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In Defense of Travel Snobs

download (1)I recently read an article I really enjoyed: Signs You’re Becoming a Travel Snob. I liked it because I agreed with much of what it said and felt it really tracked the different stages of personal growth and maturing I’ve gone through as someone who has been traveling the world regularly since I was 18. That said, while there are some aspects of travel snobbery I’ve grown out of or have come to realize were just wrongheaded, others I can’t shake; however, I think there are some good reasons for that. But let’s start with Sonja’s list of ways in which I’ve been and still am a travel snob:

For starters, there was a brief period of time when I got back from my first year living abroad where I started far too many of my stories with, “When I was in….” I’m sure more than a few people will say I still do, but I’ve also spent half of the last 18 years of my life abroad. Furthermore, since that first trip I’ve written travel articles advising people returning home to only use that phrase if it’s absolutely essential to the context of the story.

I’ve also been one of those people to judge other travelers based on their choice of luggage. In fact, my first ever travel article involved the phrase #youlooklikeanasshole while describing people who use roller bags. But what I can say? It might be handy when you’re idea of travel involves taking a cab from the airport to your hotel, but when you get just a little off the beaten path, a roller bag can turn a largely unnoticed arrival into a small village or town into a noise creating, attention-generating event that causes everyone to stop what they’re doing and look at the foreigners.

imagesAnd you better believe I distinguish between people who like to travel and people who like to vacation; they’re not the same thing. If you want to go to an all-inclusive resort, more power to you. It’s an amazing way to relax and spend a week or two, but that is not the same thing as heading out to see how long you can travel on a fixed budget, or trying to see and experience how other people live. When I traveled around the world for a year, my mom would always say, “You must be having so much fun.” “Fun” was not the word for what I was doing. It was rewarding and often enjoyable, but it was also hard: it regularly involved 20 hour trips on cramped transportation with seats no more comfortable than those you’d find on a school bus.  And now that the phrase “I Love to Travel” is ubiquitous on the dating scene, it’s more important to make this distinction than ever.

I’ve often been ecstatic to have traveled to certain countries earlier on in their modern development and integration into the world. Myanmar springs to mind: the number of tourists going there tripled in the first three years it opened its borders and is expected to triple again in the next three. I also curse myself for not having made it to Cuba back when it was still illegal for Americans to go. That said, I also know there’s never a bad time to go to a country. Whenever a person goes, they’re going to be seeing a country and a culture in the midst of change, and that knowledge of how things were when they went will always be interesting and insightful.

images (4)There have also been many times when I’ve gone out of my way to avoid looking like a stereotypical tourist because it makes people look like unthinking sheep being herded and makes a tour group the center of attention anywhere they go. While I feel the occasional need to join a proper tour to really take in the history and learn about a place, you’ll never catch me on a group Segway tour or being led around by someone holding up a sign on a stick, while yelling at me through a megaphone. Seriously, if you ever see me on a tour like this, call the police because there is a hostage situation of some sort going on.

Furthermore, I’m guilty of viewing some people posting about their “engagement, new house, pregnancy {insert other important life event here}” as them making a mistake because it was going to lock them down and keep them from traveling. I’ve even taken it a step further and questioned whether it was what they really wanted or them giving into societal pressures. But I did that more so when I was younger and so were the people in question. That said, I’ll stand by the idea that settling down is something best put off till a bit later in life since many of my friends who did when they were young are now in their 30’s and frequently talk of how they wished they had traveled when they had the chance.

And while I don’t think that just because a person has not traveled they haven’t lived – you’re alive anywhere you are so long as you’re breathing – I believe more firmly than anything else in this world that travel is one of the very best ways to live a full, meaningful and rewarding life. What else can be said for the fact that the personal lessons I’ve learned from travel all touch on the five most widely shared regrets people have while on their death beds, and that I’ve never met anyone who’s traveled and regretted it.

So yeah, I can understand how everything on Sonja’s list can be viewed as a form of snobbishness. I also agree people need to hold off from judging each other and the way other people live their lives. But what makes it so difficult for some of us who have traveled a lot to not have strong opinions is the fact that in many cases we’ve lived both sides of the debate. We’ve read the book, know it’s great and know it has a life changing, life improving message that everyone is effortlessly able to pick up on- if they would just take the time to read it!

However, this is when we have to remember that not everyone has the time, resources, health or even interest to do it. Some have responsibilities and obligations that keep them from it. Some are just too set in their ways to see the benefits. Some are scared and intimidated because they haven’t had anyone to inspire them or help them develop a curiosity about the world. In short, I think it comes back to the first two lines of the Great Gatsby, “’Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

So, it’s not that I think I’m better than anyone else, I’ve just had some amazing opportunities, which have allowed me to experience more than just one way of life, one way of viewing things, one way of thinking about…well, nearly everything, and it has allowed me to avoid some of the pitfalls of life many Westerns get caught up in. However, admitting this runs counter to America’s prolonged bought of anti-intellectualism. Because in America, I’m supposed to sit around, after having traveled all this time to all these places, and act like I don’t have a better informed opinion or understanding of the world or travel or what can make for a fulfilling life than someone who has never left their hometown or their international resort’s lobby.

Twain was a travel snob, too.
Twain was a travel snob, too.

In my mind, there are two ways to be considered a snob: One is to just be a huge prick and an insufferable know-it-all who gives out unsolicited advice all the time, the other is to actually know what you’re talking about because you genuinely have a deeper understanding of a subject than most people and can spot issues and solutions others don’t even know exist. I like to think I fall into the latter category. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that too much of my identity is caught up in travel, but that’s also where my passion lies, so I can’t apologize for it. I’ll also say one of the most important things I’ve learned from traveling is that there are more ways to live life than I could ever conceive of and all have value and offer unique perspectives and insight, and there are many ways to travel and all can be worthwhile. However, as someone who has encountered and experienced more than my fair share of both, I can’t pretend that I haven’t figured out a few tips and tricks to getting the most out of both along the way. Travel has at the same time expanded my mind in countless ways and solidified it on a few things, and I can see where both sometimes makes me come off as a snob.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

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