The Zen of Travel

Cartoon of The Zen of TravelTurismo is a concept so young that a century ago only the wealthy did it. And two centuries ago, nobody did. If you left “home” for anything, it was about mercantilism, conquest, or pilgrimage, and it was invariably dangerous. But nowadays, since so many of us do it, and since it has quickly become global, a vocabulary has quickly grown around it. The growing pains are still with us.

The old verb viajar and its associated nouns, viaje and viajero, only begin to cover the new senses. For real tourism, andamos, “we walk around.” But this verb, andar, hints at unstructured travel, not overly purposeful movement.

A packaged tour is a recorrido, a term suggesting a very complete look at something (a country, city, etc.). But a recorrido is also a moving inspection, such as what a field commander does to assess and shore up his flanks within a combat theater.

I have come to see the tourism and travel industry as a combat theater, rife with euphemism and subterfuge, an area where if we fail to look beyond language, it is at our peril.

I do not know if they still do it, but Mexican railroads used to have two levels of first class (with second class being what used to be called third class). There was (is?) primera clase and primera clase especial. Only on the latter were you guaranteed a seat. Huh?

You may recall from an earlier column the strange verb correrse, which looks like “to run oneself” but which is really about stressed movement, like inching deeper into an already crowded chicken bus. I think I pointed out that vacío (“empty”) applied to a chicken bus where one more person could be packed in without a high probability of asphyxiation.

So correr still means to run, but correrse is closer to reacting to shouted abuse, and doing what moving you can. Finally, recorrer means to go all over, to leave nothing out if possible. The meanings of these three verbs do not differ by nuance; they are virtually unrelated.

The most poisoned transacting between travelers and travel providers may be the frequent flyer programs, which now date from 1972 but remain the one area where record-keeping has not graduated to the age of modern data retrieval and miniaturization. The frequent flyer or his agent must be proactive by never forgetting to remind (recordar, a false cognate) the airlines that you made this or that trip. The miles do not add up automatically. Hotels bill you for every drop of scotch taken from suite refrigerators, but airlines “forget” entire flights that we have paid for, unless we jump through hoops and hammer them.

It is as if each airline’s programa de viajero frecuente (PVF) were staffed by a single, overworked person in a room full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and no computer in sight. Everything must be recorded manually (grabado a mano), and this only if you manage to even reach (ponerse en contacto con) this person. When and if you do, you will be asked for everything but your blood type (grupo sanguíneo), shoe size (talla de zapato), and astrological sign (signo zodiaco). It is burden-of-proof with a vengeance.

To be fair, the flight purser (sobrecargo) does encourage you to log for yourself what the airline cannot log for you, by “reminding” you to ask for a form to apply for those miles. But the reminder comes at the moment of take-off, when you and the ministering flight attendants are strapped in at 2 Gs and not thinking of miles, much less forms.

Reader, the zenniness of frequent flyer programs is not a language issue per se, but with the globalization of travel, alluded to above, it magnifies the zenniness we already face as amateur linguists. So it is, too, with accommodations, whose labeling can be confusing.

The only way I know of to protect ourselves from the hype and euphemism is to compare notes with other travelers. Ask those people walking out of the airport, the train station, or the car rental agency if the provider met you expectations. Point to the brochure (el folleto) or the sign over the door, and ask “¿Cumplieron ellos con tus expectativas?”

Then, when you walk up to the ticket window (la ventanilla), you are armed.

Reader, Buen Viaje. Bon Voyage.

One comment

  • Héctor Mejía

    Mister Coop:
    I find your article “the Zen of Travel” somewhat ironic, not objective and really offensive, I believe that if you be stand up right in front of a white wall, you could only see the black speck. I have traveled for the five continents and I know that not everything is perfect, but every place is special if seen through the eyes of traveler and not critical as you do, I suggest you very strongly that if you are not comfortable in my country Guatemala, return to your five star country where everything is perfect.

    Señor Coop:
    Creo que su artículo “el Zen of Travel” es un tanto irónico, no objetivo y realmente ofensivo, creo que si se pone de pie justo en frente de una pared blanca, usted sólo podría ver el punto negro. He viajado por los cinco continentes, y sé que no todo es perfecto, pero cada lugar es especial si se ve con los ojos del viajero y no críticos como usted lo hace, le sugiero enfáticamente que si usted no se siente cómodo en mi país Guatemala , regrese a su país de cinco estrellas, donde todo es perfecto.

    Herr Coop:
    Ich finde Ihren Artikel “The Zen of Travel” etwas ironisch, nicht objektiv und wirklich beleidigend, ich glaube, dass, wenn Sie stehen werden bis direkt vor einer weißen Wand, man konnte nur den schwarzen Punkt. Ich habe für die fünf Kontinente bereist, und ich weiß, dass nicht alles perfekt ist, aber jedes Hotel ist etwas Besonderes, wenn durch die Augen eines Reisenden und nicht kritisch wie Sie gesehen haben, empfehle ich Ihnen, sehr stark, dass, wenn Sie nicht in meinem Land Guatemala komfortabel , um Ihre fünf-Sterne-Land, in dem alles perfekt ist zurück.

    Monsieur Coop:
    Je trouve votre article “le Zen de voyage” quelque peu ironique, non objectif et vraiment offensive, je crois que si vous serez levez juste en face d’un mur blanc, vous ne pouviez voir le point noir. J’ai parcouru les cinq continents et je sais que tout n’est pas parfait, mais chaque endroit est spécial s’il est vu à travers les yeux de voyageur et non critiques comme vous le faites, je vous suggère très fortement que si vous n’êtes pas à l’aise dans mon pays Guatemala , retourner dans votre pays cinq étoiles où tout est parfait.

    Signor Coop:
    Trovo il tuo articolo “lo Zen di viaggio” un po ‘ironico, non obiettiva e realmente offensivo, credo che se tu sarai alzi proprio di fronte a un muro bianco, si poteva vedere solo il puntino nero. Ho viaggiato per i cinque continenti, e so che non tutto è perfetto, ma ogni luogo è speciale se visto attraverso gli occhi di viaggiatori e non critici, come lo fai, ti suggerisco fortemente che se non state bene nel mio paese Guatemala , torna al tuo paese a cinque stelle dove tutto è perfetto.

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