Every travel writer since Herodotus has penned a line or two on how to get over jet lag and culture shock. Don’t drink alcohol; suck Meyer lemons; wear those weird tight socks that turn your toes into Vienna sausages, etc. etc. There is only one cure for jet lag, and you heard it here first: outlast the bastard. Go about your business as best you can; eventually, time will re-telescope and you’ll get back to whatever normal looks like at your house. Culture shock, on the other hand, is a completely different beast, and for some people, there is no cure. They’re scarred for life.
Culture shock is your mind rebelling against a massive shift in your comfort zone. It’s as if somebody set off a bomb in your inner baby carriage, and all the things you know and trust — like Boogy Bear and Blankey — are gone. The air smells funny, the food tastes strange, the people around you are odd, and you spend half your time being lost. Invariably, your senses simply overload and shut down. This is a natural reaction that happens to even the most seasoned traveller, and you don’t have to go halfway around the world to get it. Any sociologist will tell you, for example, there are some serious cultural differences between cities and their suburbs, or even between neighbourhoods. Of course, it’s all relative. Taking a trolley to the ‘burbs to visit Aunt Helen and hiking the Karkaar Mountains of Somalia are noticeably different experiences – depending, on your Aunt Helen. My point is culture shock is unavoidable; it’s how you handle it that counts.
It’s been my experience that most tourists start fading out around Day
is when the ruins all start looking the same, the quaint local Corn Dance seems remarkably similar to the Wedding Dance and it’s too much trouble to read every plaque on every wall. At this point, most tourists go back to the hotel and get heavily into the Tylenol™. However, a select few, stop, find a bar, sit down, take three deep ones and look around. They might look like they’ve just been given an overdose of Novocaine (it’s the vacant eyes) but they’re actually looking past the crumbling ruins and the colourful costumes. They’re seeing the guy serving the drinks, the two women having lunch and “What the hell is that gorgeous smell?” These people have instantly become travellers, and they’re never going to be anything else.
Travellers understand that people in different places do things differently, and while it might take some getting used to, it’s neither better nor worse than what we do. They wonder how the waiter got to work and why the appetizer is moving — not how much the dessert costs in real money. They see the sights (like everybody else) but they notice that somebody has to cut the grass and they wonder how they do it. While tourists assume that their destination is a carefully planned theme park, travellers understand that every place they go is filled with ordinary people who live, breathe, cry and go to the bathroom. (In some parts of the world, it’s very important to know where and how.) Travellers are there because they’re curious. They see the world as a gigantic playground with swings and slides and kids they haven’t played with yet. I’m not knocking tourists; I just think they’re missing out on a lot of stuff.
Culture shock is the slap in the face everyone gets when they travel. For tourists, the cure is a return to the familiar comforts of home, but for travellers it’s an addiction that will never go away. Like James Kirk, they have a burning need to “seek out strange new worlds…and boldly go [etc. etc.]” In short, travellers travel and tourists go places. Tourists bring photographs and souvenirs home with them; travellers bring their experiences. But the main difference is travellers also get a mild case of culture shock when they get home.