Checkbox Traveler To Immersive Traveler

When I first went on a backpacking trip, I was as skittish as a new horse.

I was afraid of everything and everyone. I didn’t speak to that many strangers, because I was always afraid of being ripped off, or being scammed, or being kidnapped. I was always worried about money so I took the cheapest buses or trains everywhere, walked as much as possible, avoided taxis like the plague, and ate only at street food stalls.

I also spent a lot of time at the tourist attractions, because I was involved in what my sister calls ‘Checkbox Travel’, which I think is an apt way to describe the way I traveled back then. I had to see the sights, and the only reason I was travelling was to check off as many places off my list as possible. I wanted to get it all done. I have no idea why. It wasn’t to brag back home, because I never shared that travel experience on social media, and never spoke about my travels with anyone.

It was this internal drive — I guess, I was running away from myself. But I didn’t just want to run, I wanted to do something while I ran. I wanted to feel like I was accomplishing something while I ran. So, I checked off countries, places, and sights.

Like an egomaniac, I didn’t care about anything or anyone else. All I wanted to do was see the sights, and move on to the next place.

I was travel-hungry.

I see this phenomenon in a lot of people I meet while travelling now. They are rushing from place to place. I saw it recently in a circular train I was in, in Yangon. The point of going on the circular train wasn’t to see the sights, and immerse ourselves in the commuter culture of the city. But to check it off our list. So, most of the time was spent in looking at the map and seeing how many stations we had left. Or taking pictures of the locals. Besides that, the tourists didn’t pay any attention, true attention, to what was going on around them. It wasn’t about observing, but checking off.

Quite interesting. Were they truly there? I don’t think so. If we asked them what they remember of the 3-hour journey afterwards, what would they say?

The travel I do now as a digital nomad is not travel, although we do go to different places in the world. We live in these places for a few months at a time, integrating ourselves as best as possible and then moving onward to another place. For the moment, I’m in Chiang Mai. I have had the privilege of roaming around some of the countries nearby Thailand, and so whilst I am kind of based in Thailand, I can roam around as a backpacker of sorts as well. It is an interesting combination of travel. I get to see both ends.

It is hard not to let my ego come in the way of this though. When I am in Chiang Mai, I must stop myself from sneering at the backpackers who are there for 2 days, and don’t understand the digital nomads’ fascination with the place.

Or when I am on my 2 week vacations through some other country, and I tell myself what I do, I get the same response every single time — Oh my god, you are living my dream life. I must remember to bite my tongue and not tell them, how the dream is always different from reality and most people wouldn’t be able to stomach the Digital Nomad (DN) lifestyle for more than a few months. I have seen people start complaining about missing Taco Bell and IPAs a month into their journey. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of their DN lifestyle.

I have been noticing a difference also in the way I travel now as opposed to earlier. Perhaps, I have more money now? Or I have need of more luxuries? Or I’m just older?

Whatever it is, I stay in fancier hostels or hotels, I eat at a mix of nice restaurants, and street food stalls, I take the occasional taxi to supplement all the walking I do, I have taken a few comfortable air-conditioned buses if the journey is especially long (to give my knees a break), and I don’t care much about the sights.

The last one is the biggest difference in my opinion. Whilst people are salivating at the mouth to check off yet another national monument off their list, or another bucket list item, I am just interested in sitting down at local markets, sipping tea, and observing how the locals live. I am more interested in walking around and chatting with anyone who speaks English than carrying a damn Lonely Planet travel book with me. I’m also lazy and those travel guides weigh a freaking ton. I realize this fact more and more when people are telling me to go here and there and everywhere, and I am thinking to myself, I am going to go to the market, eat a lot of street food, and sit and watch the world go by me. That’s where I will be at, if you want to find me. Not at the greatest and latest national monument.

Am I missing out?

Missing out from what? People take hundreds of pictures of their travels while they are out. Do they ever look at those pictures? Our memories transform and transmute as we grow older, so that we can’t ever tell how true our memories are.

Do you know what’s real and what’s imaginary anymore? I don’t. So, I don’t worry about the past. I just worry about what I want to do.

What I want to do is eat a lot of local food, and people-watch. I learn so much about the culture of a country from these two activities. It is also immensely fun for me. Trudging around monuments with a hundred other tourists, paying overpriced tour guides, or entrance fees, sweltering in the sun and heat, does not sound like my cup of tea at all. Not even a little bit.

Doesn’t mean, my way is right and your way is wrong. I think it’s different perspectives. I think I had to go through checkbox travel in my younger years to get to where I am right now. It was important.

Everything is just a continuum. You might be at the beginning of this continuum, and I might be in the middle. Perhaps, I’ll learn a different way of travelling a few years from now, when I’ll be more of an expert. Who knows.

Until then, you will find me at the local farmer’s markets, or crafts markets, sipping on some hot or cold drink, and watching. Sounds creepy? I promise you I try not to be. Until we meet the next time, Mingalabar (hello/goodbye in Burmese).

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