Some people travel to reassure themselves that the grass growing in their backyards is as green as the stuff growing anywhere else.
They compare the cut, the colour and the fertilizer of where they are with where there’ve been in the hope that they will find that out of 196 countries in seven continents, their little patch of Earth is just a little better than the next place.
After spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets, tours and taxi fares, they leave their homes in search of what they can see on an average day in their average life and find themselves dreadfully disappointed when things are faster, slower, dirtier or simply different to what they are used to.
The three German men behind me won’t shut up.
It’s 11pm on a bus to Surat Thani and for the last two hours they’ve been complaining about the efficiency of the Skytrains, the checks at Suvarnabhumi airport and even the cheap seats on this cheap bus are a little too cheap compared to the German standard of squalor.
I don’t know why they’ve come.
They hate the spice in the food, they hate the traffic in Bangkok and, in the most ironic utterance of the evening, they hate that there are so many tourists around in the tourist hot spots.
As they kvetch and cavil deep into the stifling night, I have to resist the urge to tell them to go home.
Firstly because nobody likes an eavesdropper and secondly because I’ve had just enough lack of sleep to saunter clear off the reservation and start insulting German national treasures like bratwurst, lederhosen and Jagermeister in defense of Tom yum, novelty shirts and Sang Som.
Their tirade goes on.
It ebbs and flows past temples, lady boys and glowing buddhas and eventually I get to thinking that there are two kinds of travelers.
The first are like these particular German men.
They leave home hoping to find something just like it somewhere else. Their logic is that people in other countries can look different and speak other languages but when it comes to what they eat, how they travel and how they use the bathroom, this type of travelers enjoyment of the country grows proportionate to any perceived similarities rather than in celebration of difference and discovery.
Essentially, they pay lots of money to do a comparative study and when they touch down their happiness increases relative to the number of Starbucks’, Burger Kings and McDonalds they can find in a 1km radius.
The second type of traveler has come to be somewhere else.
They’ve stepped out their door a million miles away because they know there is more than one way to live life and they are bent on seeing what this world has to offer in terms of taste, ideology and smiles exchanged across language barriers.
They’ve seen their own world and take pride in it but rather than talking about how wonderful it is, they ask the locals what they love about their own country.
They ask them where to go and what to eat and instead of experiencing a new place in the soft, packaged form peddled by travel agents, they jump off the plane and into this new space with only their whimsy and wits to lead the way.
In Thailand, they eat Thai food, they use the bum guns and the Skytrains and they do everything in their power to shake off their old self and forge a new incarnation that can be happy and inspired wherever they are.
This kind of traveler immerses themself in any and many versions of the new country and tries to figure out why different people do things in different ways and, when they get home, they have brought a bit of the place with them in the guise of recipes, philosophy or a talisman that reminds them that there is more than the ordinary and the every day. And it is only some saving, an open mind and a night flight away.
As I listen to the Germans grumble, I understand that I can be better about this.
I realize that even when I get home, I can do so much more about letting people be more like them and less like me and I feel any vestiges of homesickness fall away with the promise to be present and accept my travels for the novel and exciting gift that they are rather than wishing anything was more like home.
Namibia isn’t going to up and leave. It’ll be just as bright and beautiful as I remember when it’s time for me to head back and, even though I would kill for a braai, some feta cheese and a day that doesn’t mean certain death to a dozen mosquitoes, I promise that I will stop looking for home in a place that is similarly wondrous but nothing like it.
Not better or worse.