Guest Post — Tourist/Non-Tourist

Dearest fellow travelers, it gives me great pleasure to introduce a guest post from Sessily Watt, a good friend and fellow K alum. A few weeks ago, she and I were discussing the comments on the Great Expectations post, and about what it means to live in a different country rather than simply visit it for a short time. Sessily is a writer living in Chicago, and her post reflects on her time spent living in Ecuador in 2005. Enjoy!


We were standing on a sidewalk between several medical buildings, in the middle of a tour of a small hospital in Ecuador, when the woman approached us. (Or maybe she was our guide through the buildings, and it was at this point that she asked us about who we were. Time has passed. The memories have shifted.) After a flurry of conversation she was under the impression that some or all of us were medical students, and offered for us to come and observe a birth that was happening at that very moment. She led us back through the buildings to the doorway to the delivery room, where it became clear that observing a birth meant all ten of us (nine students and one of our program directors) crowding into the delivery room and its doorway. Four of us had already felt uncomfortable as we approached the room, and our discomfort increased. We waited a moment, but it was soon clear the rest were planning to stay and watch, so we left them there, walked out of the building, through the waiting area where the pregnant woman’s family was waiting, out the front door to a set of benches in front of the building. We sat down.

Out on the benches, we were split again by the cause of our discomfort. Two, male, were personally uncomfortable with watching a woman give birth. Two, female, were uncomfortable that we had been welcomed into that room without permission being asked or granted from the woman who was lying on that table with her legs spread. Our fellow students were back in that room, with their cameras out. We waited.

The nine of us had been together in Ecuador for five months at this point. One of our program directors, who was with us that day, had led us on three previous trips as a group. We had already passed through that stretch of time where we got on each other’s nerves, and now we were a more or less cohesive group. The people who chose to stay in that delivery room and watch the birth were (and are) perfectly nice, lovely people. I enjoyed traveling with them. But I judged them for staying in that room.

Traveling, especially as a tourist to another country, can lead to a sense of entitlement to see anything and everything. In my opinion, the people who stayed in that room were acting out that entitlement. They weren’t medical students. Their presence served no purpose for the woman lying on the table. They were simply there to see what it was like. (In the case of at least two people, who have since gone on to medical school, I can see how this experience was edifying. And, who knows, maybe in some way it will prompt them into actions that improve the delivery of medicine, etc etc, but those benefits move us further and further away from that woman on the table who was not helped by them and who did not give her consent for them to be there.)

A study abroad program like the one in Ecuador is designed to encourage students to take part in society as if they aren’t tourists: we lived with host families, attended an Ecuadorian university, and ended the program with an internship/volunteer position in an Ecuadorian organization. One would hope these experiences would lessen that feeling of entitlement to see everything. To a certain extent, we lived in Ecuador for six and a half months, rather than traveling there. Especially during my last month in the country, volunteering at an organization where I worked with Ecuadorians, Germans, and French, I felt like I had found a niche for myself. I woke up in the morning, rode the bus for eight stops, picked up a copy of El Comercio from the newsstand, and walked three blocks to the corner building where the organization had a series of rooms on the second floor. Sometimes I went to lunch with my coworkers, sometimes I walked to a sandwich place that was nearby. My coworkers and I tutored kids in the afternoon. Some afternoons I was bored, others I was outraged, or sad, or content. In the evening, I visited with my host family for a little while before I went to bed. Some nights I went out. By living in Ecuador I learned that I enjoy large cities, can’t imagine living without public transportation (though I grew up in a small town without it), and when I’ve moved to a new place I feel anxious about leaving home until I get out and walk around, take a bus or two, and maybe get lost. Without living in Ecuador, I may never have considered moving to Chicago.

