The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

I’m an explorer — not a traveler

This week, the Displaced Nation is drifting away from March’s initial theme of beauty/fashion tips picked up from world travels. Hardly surprising, given that all of this week’s writers are males! Today’s guest poster, James Murray, a displaced Brit in Boston, is a prime example. The only new fashion he’d like to start would be replacing the word “travel” with “explore.” Sounds pedantic, right? Well, see what you think!

— ML Awanohara

I was never really one for traveling. When all the kids went on their gap years before college, I called them on it: I knew it was a waste of money; a way to delay the inevitable intrusion of the Real World into their lives — in short, I didn’t see the point.

Receiving emails from abroad about how wonderful these experiences were and how life-affirming and eye-opening and incredible the world was, I simply smiled to myself.

How naïve they were, I thought.

Whereas I would be a year ahead; a year closer to a job; a year closer to money, and a year closer to actual freedom.

I did not see work as some black hole into which you pour all of your efforts with no hope of ever getting anything back. On the contrary, I thought it would be pretty good to have a job and a flat and friends and the cash to support a lifestyle I could be comfortable with.

Travel for travel’s sake

I still think that. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I was ever wrong on this point. Sorry to disappoint. And particular apologies to Jeff Jung, whose book on career-break travel was favorably reviewed on this site at the end of last month.

Don’t get me wrong. Yes, I’ve traveled and, yes, I love being “elsewhere,” doing things differently, as much as the next displaced nation resident. In fact I’m a bit of a neophile when it comes to food and culture…

But being enamored of the new doesn’t mean you have to travel.

Travel provides a set of obvious novelties: new tastes; new currencies; new transport; climate; a different view from the window.

But just being somewhere different doesn’t make you an explorer; in order to get that badge, you need to set foot outside your comfort zone, step away from the hotel, the package tour, the guidebook — and look with your own eyes.

Cross that one off the list!

That Facebook app that challenges you to prove you’re a world traveler by listing all the countries you’ve visited irrespective of how long you were there or where exactly you were: what does it really show? It makes a three-day hotel stay in Shanghai look as though you’ve conquered the entirety of mainland China, and it reduces that beautiful holiday in Wales — you know, the one that reminded you what it was like when shops closed on a Sunday — to a complete non-event.

The way we think of travel is all wrong: the political boundaries on the map say that I now live in the USA, but that doesn’t really say anything about where I actually live or the aspects of American culture that I’ve actually experienced.

My life would be completely different if, say, I lived in the desert or the mountains — it would even be different if I lived in New York instead of Boston.

I don’t anticipate ever being able to say that I’ve seen it all.

Explore, for heaven’s sake!

Exploring as opposed to traveling is a question of quality against quantity. I did a lot of exploring in London and Edinburgh that opened my eyes just as much as wandering around Thailand and Romania.

A few curiously exploratory examples:

  • Getting a haircut at a weird little barber’s in Shepherd’s Bush. It was an all-male barber’s, where men could “come along and say what they like in whatever language they like,” as the proprietor put it. I remember being very quiet amid a torrent of very macho conversation. Not a totally unpleasant experience, but I never went back.
  • With my flatmate, laying Russian roulette with the pastries at Vanna Patisserie, a Chinese bakery in Shepherd’s Bush. They were either sugary and delicious or curiously tough with a peculiar secret ingredient. There was no way of telling from the outside.
  • Spotting a Portobello (Edinburgh) art exhibition displayed outside people’s homes that featured, amongst other things, a fat-and-seed bird feeder in the shape of the artist’s head, hung from a tree, where it was gradually and gruesomely pecked to pieces.

These bizarre titbits are the wages of the explorer but not necessarily the traveler, who might see only those accepted “landmarks” to which his eyes are directed.

Avenues for exploration are everywhere. In fact, when I first moved to London, I was so inspired by the tube stops that I wanted to develop a guide to each one.

My idea was that I would use some algorithm to pick a different tube stop each weekend, go there and simply wander around in a roughly spiral shape from that stop, looking carefully at architectural details, stopping in parks and perhaps interviewing the proprietors of particularly interesting local businesses.

I would document these things not so much as a guide for others to visit exactly the same places, but in hopes of inspiring them to look at their own neighborhoods with new eyes.

Exploring the New World

I try to do the same kind of thing in Boston, although I confess I find it a bit harder — there’s the sheer fact that London is 1) massive and 2) very, very old that makes it rather easier to find the gems at the ends of the nooks and crannies.

But I’m not discouraged — I’ve still barely explored the North End with its windy little streets and ample opportunities for getting lost (I don’t have one of those phones that tells me where I’m going).

And just the other day we were introduced to a bar not five minutes down the road, which will make a superb local, with its walls plastered in kitschy tut. I’m sure I’ve passed it before, but, like all the best things, it’s a bit hard to spot.

