Walking the Line as an Educational Tourist

by Zach Smith


To begin, the person seated next to me on the flight I took out of the Medgar Evers International Airport could only be described as fat. His large forearms that occupied both armrests managed to only seep closer, occupying another fifth of my own seat. Other than the crunching peanuts he poured into the black hole that was his mouth and his unrelenting slurping of Canada Dry, I really didn’t notice him that much. I was busy working on my first entry in a brand new notebook I bought just the previous day from the Office Max.

I was flying to Cancun. Once there, I was going to meet up with the rest of the crew Dr. Eric Griffin had recruited to spend their semester in Mexico. Having read my weight in travel nonfiction, when I bought the journal I fanaticized about the brilliant and reflective vignettes I would fill it with over the course of the trip.

Sitting on the plain hunched over the grey fold out desk because my neighbor’s girth wouldn’t allow me to lie back comfortably, I stared blankly at that first page. I tried writing line after line only to erase it for being too simple or too vapid or too pretentious. I wanted so badly to write that perfect beginning entry: something that would encapsulate where I’m coming from and what I hoped would be revealed to me on the road.

Suffice to say, the page stayed blank.

Eventually my not-thin neighbor leaned over, occupying additional fifth of my own seat, and asked, “Going on vacation?”

I don’t want to sound like I believed that this trip would be the Woodstock of my life, but I didn’t regard it as some vacation. I tried to explain to him the rigor of the classes I was taking and the projects I was working on. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me about how he was headed to an all-inclusive resort to enjoy the last breath of summer.

I spent the whole conversation trying to explain how what I was doing was very different from what tourists from the United States typically do. I thought I was going to imbed myself in the culture. Get off the beaten path. Scuff my shoes up. And hell, this guy was wearing an Acapulco shirt. Surely there is a difference between what we are doing. A little over a month in, I’m stuck by how ridiculous this angst over my role in Mexico was.

I am tall and white. Although I’m doing better, when people ask me if I speak Spanish I still respond with “un poco”. There is not a chance that a Yucatecan will ever mistake me for a local. Down every street I walk down, I am for all intents and purposes just another gringo tourist. In the beginning I spent a lot of time trying to avoid being confused with tourists that resembled my corpulent neighbor on the plane. I’d wear long pants because no one down here wears shorts. I’d keep earbuds in on the bus because that’s how everyone does it. I was even short with a pair of tourists who were lost. I thought that was what it was about. I was in this country for revelation, for growth. I’m not here just to throw back a few beers in shady hammock or jet around for the bars that cater to the abroad crowd.

What I have found isn’t necessarily a way of reconciling my tourist-ness, but have experienced something that many educational tourists seem to go through. No amount of time in the country will ever grant you true local status. At the same time because you aren’t in the country for the typical handicraft tourist trap experience, it is hard not see yourself as different; to see yourself as something better. What I have found is strange place; a place where I am not from the ‘in-group,’ but I also do not feel part of the tourist body. The best I have found is solace in being honest with my place here.

As much as I would like to distance myself from the person I met on the plane, when I pass people on the street every day, am I really so different?