Traveler or Tourist, Pilgrim or Passing by?

By November 3, 20102010, Asia

While staying  here in Malaysia, I have been wrestling with this whole idea of being a pilgrim, a traveler, of being on a journey, instead of just being a tourist.  Just after we left school my lovely friend Nicola sent me a note, which included a challenge to seek to be a pilgrim rather than a tourist.  It talked about how western notions of tourism are destructive by assuming that all places are interchangeable, and  where the tourist hollows over a place, a pilgrim hallows it, making it holy. But what does this mean, really?

To begin, I did not really pay attention to what the difference was between a tourist and a traveler was until a few days ago, when we went on a bus tour to a Putra Mosque and then on to the Batu Caves.  These historic caves are beautiful but highly commercialized, a big tourist attraction.  While climbing the 272 steps up to the caves and exploring them was wonderful, realizing that the majority of the people we saw that day were western and that the the Batu Caves “museum” and ethnic show were huge tourist traps was not.  Most of the time on this trip we have been travelers, exploring where we want while trying to discover the “real Philippines” and “real Malaysia;” but that day we were tourists, and I did not like the feeling.  The problem I am now having is identifying why.  You see, tourism is Malaysia’s second largest source of income, and the Batu Caves is a big attraction.  Not only would we take away earnings, it would also suck to go all the way to Malaysia and not experience the Caves just because it had become a “tourist trap.” But I think the difference is in the mindset that you go with.

I want to try to experience touristy places with a view that looks beyond the expensive souvenirs and gaudiness, to try and see what made that space so special to begin with.  The Batu Caves are a sacred place for the Hindus, and have been for years. There is a history and a legacy there, and that has not changed because you can now buy mini golden statues or pay money to hold snakes and other reptiles.  While these kinds of places may seem pretty hollow, on my journey I will do my best to make them hallow, sacred and holy; I will try to be a pilgrim.


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