Wherever You Go, There They Are: Mindless Tourists in Everyday Life

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I am not someone who is accustomed to travelling the world. I have many friends who have visited several continents, spent months in different countries, and have been medically diagnosed with the most itchy of diseases – the travel bug. Me? I have only been outside the UK three or four times, and never outside of Europe. In September 2015, I was given the opportunity to move to Kathmandu, Nepal, for one year. Before moving, I was warned of the mysterious, dreaded ‘culture shock’ – a reaction to moving to such a different place that would be so severe I would need a few weeks (or even months) to get over it before I could truly get comfortable with my new life in an Asian country.

To give you some background: I am nobody. I am just a guy from a generic working class family in Britain. I am cursed (and blessed) with those typical British traits. I’m pale and never even think to wear sunscreen. I’m fine in my comfort zone, thank you very much. I’m cynical to an extreme. In a way, I don’t like to enjoy myself. I whine, I complain, and I like the rain. Someone like me would be the last person you would expect to see in Kathmandu – with its pollution, bumpy roads, constant (and I mean constant) beeping cars and motorbikes. Not a Tesco in sight for me to grab a quick sandwich, can of Coke and a packet of crisps. What the hell was there for me in Kathmandu?

As it turns out, the answer was everything. From the moment I stepped foot on the dusty roads of Kathmandu I was in love. This ‘culture shock’ never came. I, a nobody from a small city in Wales, had made it half way across the world to this strange and alien place. And I couldn’t be happier.

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I do miss this, though.

I really enjoyed myself over the first weeks – hiking through the trees and up, up, up the tall stone steps for hours to reach Nagi Gumba (a monastery) in Shivapuri National Park, hitting up the main temples of Swayambhu (the monkey temple), Boudhanath (sadly damaged by the earthquake last year), and Pashupati (where I witnessed the cremation of the dead). I spent two weeks in Pokhara, a town about six hours away from Kathmandu, where I stood in awe, dwarfed and half blinded, by the huge white walls of the World Peace Stupa, rode a bicycle at full speed along the chaotic motorway to Begnas Lake, and sat under the stars with beer and popcorn at an open-air cinema to watch The Great Dictator in a crowd that was intimately connected to each other without even saying a word.

I entered Nepal with an open mind, and appreciated the privilege I had to see more of the world every single day. I didn’t even realise that I had developed any attachment to the country until I met other people who shat all over it.

A big criticism leveraged at Nepal by tourists is getting ‘hassled’ in the street. Thamel is the main shopping/bar area for tourists and, walking through those narrow windy streets, you are definitely going to get called at by a travel agency, a shop keeper, or a lady selling water in the street. If you enter a store, then it’s likely that the person inside will try to convince you to buy things. Of course, actual harassment is never okay, but I have never experienced that here. Saying no and walking away is usually all it takes. I understand that if you are new to the country then this might make you feel uncomfortable the first or second time. I have, however, met many people who have been in Kathmandu for an extended period of time who still find this unbearable. I think that if this makes you feel uncomfortable you really need to ask yourself why. When I first came to Nepal, it made me feel a bit flustered because it was so direct – and I honestly felt a little guilty about saying no to people because I understood that, while everything seemed so ‘cheap’ (relative to the UK), and it wouldn’t actually make a huge difference to me to buy things, it probably would make a big difference to the individual selling them. We have become so accustomed to dealing with large corporations and unmotivated employees behind a cash machine, that we have become completely detached from the small business owner trying to make a living. I also find it interesting that we allow ourselves to be solicited to buy goods from the safety of our sofa, and in front of a TV screen, but when approached by an actual human being, we recoil. Why is there this divide? It’s a sad state of affairs that we live in a time when a little human interaction can ruin an experience for people.

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I don’t want to make it sound like I do not have my own criticisms of Nepal. I have met people on the complete other side of the spectrum who have said to me that the West is bad, the East is good, etc. This kind of mentality, too, is so self-limiting. Why take such a binary view towards travelling/the world? It was funny that this person slated the UK/the West for a good five minutes, but when I expressed my own views about missing the convenience of a Tesco meal deal (I won’t keep going on about that but GOD DAMN I MISS IT), he laughed and conceded. Obviously this example is meant in a light-hearted way but the point remains. Convenience is not to be underplayed. Many of the things I took for granted in the West I do not have anymore. Viewing the world through such a binary lens of developing/developed, East/West etc. does a great disservice to the diversity that is out there in the world.

