Tourist or Traveler?

Peru Machu PicchuAfter a significant hiatus from writing, perhaps the best excuse I can offer is that … “I was traveling.” Some literally, some metaphorically, for what is life but a journey?

On that note, I have observed that most people, whether on a holiday journey or life journey, adopt one of two roles: tourist or traveler. (I don’t, of course, mean to suggest that only these binary states exist with nothing in-between, but for the sake of exposition and discourse, let’s move with that assumption for a moment.)

As a tourist, one is primarily focused on the destination, on “getting somewhere.” Milestones are mapped out: the Major Museum, the Ancient Monument, the Best Restaurant, the Famous Lake, the Tallest Mountain. The time in between getting to these wonderful places is an interval to recuperate from the last destination, and then plan and set out for the next; thus there is a sense of alternating highs and lows. Total time at a Major Destination is sub-divided into several of these important Mini-Destinations, and it is ensured that one makes it to all or most of these, or the trip may not be deemed as successful. Thus, there is a sense of urgency, and also a definition of success or a “good time” associated with this type of venture.

As a traveler, one is primarily focused on the journey: on “where I am now.” There are points of arrival in the sequence that one notices with pleasure and joy, but no distinct destinations. One does not have to get anywhere but just here, where one already is. An inner compass of “what do I feel like now?” guides the journey, without map or timetable, but nevertheless, an innate and wonderful sense of timing. The Major Museum, the Ancient Monument, the Best Restaurant, the Famous Lake and the Tallest Mountain may or may not come by, and if they do, they are noticed, appreciated and celebrated. Also come along the humble shack, the tiny bug, the elaborate flower, the messy cloud, and the unexpected river. Weaving in and out of things expected and unexpected, the senses are heightened to experience everything. There are no good or bad associations, no important or unimportant things, no hard-lined definitions of success: every moment is experienced as equally precious and every find as equally miraculous.

It is easy to see how physical journeying is a great metaphor for life itself. In life too, we can be tourists or we can be travelers. In life too, it is easy to get caught up in destinations, with the times in between becoming instruments to plot the next this or that. Whether you’re learning a new skill or picking up a new language, dating (or married, for that matter), working in a job, practising music, deepening your yoga practice … it’s easy to become preoccupied with the milestones (and major destinations), instead of enjoying the journey itself. Just last night I was in a Vinyasa Yoga class (as part of a 10-day commitment to do yoga daily as a rejuvenating gift to myself during this holiday season, after a hectic Fall). I was struggling to get into a difficult asana, beginning to get slightly annoyed and disappointed at my “failure,” when I heard the instructor’s voice saying, “It’s easy to forget what you’re really doing here: you are breathing. You’re busy being alive.” What a great reminder to nudge me gently back into the journey!

From what little I understand about the experience of parenthood, it seems to me that a little life that changes in miraculous ways every single moment, is a powerful reminder to be a traveler instead of a tourist. But then, once the little one moves from being the tiny miracle into a kid, a pre-teen, a teen and then an adult, that sense of miraculousness is apt to fade; and as if without our awareness, transform into a schedule: middle school, high school, driver’s license, college, job, marriage … and the precious moments in between can be lost. What would happen if the journey became the destination?

Perhaps the highest and best way to challenge oneself to be a traveler,  is to truly love. To love is such a simple thing, such a deep thing, such a natural thing, such a universal thing … yet how difficult it is to really do without focusing on milestones and destinations! Just this morning I read a quote by Mother of Pondicherry, India, which said it perfectly:

 “At first, one loves only when one is loved.
   Next, one loves spontaneously, but one wants to be loved in return. 
   Then one loves even if one is not loved, but one still wants one’s love to be accepted.
   And finally one loves purely and simply, without any other need or joy than that of loving

I used to be a tourist, both on holidays and in life… and in love. The next degree, the next job, the next move, the next recognition … and all the mapping, planning and organizing in-between – I had simply excelled at that! But the room to grow in unexpected directions, welcome the serendipitous, and discover alternative paths became so narrow,  it eventually became claustrophobic. When one contemplates (with a wry smile), the ultimate destination as we know it in flesh-and-blood, it becomes clear that focusing on destinations doesn’t get us anywhere. (Ah, the oxymoron!) Now I try to be a traveler, both in my physical journeys and in life, harnessing the Power of Now. Every time I become preoccupied by a milestone, I celebrate it nonetheless, and then return to the path of simply being in the journey. My best teacher in this regard has been to literally travel – whether trekking to Machu Pichu in Peru, hiking in Bryce and Zion canyons, or driving the Pacific Coast Highway 101 (see: Cruising on the Road of Life), I have witnessed that looking ahead 200 feet at a time is all the planning that is required, and the rest is set by intention and grace.

As we turn into the 10th year of the new millennium, each of us has an opportunity to set intentions for the next decade of life: for parenthood, social and environmental entrepreneurship, global citizenship.

Are you a tourist or a traveler? Which would you like to be?

Peru 019_alt

Saqsaywaman, Cusco, Peru, Dec 2007

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    Welcome back. I love this post. It fits my mood as I contemplate getting back to work full time – a destination in itself. Its almost as if I dont want to get there. Because I will miss so many of the little things I enjoy with my kids. Take my baby, for example. Today he rummaged through my cabinet and picked out a small steel glass which makes a jangling sound. He brought it over to me and I filled it with water. He took a sip. Then, so great was his excitement at having communicated this simple thing, that he ran around the kitchen island 3 times. One more sip, three more laps. And so on. Its almost as if to reach the destination, I will have to give up the joy of traveling.

  2. Anonymous

    I dont think one is better than the other. In one you get to see really great destinations which you wouldnt otherwise. These places open your mind and heart and eyes. If you are too happy with where you are you dont get to all these places.

  3. Tana

    Thanks for posting your thoughts, Khushi and Anonymous! It is great to have your varied perspectives.

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