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Respect the Tourists

March 28, 2012

I did some disgraceful things to tourists when I was young. I told them Hala plants were pineapple trees. I gave them bad directions. And once – under the influence of someone who didn’t become a long-term friend – I threw water balloons at passing tourist cars.

This is not a pineapple tree.

It’s scary to think how badly we could have hurt someone if any of our water bombs had actually connected. It’s embarrassing to think of the hassles I caused and the lies I told, even if they were to complete strangers I’ll never see again. But above all what has stuck with me is shame at the prejudice I showed in limiting my wrongdoing to tourists.

It reminds me of the conversation my father had with the matriarch of a local family in the neighborhood we’d moved into. ‘When it comes down to it,’ he said, ‘we’re all immigrants.’ To which she smiled and responded, ‘Yes, but we got here first.’

By vilifying tourists I was simply extending that way of thinking… with myself on the righteous side of the line. Since I was born in Hawaii I felt I had more right to be there than the hordes of visiting mainlanders. It’s taken half my lifetime to recognize that those same tourists had something I lacked. That living somewhere desirable didn’t make me special. I had to become a tourist to learn this lesson.

Some years ago I went on a surf trip to Mexico. I’d purchased a copy of The Lonely Planet travel guide and had six years of classroom Spanish under my belt. I felt well prepared, but the reality of traveling was something else altogether. It quickly became apparent that The Lonely Planet would only direct me to resorts and restaurants which supported its publication – it wouldn’t take me off the beaten path. A travel guide – by definition – can only show you pre-blazed trails. And on the rare occasions when a secret spot is revealed it quickly turns into the beaten path and is invariably ruined (you know who you are).

The best spots we found on the Mexico trip came by asking directions. And I’m glad to say that nobody led us astray, even though I sounded like a gringo every time I opened my mouth. We did find staples in our ceviche (twice) and a little kid shot a rock at us with his slingshot. He actually broke a hole in the ultra-thin plastic of our rental car, and was probably feeling something very similar to what I felt when I threw those water balloons.

But that’s not the lesson I learned – you don’t have to leave the country to practice the golden rule. I learned how hard it can be to step out of your comfort zone and experience a different way of life. That’s what every tourist I scorned as a child had that I lacked. They’d traveled.

As an experiment, substitute the word tourist with traveler and see if you feel any different. ‘This traveler flagged me down and asked for directions yesterday…’ Of course the words aren’t entirely synonymous, especially in their connotations: a traveler tries to blend with the locals while a tourist remains aloof, staying in a hotel and driving a rental car.

Let me ask you this: where else would seven million (plus) travelers a year stay while in the Hawaiian Islands? How can we blame them for staying in hotels and renting cars when that’s the system provided? I’m not going to preach about the economic need for tourism. I’m not trying to convince you to take them into your home. What I am urging is for you to become a tourist yourself. Get outside your comfort zone. Go somewhere – the farther the better. See how people live in a different part of the world.

I guarantee it will change your life. Even if it only gives you appreciation for what you have, that’s enough. If you gain some appreciation for the tribulations of traveling, that’s good too. And if it spurs you to re-examine your own lifestyle, all the better.

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