my country, I wouldn’t have sold them at all! I would have given them for free to every visitor! And for this reason, I sell them at the lowest price, not because they are cheap, but because I believe every single human being deserves a bunch of flowers!” Her deep words touched my heart. I asked what flowers mean to her. She said: “Flowers make me sad as much as they make me happy. They make me sad because I realize that most people in this world are like buds that get strangled by circumstances and neve bloom. They make me happy because they don’t stop smelling good even after they are cut by our cruel hands! And like everything dear and precious in life, flowers are perishable. I learned from them that being perishable is the first condition of nature and beauty.” Before leaving the kind and warm flowers lady, she, too, asked me what flowers mean to me. I told her: “I am indebted to flowers for all I know.  For every step of my life. As an Iraqi, my wish has always been that we plant flowers not landmines for each other!” She handed me a bunch of flowers, and I handed them to my new Venezuelan friend. Deep inside, I damned everyone responsible for impoverishing and displacing millions upon millions of humans in this world. I also thanked destiny for such priceless human moments that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the love of flowers.

I still wonder what happened to the Syrian shawarma guy I met on a summer evening in Iraq. While walking the street one night, I saw a starving street cat that kept following me crying for food. When I spotted the shawarma shop, I asked the guy working there if he could give me some meat for the starving street cat. I mentioned that I’d pay him for it. He did and refused to take my money. When I asked why he refused, since I am simply giving the food he needs to sell to a street cat, he said in a heartbreaking tone: “I am a refugee from Syria, and I know what it means to be hungry in the streets.” I will always wonder what happened to the Moroccan fisherman who I met by chance one evening while walking along the Rabat marina, where many men and their friends go fishing. I greeted this fisherman out of all the people there, and after a short conversation, he shared that he was an ex-singer. His voice and music talent were incredibly beautiful. We spent hours sitting on rocks singing and waiting for fish that he never caught. When I looked at the time, I was shocked to see that it was 2 am!

So many are the encounters, Dear Readers, but I have already taken from you more time and space than I deserve. As I get closer to concluding this journey with you, it is worth noting that many of the most profound travel stories happen during flights – when we are hanging in there between land and sky. One recent memorable story that sticks in my head is the young American guy who told me he was a bartender, but his biggest passion is writing song lyrics and singing. Upon finding out I loved poetry; he spent so much time generously reciting and singing a selection of his lyrics to me in a most beautiful gentle voice. “My dream is to make it one day, but until then, I will continue writing lyrics and saving money as a bartender. I live with my mom because we both need each other. I can’t afford to live on my own, and she’s been suffering from loneliness and depression since my dad passed away. We are getting through this together,” he told me in a hopeful tone. When we travel, we encounter many faces that simply need someone to ask them “how are you doing?” “Is everything okay?” We, too, need to be asked these two simple yet important questions that, when asked genuinely and sincerely, make us feel that we belong, that someone cares about us, that we are still connected with an otherwise cruel world full of atrocities. Let’s never forget that there are millions and millions of lonely hearts on this planet with anybody to ask how they are doing, and whether everything is alright. During one of my travels, I once encountered an American woman and felt that she was in need to be asked if everything was alright. I did. She responded, “No it is not alright. My partner committed suicide yesterday and I don’t know what to do. I feel so guilty.” That simple question led to long and difficult conversation and authentic human connection.

And so, Dear Friends, if there is anything the art of traveling teaches us, it is perhaps to never stop practicing single acts of kindness and compassion that can have profound and long-lasting effects on our communities wherever we are. We learn from traveling that it makes a huge difference to simply acknowledge and greet each other; to ask whenever possible or appropriate, whether someone is alright; and most importantly to foil the plans and intentions of fear and warmongers using every medium and platform to get us to distrust, hate, and be afraid of each other, or to beware of strangers. The American poet, John Berryman, reminds us to reject our fear both literally and metaphorically speaking, which is a product of everything we’ve ever been exposed to and shaped by. Berryman, like many writers and poets before and after him, reminds that “we must travel in the direction of our fear.” When I was a kid in Iraq, people used to say one could travel the entire world just by sitting in a library and reading books. Sadly, in the age of billionaire-controlled social media functioning and governing bodies and minds based on carefully engineered algorithms, I don’t believe this is true anymore. The saying should be revised in our times to be “one could hate the entire world and see everyone as a villain or an enemy just by browsing through reels and social posts carefully selected to confirm one’s limited knowledge, perspective, and prejudices.” With that in mind, we need more than ever to master the art of traveling, whether we go near or far. We need to undo the unreasonable, amplified, and exaggerated fear of strangers. Thus, I’d like to close by sharing with you the English translation of a poem titled “Beware of Strangers,” which was originally written in Arabic and first published on October 29, 2022:

Beware of Strangers
As children, they teach us
To beware of strangers,
To refrain from approaching them.

As we grow older we learn
That no one is stranger than those
We thought we’d known all our lives.

As we grow older we learn
That a stranger may carry more empathy,
And may understand us more deeply.
Even feelings of affection from a stranger
May be more sincere.

And so I ask:
can humanity and strangeness be synonymous?
Could we say:
I am a stranger; therefore I am?

Can we truly feel alive
Without strange things
Strange encounters
without strangers
reminding us that our hearts and minds are still beating?

They teach us to avoid strangers,
And life teaches us
that human awareness can only be borne out
Of the dagger of strangeness…
That life is tasteless
When we don’t mix it with strangers…
That familiarity is opposed to life!
And thus, I loudly declare:
A stranger I was born. A stranger I wish to remain!
And I ask that you issue my death certificate
The day I become familiar.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.