Tourist for a day

30th Mar 2013

When I was 10 my parents took my brother, sister and I to Benidorm.  It was our first trip abroad and it was a very big deal.  We had a brilliant time but no one could claim we more than scratched the surface of Spanish culture.  The hotel was a faceless grey tower block serving English food, we ate lunches in a cafe run by an ex-pat Brit and my parents took us for lemonade in an 'English' pub after our days at the beach.  Our one nod towards Spanish life was an evening spent at a 'theme night' organised by the hotel.  Paella and sangria were served while dancers performed a tired 'traditional' routine between the tables.  I never remember thinking we were tourists though.
We had a few more similar trips and I loved them all but in the fullness of time climbing took over and my friends and I spread our wings and headed to the Alps.  We didn't learn much about different cultures there either.  We slept in woodland with other English climbers and bought food at the local supermarket.  All we really learnt was that camembert and baguettes made good bivvy food, French queueing bore no resemblance to the ordered lines we were used to at home and French guides happily clipped into (and sometimes unclipped!) our gear before climbing past without asking.  But I still never thought of us as tourists - we were climbers!
My travels eventually took me much further afield and my perceptions of travel slowly changed.  I started to search out the markets or restaurants where the locals shopped and ate, deliberately stopped to have conversations with villagers on the street or in local bars, took the time to read more about the history and culture of places I was visiting and sat in small cafes to watch the life of the place go by.  The difference by this stage in my travels was that I had no doubt I was a tourist, but I still managed to convince myself I was a different 'type' of tourist!
In recent years my work has opened many doors offering snapshots into the lives of others.  As an expedition leader I've been able to visit sleepy tribal villages, share dinner with the headman, play games with the children or work alongside local craftsmen as we construct a school building or meeting hall.  I've joined the villagers at wedding celebrations and patched up the blistered legs of a scolded baby.  
My work has opened many doors and I value every opportunity, but nowadays I have no doubt that I am a tourist in the same way any visitor to a different community is a tourist.  My village (Castleton) is the tourist honeypot of the Peak District National Park.  In conversations with other villagers we just distinguish between tourists and Peak District residents.  Some of those 'tourists' will have travelled from Australia while others have only journeyed the 30 minute drive from Sheffield.  They are all very welcome but it doesn't affect how they are categorised.
My recent visit to Peru has felt different.  I have been delivering training to Peruvian trekking guides from Cusco, Huaraz and Arequipa.  We were based initially in Cusco for some classroom based sessions then had a few days delivering practical training in the mountains near Huaran.  I was worried about delivering training in English to Spanish speakers but needn't have.  The guides English put my pathetic grasp of Spanish to shame.  I was worried that they would consider the topics covered irrelevant but needn't have because they were enthused by it all.  But, mostly, I was worried how it would appear for us to try and impose our own vision of guiding on to some highly qualified and experienced people who'd been in the job far longer than me and operated within a very different cultural sphere.  Again it just never seemed like that once we got started.  We asked what they wanted and then formulated our plan around that.  There was stuff we needed to share and there was other stuff we tailored to their needs.  It was a great success.  We shared some ideas and learnt a lot too.  Most importantly, we had a lot of laughs along the way.
What I also learned was that there are a lot of similarities no matter where in the world you are.  The only organisational problem cropped up during our time at our base in the mountains.  Over lunch (we soon learnt lunches are a leisurely affair in Peru!) the guides explained that in the evening Peru were playing Chile in the World Cup qualifiers.  This was clearly a very important match for them.   We had no problem finishing the evening session a little early if they could source a TV.  It didn't take long. A few phone calls and a TV arrived.  Soon it was set up with a makeshift aerial and seats arranged in an arc.  I wouldn't normally be at all bothered by who won a game between these nations but, as we sat and watched, I really hoped Peru could pull something out of the bag.  Chile dominated the first half but it remained goal less.  In the second half Peru came to life and, with only 7 minutes of the game left, poked the ball into the corner.  The room erupted and I knew a good last training day was guaranteed!
The training course gave me a constructive reason to be in Peru and I felt far less of a tourist than usual.  I got to spend time with people that had a similar outlook to my own.  I got to eat around their table and share stories of life in the mountains.  I got to see how the guides worked and offer some ideas based on the UK model.  I wasn't really a tourist this time.  The course ended sooner than I'd have liked and, after a great celebration meal, we said our goodbyes.  I really hope to catch up with some of them again.
There was one spare day in Cusco before I started the long journey home.  No question.  Time for some unadulterated tourism.  Machu Pichu is a place I'd always wanted to visit and it can just about be done in a day from Cusco.  My fellow tourists and I were herded from long bus journey to longer train journey and back to yet another bus but it was worth every cattle like minute.  Sometimes being a tourist isn't bad after all!
Posted by Paul