This guy was part of a ‘type’ of traveller I would describe as quasi-philosophical ‘anti-tourists’. These people pride themselves on not being tourists, but rather as enlightened travellers on a journey of self-discovery. While having this mantra of spirituality and acceptance of the world, many people I have met seem to think this makes them better than the ‘other’ tourists. One of the main lessons I have learned being in Nepal is that if you have to tell everybody that you are enlightened, then you probably aren’t. I’m eager to say here that I am not painting all tourists or backpackers with the same brush. Everybody has an element of self-discovery and self-exploration when travelling the world and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. What I do have an issue with is when these tourists come to Nepal, take what they can get, and then leave. This problem has already been documented in plenty of detail. I don’t have much more to add than my own personal experiences. I met a group of guys a few weeks ago who had come to Nepal to do volunteering. One of them took the opportunity to tell us that he quit after one day because the children he was working with were not educated on basic hygiene in the bathroom and he said this was off-putting. This kind of ignorant, snobby, disgusting attitude is what gives tourists a bad name.

My biggest problem with many of the people I have met since getting to Nepal, whether they are the type to complain about the infrastructure, or proclaim that they ‘get it’ and are having the ‘authentic’ traveller experience, is that it always come from a self-centred place and completely lacks self-awareness. On the one hand you have those that criticise Nepal with no concern for the people who live here. One person we met described the Annapurna Circuit (a popular trek in Nepal) as “disappointing” and “not worth doing” as a road had now been built. The fact that a lack of roads might have been a problem for the people who lived there was never considered. On the other hand, you have these people who come, have their ‘enlightening’ experience, patronise the people who live here by absorbing their culture for personal gain (i.e. boasting about their adventures to their traveller friends), condescend the other tourists who are after their own experiences, and go home. Both sides of this coin share a common trait: obsession with the self while disregarding for the local population.

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But even worse, I’ve met very few people who are happy with not being an extreme. You can open your mind and enjoy a foreign country without condemning your home. Equally, you can have your moments of self-discovery without then telling everybody you meet about them like you are part of some exclusive enlightened club. For a place where ‘spirituality’ and ‘acceptance’ is so big, the people who come here to practice it are, sadly, still out to prove something.

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Putting Yourself Out There

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I don’t know why, but ever since I was young I have been obsessed with the idea of creating things and sharing it with other people. Before Facebook there was Bebo, a social media platform on which you could write ‘notes’. I, in all my foolish angsty teenage splendour, used this feature to blog (in far too much detail) about my personal life and thoughts on my classmates. For good or for bad, it was what I became known for in school. Since outgrowing that horrible phase that I try my hardest to forget ever happened, I have expanded into other mediums. I have dabbled in podcasting, I have tried my hand at stand up comedy, and I have started numerous blogs over the years, all with one purpose; putting myself out there.

Of course, a factor that is obvious and should be acknowledged is the sheer narcissism a person has to have to even begin to put their thoughts out to the world (hence the name of this blog). There has to be at least a degree of self-confidence that you don’t necessarily deserve to think that anybody should read what you write. But I think that that line of thinking gets quite badly stigmatised by people. It seems to go hand in hand with arrogance – the idea that what you have to say is more valuable than what anyone else has to say. I know that, for me at least, this is nonsense. I come from a perspective where I think that everybody should share their thoughts, ideas and opinions about everything (within reason obviously – splurging your personal life over the internet isn’t good for anyone). But this line of thinking isn’t confined to blogging. I also think that any creative project – from photography to writing poetry – should be shared with people. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t any good. As long as you can acknowledge that and appreciate that what you are doing is part of a learning process (this again ties in with the idea of not being arrogant), then I see absolutely no problem with people sharing things like that.

I know people who are frozen with fear by the idea of sharing their creative efforts. I get why, I really do. People (and I am definitely guilty of this) tend to have an automatic reaction of frowning upon someone for really putting themselves out there. People love to hate what other people produce in an amateur capacity. I think this really needs to stop. The world we live in at the moment, with Facebook highlighting how amazing people’s lives are and all the rest, has made society bitter. Think about how many times you have seen a juicy bit of drama going down on Facebook (or anywhere online) and jumped all over it. We are so embittered by seeing how perfect everybody else’s life is, that we can’t wait to see proof that somebody isn’t an expert at something, or that somebody, like you, makes mistakes. I think society as a whole should be unashamedly supportive of people putting themselves out there. That doesn’t mean we have encourage people who have obviously written absolute garbage, and criticism should always be given and received with an open mind, but we shouldn’t come at something that a person is probably really passionate about with scepticism and scorn. It scares too many genuinely talented people away from throwing their hat in the ring and developing their craft.

