Story last updated at 7/3/2013 - 2:53 pm
Cruise Ship Travelers. Down the gangway they come and into the awaiting facade of downtown Juneau. From the belly of the giant boats, they file-out like ants before dispersing into the many stores. It's raining, so plastic bag ponchos are donned as the sidewalks flow to life. Jewelry shop, trinket shop, jewelry shop again. A host of vendors fight to fill lines of awaiting tour buses. To the glacier, whale watching, kayaking and salmon feeds. Money is gladly shelled out for any taste of the Alaska experience. There is little time and much to do. The cruise ship traveler is herded along as the veteran salesmen know just what to say and just how to say it.
To me this was a tourist. All I have known is Juneau, and the transformation that arrives each summer with the arrival of the tour ships. With such an overwhelming number of visitors it is quite difficult to see them as individuals with personal stories. I usually (and perhaps wrongly) group them all into a single entity, "the tourists are here!" There is very little interaction between the locals and the tourists, both are in their own separate world, overlapped but very much apart. By choosing a cruise ship to travel, the tourist is automatically subjected to being another face among the thousands. Clustered together on the boat and in tour groups, it is near impossible for the travelers to enjoy a unique experience. As we move through Central America, it is apparent that the predominant travelers here are of an entirely different breed.
The Backpacker. Clamber out of the over-packed bus and look out to a beach paradise. A large bag is buckled on snuggly; the rain cover is on to ward off the pickpockets described on the travel advisor site. First stop, the hostel. Immediately the backpacker is greeted by a friendly bunch of world travelers; the Dutch, Canadians, an Austrian and a group of Kiwis. English is spoken all around so the Spanish phrase book dives deeper and deeper into the pack. Conversation of tour plans passes the heat of the day from the shade of swaying hammocks. There is much discussion about how such and such town is too "touristy," you are much better off going to the tranquil locale of such and such village. Afternoon walks to the beach, or the grocery store are accompanied by hundreds of salesmen. Bracelets and t-shirts are shoved towards the face, snorkel tours and boat charter salesman shout and barter, and some are simply yelling "Plata!" (Money!). The backpacker is polite and declines each sale with a simple, "no, gracias," yet the process is aggravating and exhausting. Two or three days here, and it is time to move on to the next destination; the next hostel and the next tourist Mecca.
Many want to travel, however few wish to be labeled a "tourist." However, it is near impossible to blend-in when visiting a foreign place; in Juneau it is as subtle as a yellow poncho in the rain, in Latin America it is a more glaring contrast of skin color and language deficiency. The problem is, once you have been marked a tourist, you are no longer just an interested traveler; you are now a target of the industry. It only takes so many friendly conversations that culminate in trying to sell you a plate of food, a boat tour, a condo, etc., until you are weary of all locals and look to avoid the people whose home you are visiting in the first place. Some look to long term travel as a means of diminishing the tourist trap effect.
The Bicycle Tourist. Endless lengths of black top highway curl and zag between Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Full bags are strapped to either side of the ever turning wheels. Long periods of silent thought are interrupted by calls of "Buenas Tardes" and "Hola," semi-truck horns and "you can make it up this hill" thumbs ups from passing cars. Confined to the road system, the bicycle tourist is forced to breath-in car exhaust while maneuvering through the sometimes hazardous traffic. Changes are subtle. Slowly the weather turns, neat rows of strawberries are eventually replaced by endless banana plantations. Afternoons are spent in conversation with the people in each town, customs and culture that are not adept to tourists, so things go on without the uncomfortable air of an impending sales attempt. Locals are interested in the bicycle tourist and happy and proud to show off their home. Camps are erected each night, sometimes behind a billboard, in a backyard, behind a church or between fire engines at the fire station. It is not always so easy to find a safe place for the night, and a lot of time is spent baby-sitting bicycles. Each day, the bicycle tourist climbs back up onto the saddle and pedals on into unknown territory.
The difference between bicycle travel and other methods of getting around is that the majority of time is spent in the in-between places. Towns and cities that do not expect much of an influx of foreigners are surprised and often delighted to see a group of travelers taking interest in their region of the world. Bicycle tourists rely entirely on the local people for a successful trip; continuously asking questions about directions, camping areas, drinking water, and road conditions. Locals often respond with hospitality; in the bicycle they recognize an arduous travel style and a willingness to immerse oneself in a new culture. The relatively small number of people traveling by bicycle allows for each encounter to feel unique and genuine. In the sections of the journey where the road does not continue, we have been introduced to a different type of travel.
Sailboat Cruisers. Wind dances hard over the sails as the hull leans into the sea. Surrounded by water, without another soul in sight, the sailboat cruisers plot their course onwards. Although confined to the ocean and its boundaries, there is much freedom to the route; using the currents and weather to move between ports and anchorages. After several days on the open ocean the coast begins to come into focus on the horizon. Buildings ahead slowly grow upwards, surmounting the gradual curve of the earth. A slip in the harbor is open, and the sail boat eases into a new home, and a new neighborhood. The marina consists of a small overpriced store, a high class restaurant and bar, and a club house area to congregate with the other cruisers. Many have become residents here, part of a floating community of characters from all over the world. Social and educational events are organized and broadcast via radio each morning. There are Spanish lessons, exercise classes, and a seminar in the afternoon about an exciting cruising destination. English is the common language, the vast majority of the cruisers are retired and white; it can be easy to forget that this is a foreign country at all. Day trips explore the surrounding city, but the comforts of life aboard the sailboat draws the cruisers back to the docks each night. A long list of things to fix means that much of the visit will be spent replacing parts, adjusting the motor, and mending a torn sail. Working with local mechanics and marine shops, conversations about the well being of the boat lead to advice about the town and the areas that are worth checking out. A week-long stay turns into a month, but finally the boat is deemed ready. Farewells are bid as the sails catch wind and the cruisers move on.
The travel styles that I have described are not meant to confine travelers into rigid groups, but rather should be thought of as general areas along a spectrum. I have had intimate experiences with all of these groups, and have witnessed some of the effects that accompany each style of travel. I am certainly not trying to insinuate that to have a "real" experience of a place you need to quit your job and ride a bike through it or sell your house and buy a sailboat. That is obviously ridiculous. But, I urge people to be conscious of how their mode of transport effects their overall perception of a place. Whether floating in a cruise ship, sitting on a bus, pedaling a bicycle, or navigating a sailboat, one is subjected to the perspectives that come with their particular travel mode. Travelers utilizing various styles of movement can describe the same places in drastically different ways. The backpacker might describe an experience in Costa Rica as fast paced and energetic, while the cyclist might describe the same area as laid-back and tranquil. The ways in which we move hold a direct connection to things that we see, the people we interact with, and ultimately the impression that we take away.
As creative minds explore the ever changing planet, we will undoubtedly see ever changing faces of tourism.
For more information about the trip and photos and stories from along the way, check out www.atripsouth.com