As our big, two-week vacation of the year comes to a close I’m faced with about twenty hours of flying and a lot of time to think. I’ll reflect on the great experiences we had while exploring new and familiar places in Asia, but I’ll also reflect on some personal deficiencies. Except that they may not be deficiencies at all, but just a part of the normal travel experience. For the first time in a long time I felt a lot of guilt on this trip for a variety of reasons and I’m trying to sort out how to reconcile that.
Personal Travel Guilt
Two weeks is a long time to be on a trip and for us and I think we’ve reached our limit, both as a couple and personally. It’s a long time to be in hotel rooms, no matter how nice they are, it’s a long time to be away from friends and family (and dogs) and it’s a long time to be constantly on the go.
My trips aren’t usually relaxing, but instead are mad dashes to see and do as much as possible. Even though I tempered that this trip with several “days off” it has still been an exhausting experience, which is why I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I’m surrounded by rich, opulent hotel rooms and cities packed with fun and exciting new experiences, but more than once all I’ve wanted to do is sleep in until noon and sit by the pool with a book. I can do that anywhere though, which is why I feel guilty. I know that my time in these places is limited and that I may never return to them, and yet there were several times when I struggled to care. To care about yet another temple or an obscure site that I didn’t know existed until I read about it in my guidebook.
At the same time, I’m not sure I’ll ever be that guy who can spend a week at a resort in Mexico and do nothing but nap and have margaritas. In theory it sounds great, but in practice it just doesn’t work. So I feel guilty that we’ve traveled all this way and yet I’ve wanted to relax more and see less. We didn’t do that, but at times I felt that way. Maybe as I grow older I’m changing as a traveler, I’m not sure, but it will definitely require some thought.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this, but it resonated especially on this trip when we spent several days in Laos. More so than in Japan or Thailand, in Laos I felt like a cultural interloper. No, not interloper, but voyeur. I felt like my tendency to walk around and take pictures of “traditional” activities is at times rude and insensitive. The Laotians may not even feel that way, they probably just see me as a weird guy taking pictures of garbage cans, but I felt it. These are real people just trying to go about their daily lives and are not there for my amusement. It’s one thing to play tourist and see the sights, but I think it’s a totally different matter to “observe” the culture as an activity. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but it reeked of colonialism and that’s a mindset I cannot stand. Yet, as soon as we passed by a fisherman casting nets on the Mekong, I started snapping away taking as many photos as I could.
Ultimately, I believe that tourism is good for everyone, especially in under-developed areas as it brings in money and stimulates a lot of great social change. But at the same time, that change isn’t always a good thing. I spoke with some Thais in Bangkok and when I mentioned I planned to visit Luang Prabang they said, “Good, that’s what Bangkok used to be like.” I’m not sure what I took away from the statement exactly, but it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling.
And so there you have it, my mea culpas for feeling guilty as I took an amazing trip visiting some of the most exciting cities and staying at the best hotels in the world. See, I feel guilty even writing that. It’s a no win I guess, but it’s a part of life and guilt is absolutely part of the travel experience. None of us, not even the most experienced travelers do everything right on a trip and guilt can be a good thing once in a while. It keeps us on our toes and helps keep in mind what’s really important in life. It also reminded me why I travel, yes it’s to learn about new places, but sometimes it’s also to relax – a lesson hard learned.
Have you ever felt guilty while on a trip? Why and how did you deal with it?