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If we look at the idea of sharing your opinions with the world. So many people feel scared of getting involved in a conversation because they think they will make a fool of themselves. They feel like they might not know enough about the topic. I always have this with politics. I try my hardest to be politically engaged and quite active, but I am always terrified that people know more than me so I shouldn’t share what I think. But this is such a counter productive way of approaching politics. Surely, by sharing opinions and thoughts, and being told about your ignorances and having those gaps in your knowledge filled, you become a more informed person. Debate is essential in a democracy. As long as we are able to find a way to better deal with biases and close-mindedness, everybody should constantly talk about what they think about things – whether it’s music, movies, or politics.

Creatively, I will again use myself as an example. I have always wanted to write. It’s just been something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. I have never known exactly how I wanted to express myself (I’ve considered novels, scripts, and music, to name a few), but what I did know was that it was something I wanted to do. If I didn’t have this belief that everybody should just be open, then I don’t think I would have had the confidence to, for example, start this blog. It’s taking a huge risk and making myself very vulnerable to criticism because I know that my writing isn’t amazing, I know that if anybody were to look at my blog and social media at this point it would be embarrassing, but I also know that I am trying. I’m trying to grow, to develop my skill. Very few people are born with a natural gift and so the only way to improve is to create and, crucially, share it. What other people think is ultimately what matters in a creative field, so to lock yourself in a room and create in isolation is not going to give you an idea of whether your work is considered good in the eyes of an audience. It also makes me really sad, because I see people who should be full to the brim with self confidence shutting themselves out.

I do understand and appreciate that a lot of people create for themselves. They aren’t really interested in what other people think about their opinions (or at least don’t think a public forum is an appropriate place for them)  and they are happy to share with close friends how they feel about things, or whatever they have created. While I understand this, I would still strongly encourage to share publicly purely on the basis of why not?  It can only be an informative and growing experience. If it wasn’t for stigma, then I am certain that a lot more people would be open to the idea of sharing online because then there really would be no reason not to. But people often say that they are scared what other people will think if they share it online. What they mean is that they don’t want to be one of those people. It’s a real shame. This stigma is really harmful and, I think, holds us back from expressing ourselves.

I will close this post by saying, again (in a slightly cheesy kind of way), just do it. Just post it online, tell everybody about it, sing it from the rooftops. Why not? Fuck it if people judge you for it. If people think you are just being one of those people, then they aren’t going to offer you any constructive feedback anyway. What matters it is that you know you aren’t one of those people. You are just a person who wants to share and contribute to an increasingly inter-connected world.

Finding Your Voice

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I love writing. Whether it’s a comedy set, a script or a blog, I have always been drawn towards expressing myself through the written form because of the freedom that it grants you.

Something I have always struggled with is finding my voice. I read a lot of blogs and watch a lot of amateur stand up. It’s a clear indication that someone is new to creative writing when they adopt a persona of a ‘blog writer’ or a ‘stand up comedian’. This usually manifests itself in the same way: with a blogger writing in quite a detached and formal way, and comedians sounding exactly like those who influence their stand up. When I dabbled in stand up comedy, this was my single biggest obstacle. I would try to write jokes but I would always revert to this ‘other’ voice, a ‘different’ me. Essentially, I would be writing what I thought people found funny about me, rather than what I actually found funny. I discovered that when I went on stage and was forced to just ‘be funny’, I got a far better reaction from audiences. However, whenever I tried to write any of this down, everything got lost in the translation. It was a challenge that I was never able to overcome in the short amount of time I tried my hand at it, and I eventually resorted to just improvising every night instead – which was fine because I was running my own event – but it did not give me the means to do comedy at any other place. Crowd control I could handle (the easy part), actual comedy was harder.

And this problem also became apparent in the many blogs I have started and then ditched over the years. The way I would write would be very forced – very rehearsed. I would be writing as a ‘blogger’ not at myself. Authenticity is massively important in the blogging world, and it was something I was never able to quite capture. I tried many different exercises to try to deal with this problem, but nothing really worked. I have now decided that with this blog I am just going to keep writing regardless until I get better at it.

It’s just very easy when you first start writing to assume you will be good at it. If you have an opinion, or if you consider yourself to be a funny person, you assume that this is half of the battle done. But it isn’t. Putting those thoughts on paper is a whole other process – in which much can get lost, warped or caricatured.

I am interested to hear if anybody else has had these kinds of problems and if so, what they did to overcome it. Is it simply a case of mastering your craft, or are there tricks and questions you can ask yourself to find your authentic voice? Feel free to leave suggestions for what’s worked for you in the comments section below.