La Casa Amigos, where I volunteered during my last month in Ecuador

But no matter how well designed, a study abroad program couldn’t make us Ecuadorian, and the trappings and support of the program at times increased the feeling of being a tourist. When we went on the program-designed trips, we traveled in our own bus, a little bubble of pirated American movies and Seinfeld episodes. There were always nine of us to compare to all of them, emphasizing our differences. Like any other tourist, we were there to see the country, to experience those cultural differences we heard about in our pre-trip lectures. Perhaps even to “broaden our horizons.” Yes, there are real benefits to exposing ourselves to differences–not to mention that it can be a lot of fun–but that focus on cultural differences, in combination with other factors, leads to forgetting that those people aren’t there to open themselves up for us to examine.

the bus we traveled around in for our program trips

Every traveler has a different line they draw in how far they will go to experience it all. The other students in my program didn’t feel uncomfortable with their experience in the delivery room. The doctors were fine with their presence. The woman supposedly thanked them after it was all done (cynically, I ask, “Did she even know why they were there?”). As a very private person, I imagine that my line comes much earlier than others. By not staying in that room, I may have missed out on an amazing experience. I’m willing to imagine there are other instances where, if I had been willing to press a little harder, to dig in a little more, I might have had other theoretically amazing experiences. But.

I traveled by myself once while I was in Ecuador, right at the end of my time there. Throughout that trip, I often felt different from the people I was with, and like I didn’t belong. But it was during that trip I felt the least like a tourist. I wasn’t there to see the sites. I wasn’t there to see what life was like in this coastal city. I was there to visit a specific person, because I thought I would regret it if I didn’t visit her. It was in those moments when I was living my life and just happened to be in a country different from the one I grew up in–traveling by myself, volunteering–that I felt like I had the clearest glimpses of Ecuador.

Great Expectations

And now, dearest fellow travelers, for the flip side of the coin. Last week I talked about how great it is when you go somewhere new and it’s better than expected. I didn’t mean that I go to new places not expecting to like them, but that I sometimes have to overcome some preconceptions to really appreciate them. Also, when you’re visiting a city for the first time, it’s hardly unusual to feel some trepidation at what you might find there, and the nervousness mixes up with the excitement until you have a little knot of energy in your stomach, making you kind of nauseated and kind of buzzed at the same time.

At least, this is what I experience when I’m visiting a new place, and I feel this regardless of whether I’m visiting for a few days or staying for several months. When I physically approach a place that I’ve previously only known through pictures, guidebooks, and secondhand stories, my whole body vibrates with the sensation of moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar and also from the unfamiliar to the familiar — from my home to a new place, but also from not being personally connected to this place to being bodily in and of it. I love that feeling of being on the edge of knowing the unknowable, of reaching out to touch the as-yet-nonexistent with your fingertips, crossing over from plans of the future to realities of the present. This is one of the biggest thrills of travel, and I have yet to tire of it.

Some people, however, freak out at the whole idea. My junior year of college, I lived in Rome for 5 months and studied classical history, archeology, and Renaissance art. I approached those months with a jumble of feelings, but the overriding emotion was excitement. I couldn’t believe I was living in this place, which was simultaneously a living monument to history and a bustling modern city. My roommates, on the other hand, couldn’t believe they were living in this dirty, noisy, badly run city, and they commented on it almost daily.

The Pantheon in Rome, Italy

K College has several very good study abroad programs, but Rome is not one of them. They don’t run it; it’s farmed out to the American University in Rome, which is kept busy bringing in students from a lot of different schools. The 16 of us from K got lost in the shuffle — we lived with each other in small apartments, we didn’t speak any Italian, and we had no class trips or on-site director (unlike programs in most other countries). So we weren’t a cohesive unit by any means, but still, we were all there because we were in the Classics department back home, so that was a kind of place to start.

But it was apparent in the first week alone that I had a very different idea about living in Rome than my roommates did. The five of us weren’t friends before living together, and I don’t think any of us went home very close, so on top of the stress of starting a new school and living in a new country thousands of miles from home, we all added the stress of living in close quarters with virtual strangers. At first, it was like freshman year all over again; we’d go places in groups with the other K kids, who were rooming together in various combinations, and we’d stay up late talking and drinking cheap wine (the difference from freshman year — cheap here meant literally one or two euros). Conversation ranged from the people we’d left behind to the professors and students we were just coming to know, from assignments on ancient sculptures to how to ask for chicken at the supermarket. But somehow conversation always morphed into complaints. I was astonished to learn that my roommates and fellow students of the arts thought Rome was a pit.