In amongst these streets are histories, idiosyncrasies and mythologies — of that I have little doubt. Finding them is just a matter of retiring my traveler’s shoes and donning an explorer’s hat.

* * *

So, world travelers — sorry, I meant to say “explorers” — what do you think? Is James right in saying that all of this obsession with the quantity of travel (how many countries, etc.) is misguided? And what do you think of his assertion that Edinburgh can be as fascinating as Bangkok, if you take an explorer’s approach? Please leave your thoughts in the comments…

James Murray is a self-described “itinerant Brit.” After a stint in New Zealand, and some travel in Southeast Asia, he and his American girlfriend — now wife — are practicing “staying put” in Boston, where James is pursing a career as a wordsmith for marketing and fiction, and as a non-professional theatre director. He is also a Utopian idealist and SingStar enthusiast. You can find more about his views by reading his blog, Quaint James, and/or following him on Twitter: @quaintjames.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by Andy Martin, about a unusual source of beauty in his new home town of São Paulo.

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img: MorgueFile

10 responses to “I’m an explorer — not a traveler

  1. Sezin March 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I absolutely agree with James! Well said, fellow explorer!

  2. Mandy March 14, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    This is the most awesome post I have ever read. I think I’m going to print it out and carry it with me. I’ve watched my travelling friends and fellow bloggers cross destination after destination off their lists, sometimes staying in one place for mere hours and it makes me dizzy. That is why I try to explore my hometown every day, taking long walks and exploring hidden passage ways, so that when I do go somewhere new, it is exhilarating and exciting and not just another tick on my bucket list.

  3. Wanderlust23 March 15, 2013 at 4:49 am

    I completely agree with the sentiment quality over quantity but in the end ‘traveller’ or ‘explorer’ to me are mere words.

  4. Mark Mercer March 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Aren’t we just doing “grade inflation” on the terminology here? I’ve heard it for decades as “I’m a traveler, not a tourist”. That one makes sense, because it also contrasts true travel against “tour packages” and “The Grand Tour” and all that rot.

    I get the sentiment, but I think “traveler” handles it just fine. “Explorer” verges on the pompous hipster IMNSHO, unless your last name is Shackleton, Earhart, Lewis, Clark, or similar.

    Also, glad I just let my hair grow out when I spent about a week “exploring” from my base in a hotel near Shepard’s Bush🙂

    • James March 17, 2013 at 7:25 pm

      As someone who’s just in the process of putting bright blue tires on his bicycle, I dont think I get to say ‘I’m not a hipster’ with a high degree of certainty. But sure – point taken. I’ve met people who were perfectly happy to call themselves tourists who definitely weren’t box-tickers, and travelers who might as well have stayed at home and photoshopped themselves onto a picuture of the Eiffel tower for all they actually noticed about being abroad. I’m not looking to change language or usage per se – I simply want to acknowledge the merits of keeping your eyes open wherever you happen to be.

      • Mark Mercer March 17, 2013 at 9:35 pm

        Whatever we call it, I think we’re pretty much saying the same thing. There’s that “see it, snap the picture, move on” tourism (or travel, if you prefer), and then there’s the “explore, find the rhythm of local life, discover how the non-touristy parts of where you are feel, smell, look, sound. Serendipitously wander into a carnival, or a demonstration, or a back alley with some monks playing chess. Or live in some “foreign” place long enough that it doesn’t feel foreign anymore, even if you aren’t fluent in the language.

        Yes, that is extremely rewarding. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t also thrilled at seeing the Grand Canyon, Iguazu Falls, Prague Castle, Ayutthaya, or the Eiffel Tower, in more traditional “tourist travel” moments too. But it’s not just about that. It’s the little antique shop and used bookstore on a backstreet in Versailles on the way back to the RER from the Chateau, rather than just the time at the Chateau. Taking the third-class hard-seats train north from Bangkok and playing peek-a-boo with a little girl on the seat in front of you. Hanging out at a neighborhood bar in suburban Düsseldorf. In some ways, all those memories are stronger than the sights.

  5. ML Awanohara March 17, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    @James
    Perhaps my question is just a variation on some of the themes above, but I wonder if there is a message inside your message — namely that people who like travel but can also settle in one place (and become expats) are a different breed from those whose approach to international travel consists of a bucket list…?

    • James March 17, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      Interesting. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Part of the reason for the post is that I really don’t consider myself a traveler, though people are quick to say ‘What? You travel – you live in a foreign country’ – but that’s just it. I’m living here rather than traveling. I think you’re right – there’s such a thing as a traveler who’s also looking to put down roots in other countries and settings, and if they ever pick up those roots again, they take a little bit of that country with them.

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