One afternoon last winter, my brother pushed back from his desk, quit his job of many years, threw his belongings in storage and set out for Southeast Asia. For nearly a year he roamed wild and free. He dived with orgying squid in Malaysia. Giant blue butterflies kamikaze’d themselves against his face as he motorcycled through Laos. He ate porcupine. He ate porcupine brain.
Last week he returned to the States at last. His first night home, we stood in my kitchen as he told of his travels – and of the fellow travelers he encountered. That second group was often as interesting as the first. Indeed, within the world of travelers, he’d come to notice two distinct camps: the “length” group and the “width” group.
The length crowd brags about how long they’ve been in a given place. What, you’ve only been in Laos two weeks? They’ve been there eighteen months. What, you have to get back to America for work? They rigged this grass hut with wifi, so they can stay even longer. Frequently accompanying these boasts are disquisitions on how a person can live on $4 a day, the better to stretch out their savings. You spent an extravagant $6 on dinner? They found some discount porcupine brain for a fraction of that.
The width crowd, for its part, brags about how broadly it has penetrated a culture. These travelers log miles. Have they been to Burma? Of course, before it was hip to do so. Panang? Duh. The hidden parts of Panang? Duh. Have they walked from Singapore to Bangkok? Of course. You haven’t?
Nothing wrong with long or wide on their own, of course. But there was something unsavory in the fervor my brother sometimes encountered. Why this need to prove one’s infiltration of a place? It seems to emanate from a simple and vaguely adolescent fear of being a shallow tourist. We all know that feeling, even those of us who take lesser, non-job-quitting trips. You step off the plane and instantly warp back in high school, and that need to appear worldly and knowledgeable.
To the widest and longest among us, I would just ask: Aren’t we traveling so that we may become worldly and knowledgeable?
I’ve decided I’m going narrow and short on my next trip, and nobody can stop me. (Or maybe they can? Like I said, I’m not knowledgeable.)
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. See his work at www.chriscolin.com.