Am I really the only antisocial traveller around?
I can still remember her name. Ena. From Ireland. She was the sort of girl who had the enviable charm of being at ease with everyone she came across. Ena certainly wasn’t an antisocial traveller. The confines of the rickety chicken bus made friendly chatter amongst passengers inevitable, and thanks to it being Independence Day in Guatemala, we were taking a rather long detour on our way to the markets of Chichicastenango. Two hours later we felt like we had known Ena for weeks. As mountains of quetzal-embroidered ponchos and woolly hats festooned with llamas heralded our arrival, it became apparent our new friend was expecting to tag along with hubbie and I on our day at the market.
Now it wasn’t that we didn’t like her company. On the contrary I admired her courage at travelling solo around Central America, and although I was secretly jealous that she managed to pull off the local headscarf look rather better than me, I thought she was a lovely lass. It’s just that we’re not keen on unanticipated company. Hubbie and I are unashamed antisocial travellers.
So we abandoned her.
She popped into a camera shop and by the time she came out we were gone, lost in the bustle of colour and incense and chickens. To this day I feel terribly guilty about sneaking off, and although she probably didn’t even blink an eye at our behaviour, I wish I could go back and apologise. Sorry Ena.
The Social Code of Travellers
There seems to be an unspoken rule that as travellers we should relish the idea of meeting new people, spending quality time with strangers and getting down to some communal dining. Stepping boldly outside that box, hubbie and I are unashamed anti-social travellers, and feel frustrated at being made to feel like our approach to travel is wrong. We travel to experience the land, not to increase our social circles. Is that really so bad?
So what is this unspoken code?
Rule 1 – Communal dining
Guests will embrace the opportunity to mingle with others over canapés, dinner and a couple of bottles of wine.
The hosts will ensure there is at least one suave Belgian in a cravat, an awfully well-to-do family from the English home counties, an ex-special forces chap with a chip on his shoulder from Zambia, and an overly-flamboyant artist of uncertain sexual orientation from Scandinavia. All the ingredients for a good murder mystery evening. Except for the 2 terrified British travellers trying to hide behind their soup bowls at the end of the table. During the evening guests will discuss politics, religion and sex, making the unfortunate Brits feel ignorant and uncomfortable in equal measures.
Survival tactic: learn how to eat quickly or brush up on current affairs before you travel. Get in character and be whoever you want to be for the evening. Have a bit of fun with it (but just remember your storyline or there could be repercussions at breakfast!).
Rule 2 – Group tours
Tour participants will find their experience enhanced by sharing it with strangers, and will really appreciate the constant chatter and close physical confinement often involved.
On land, participants must walk slowly, befriend every single stray dog they encounter and talk loudly so that any semblance of tranquillity is shattered. They should ask questions so dumb that the other guests will be embarrassed to be classed as part of the same group. If possible, guests should throw in a few mildly offensive comments regarding how civilised the area is, and thrust their cameras in the faces of locals without asking for photo permissions.
On boats, guests should adhere to a regimental schedule and leave all misconceptions of being an individual back on shore. The crew will ensure that there is a least one chronically sea-sick guy who likes to discuss his bowel movements at meal times, as well as two college graduates who don’t know the difference between a sea turtle and a tortoise.
Survival tactic: Private tours are the way to go! And if that isn’t possible, just sit back and enjoy the benefits of anonymity that come with being just one of many. You don’t have to make as much effort to constantly come up with intelligent questions for the guide, and can sit sniggering quietly in the corner when one of your fellow guests does something stupid.
Rule 3 – Country bragging
When travellers meet each other for the first time, the first topic of conversation should revolve around who has visited the most countries, to ascertain who is the ‘best’ traveller in the group.
Then stories should be told about who has had the most terrifying/embarrassing/humorous experience in a long game of one-up-man-ship. Beer must be consumed, and travellers should outwardly appear enraptured by the stories of others, whilst quietly bursting in anticipation of telling their own, far better tales.
Survival tactic: Pretend not to have been to all the places you have, and feel secretly smug that in fact you’ve visited more places than all of them put together. Not that you’re counting! Also worth noting that it’s probably best not to talk about how certain airlines are overpriced as you may just end up sitting next to the chief operations director of that very same airline!
Rule 4 – Traditional entertainment
Hosts must put on an after dinner performance for guests, usually involving traditional singing and dancing. Guests will truly enjoy learning a bit more about the local culture and appreciate the effort that the staff put in to ensure the evening is enjoyable. But then the hosts should ask guests to join in, thus ensuring that those who do not wish to sing, dance and generally make a fool of themselves will be very uncomfortable. Guests will either feel obliged to participate so as not to offend their hosts, or else they will politely decline and sit there feeling even more foolish than they would had they joined in.
Survival tactic: If you can’t beat them, join them…even if you don’t enjoy it, at least no-one will be giving you odd looks and thinking you a little strange. Wine helps.
We figure these ‘rules’ are really more like guidelines, and flout them at every opportunity. We don’t really care what others may think, or whether we are conforming to perceived social protocol. After all, we’ve paid good money to be there, and are going to enjoy our time exactly as we wish.
But is it just us?
And is society to blame for our anti-social traveller behaviour?
I often wonder why we shy away from communal and social situations on our travels, and wonder whether it really is just us, or whether our companions feel the same but are just better at pretending?
Perhaps it is because we are simply used to being alone and independent, and the antisocial situation is no different at home. Hubbie and I have lived in the same village in the UK for seven years and don’t even know our neighbours. In fact it took an icy car crash through a fence to introduce ourselves to the family living across the road, and although we’ve since become good friends we still only pop over if we need to borrow some flour. This isn’t a reflection on us, it is simply the way society operates over here. It’s life.
It’s not all bad
Despite all this, socialising with fellow travellers can sometimes be a good thing.
As we were swinging in our hammocks on a deserted beach on Thailand’s Koh Yao Yai, we were befriended by an Australian couple who had come to take advantage of Bangkok’s cheap dental services. Enjoying the conversation for once we didn’t beat a hasty retreat, and later that afternoon were rewarded with a huge pile of freshly dried white bait that the chap had bought from some local fisherman just along the sand.
On another occasion, my girl friend and I met a couple of guys from Wisconsin whilst backpacking down the Grand Canyon. They thought as mere girls we wouldn’t make it in the blistering heat, but we did, and we beat them. Their newfound respect for us had them lending us their sandals to cross a river. They waded across first, and then threw back their footwear so we could get across without drenching our boots. The beers back at the ranch later that evening weren’t so bad either.
The bottom line is we want choice, to be able to decide for ourselves when and with whom we interact. I’m sure we can’t be the only ones…are we?