I've been on twitter a fair bit this weekend, something I feel I can share with you, partly because I have deleted all spam accounts which were following us, which left me with a rather loathsome feeling of smugness, which has now fortunately left me. But more importantly one of our tweets ended up in an ecotourism Google, alert which made me feel as though we're doing something of worth, in a very modest way.
Anyway while tweeting, I saw how often the word traveller is used by people as term for a cool, independent (one L for our American cousins of course). The word tourist would appear to have too many negative connotations for most people, the word conjures up mental images of feckless, camera-laden morons walking gormlessly around oversubscribed tourist hotspots looking for somewhere to have lunch.
While the word traveller on the other hand, brings to mind people of intelligence understanding their surroundings, interacting on an equal footing on those around them, wherever they are. A traveller is thought of as someone who can blend into their surroundings effortlessly, who isn't governed by schedules and who is knowledgeable about the places they visit.
Many westerners who do travel, will have their own stories, in fact they may have, that many will have become oft repeated tales, about near misses and close calls, and some of them will have come close to death. But I'm sure almost all their travels were undertaken as part of their own choice, not from pure desperation. So with that in mind I want to expound the need to widen meaning of the word traveller.
Prior to going out this last Friday evening I was watching Channel 4 news (the best television news by far in the UK) and there was a report from Tripoli. The correspondent* had happened into a group of rebels who had found a group of black Africans. The rebels claimed the men were mercenaries who had been fighting for Gaddafi. The captives were in a state of shock, the fear on the mens faces was palpable. Their eyes had that look of distance, desperate, unable to see a way out of their situation and the exhaustion of being in a heightened state of terror for a long time. The men pleaded their innocence as best they could while not resisting the manhandling of their angry captors. The men claimed to be passing through Libya and had just been trying to get across the Mediterranean and into Europe in the hope of finding work. The rebels where convinced the men were mercenaries, who had been fighting for Gaddafi.
The prisoners whispered and pleaded with the correspondent not to leave them, convinced they would be shot as soon as the correspondent left. The correspondent said he would stay with the men, so that nothing would happen to them. While the correspondent spoke to one of the prisoners the man asked if the correspondent could convince the rebels to let one of the men to take their captors to see the women the men were travelling with, who were taking refuge nearby. After a brief conversation with the correspondent the rebels were convinced the men were not mercenaries, the men were released, given water and sent on their way.
What has happened to those men since then, is anyone's guess. Will they make it across the Mediterranean, are they now in the hands of new rebel group who are less inclined to believe them, who can say. I hope they get somewhere safe, where they don't live in fear and are not exploited. But this briefest of glimpses of these men's lives made me think they aren't just "migrants", a 'catch all' dehumanising term, but these men were travellers, on a journey. Risking all they had, in the name of hope.
So I appeal in a wider context to have the word traveller broadened back to include those who travel for reasons of utter necessity, not just to take time from their busy schedules to have experiences, or to brighten up a cut and dried career progression. A traveller in the past often meant someone without much in the way of possessions and sometimes, someone in often in desperate need of help. I think one reason, many cultures offer the traveller hospitality, is perhaps the knowledge that they, one day may well be in far from home and in need of help themselves.
*The correspondents name is Alex Thompson.