They complained about how dirty it was, with graffiti all along the walls of the city and dog poop up and down its sidewalks. They whined about how noisy it was, with nonstop traffic (we lived just up the street from a hospital and became very familiar with the yowl of the Italian ambulance) and inefficient buses. And the buses! Don’t get them started on the buses. They were never on time, they didn’t seem to follow any reliable route, and you practically had to flag them down like a taxi just to get a ride. The people were unfriendly, the clothes were expensive, the streets were labyrinthine, the monuments were rundown, the food wasn’t as good as the Italian places back home… It went on and on and on.

I discovered potato and rosemary pizza when in Rome, and I'm a better person for it (doesn't seem to actually be pictured here, but these Roman style pizzas are also as good as they look)

Why on earth did they go to Rome in the first place? I’m still not entirely sure on that one. When I asked them, they said they wanted to go on study abroad like the rest of our school did, and they thought Rome would be cooler than it turned out to be. Each of them admitted to not really enjoying cities. Did they think Rome was a small, quaint town? It’s been a massive city teeming with life for literally thousands of years.

It seems that their expectations for Rome weren’t founded in fact or forethought, but rather in a vague idea of European cosmopolitanism and romantic stories of blissful honeymoons. This is the key — plan ahead! Now, before you accuse me of being a list maker and not a risk taker, let me say that yes, I tend towards that way, and it does irk me (but that’s a topic for another post). What I mean is that even if you don’t like to laminate an itinerary before heading out on your travels, you should at least do some preliminary research so you have a basic understanding of the place you’re going and the people who live there. I love hearing stories from fellow travelers, but I am always aware that we’re different people with different tastes, and their idea of fun people or good food is possibly not at all the same as mine. I’ll note down the restaurant and sightseeing recommendations and keep them in mind as possibilities, but not must-sees. Guidebooks, too, are written by people with individual tastes, budgets, and travel companions, but at least I can get an idea of the lay of the land and its history. From these, too, I get possibilities. Guidebooks, friends, blog posts, travel sites, library books, maps — I gather it all up and sort through it for my own interests, then head out to the unknown with at least these knowns in reserve.

I do think that you can have a different approach here for simply visiting a place for a few days. When P and I went to Memphis, we knew we were going to Graceland but we didn’t know anything about Beale Street, and we ended up at an all-ages bar watching a riotous rockabilly act. It was even more fun for being something I didn’t know ahead of time, and then we moved on. But if you’re going to be living in a place for more than a couple weeks, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t prepare yourself as best you can for the customs and people of the place you’ll be living.

This is not to say that I adjusted perfectly well and knew all about every Italian custom before moving there — not at all. In fact, the negativity of my roommates really affected me and I found myself in a weekslong funk, simultaneously resenting every nuance in culture between Italy and the States as well as my roommates for pointing out those nuances every damn day. But I did get out of that funk, and managed to make the best of a bad living situation, and it was actually thanks to those very same roommates.

The Italians take siesta, as do all Mediterranean countries, and in Rome, any time between 1 and 4, shops, offices, and restaurants close for a couple hours as all the workers take a nap from the midday sun. It’s a surreal experience, as an American, to walk down an empty street at 2 in the afternoon, passing shuttered shop after shuttered shop. And then at 4 or 5 they’re all back open for business for another couple hours. My roommates complained about this custom; when were they going to go to the grocery store? What if they got hungry? When were they going to buy school supplies? Why did the whole city have to shut down?

I fell into siesta quite easily; what is there to dislike about citywide naptime? The day I realized I could reclaim my own expectations of living in Rome and reject these false ones my roommates had, it was about 1:30pm and I heard the complaints drifting in from the living room as I climbed into bed. I pulled the covers over my head and thought, “Damn, if there is any time for this phrase, it is now: WHEN IN ROME. Good night!”

an approximation of my cot bed in Rome

P.S. Get excited! Comments on last week’s post about the difference between visiting a place and living there inspired this post, and also a forthcoming guest post from my friend S. Witness the power of your I’m-procrastinating-at-work-so-I’ll-comment-on-Lisa’s-blog energies!