Not a Tourist

Tom Swick: On the evolving role of the travel writer in the age of mass tourism and YouTube

Row 24, seats A, B, and C.

The young woman by the window turns to the man in the middle and smiles. He smoothes her hair and tells her she is going to love his city. Not even off the ground, and they have already created a private lair in the still-upright theater of coach.

The man in the aisle seat immediately experiences feelings of exclusion, envy, and inadequacy. Travel, most people believe, is best when shared—an attitude that makes the solitary traveler one of life’s losers.

Just in time, the man in the aisle seat reminds himself that he is not a loser. He is a travel writer. He will not be engaged in the superficial pursuits of tourists but in the difficult task of trying to make sense of an alien culture. He looks over somewhat pityingly at the couple now discussing an evening trip to the casino.

Once the plane is airborne, he glances across the aisle at the woman sitting with an open laptop. He overhears her tell her neighbor that she is a public health expert going to fight malaria. She would present an affront to a businessman’s sense of importance. The travel writer leans back with a grimace, caught in the eternal no-man’s land between pleasure and purpose.

The travel writer, when thought of at all, is regarded as a charmed figure, never stymied in front of a customs officer or a computer screen. The travel writer, when he reflects, sees himself as aimless, clueless but nevertheless underappreciated.

He picks a destination, or is assigned one, and often it’s a place he’s never been. Before departure he reads travel books, history books, relevant novels—even learns a few words of the language—but he remains hopelessly behind the humbling crowds of specialists, anthropologists, diplomats, field workers, exchange students, business travelers, expatriates, flight crews, and repeat vacationers who have preceded him.

So he scrunches into seat 24C, furiously skimming the guidebook he didn’t quite get to during his pre-trip preparations. A long flight is an opportunity to cram, a seat-belted all-nighter. There will be a test in the morning.

After the landing, the lovebirds and the do-gooder and all the other passengers disappear in a rush to restart their lives, and the strangeness of the travel writer’s surroundings distracts him from the fact that he doesn’t have one. At least not here, not yet.

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