"The Phoney Planet": Malaysian backpacker story

One of the good things about Facebook is that you can set it up in a way that it can serve you as a source of constant inspiration every time you open it by following those people who intrigue you.

A line I found a while ago on the page of a new friend was:

“Having perfected our disguise, we spend our lives looking for someone we don’t fool.”

The line has been stuck in my head ever since.

I believe this quote underlines very well an element that from my experience makes a teacher a teacher, and I feel I’ve been fortunate to have met many humans whom I could not fool.

Teachers of this kind have crossed my path randomly on the street, in coffee bars, during travels. For some I travelled to meet them, others I encountered - one could say - in more serendipitous circumstances.

To give an example, once I felt an urge and necessity to travel to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to learn about mindfulness and movement meditation in a Buddhist school. I planned 3-4 days before the event for leisure and getting to known the city.

To plan those days without much hassle I decided to rely on the “The Lonely Planet,” a best-selling travel guide.

Orienting myself quite hurriedly through the crowds with this book in hand going to the next place-to-be, an unknown local man decided to stop me in my tracks.

He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in remarkably well spoken English: “where are you going so fast?”

I told him about my plans in visiting the city and he returned: “aha, so you are a backpacker?”

I said I was, and immediately he got back at me in an unexpected aggressive tone saying that there are no backpackers anymore. He proposed to go drink a coffee in a bar that was not on that map I carried.

My first thought was that this man was a disturbance of my plans, that he was in my way and that I didn’t have time for this. Above all, how could I know if this unknown man could be trusted and wasn’t some kind of scary …-path so often mentioned in the news.

Clearly he noticed my confused internal dialogue. My inner indecisiveness was turning my face into a shape that communicated a “please mind your own business, I don’t trust you”-energy.

He realised he needed to find something fast that would convince me to drop my Lonely Planet plans or I would be gone. So he started explaining that he had a theory about backpackers, that he was even writing a book about.

What he told me intrigued me so I said yes to his request but only for an hour because I already had plans.

A couple of minutes later we were in a small shopping center in a mundane bar drinking an over-sugared local tea.

He told me he had some questions for me, the first one was: “how do you like the Malay people?”

I told him they were very friendly, happy-looking, always smiling to me. They seemed happier than the drowsy people in Belgium. So yes, I said, based in my first encounters I liked them.

Then he proceeded: “Now look around here in this bar. What do you see? Do you see the same here?”

I looked around and had to admit, I noticed nothing like it. All I saw were the same worn-out, worried, shady-eyed faces that so often drained my energy levels in the place I grew up in.

“Why do you think all you saw were friendly, smiling, happy faces?”
“How did you find those places you visited?”

I told him I went by some places on the Lonely Planet maps.

“AHA! The devil!”, he said.

I felt myself exposed in some way. While at the same time, I had an immediate feeling of disillusioning, realising that I had been walking around with blurry lenses covering my eyes.

I told him, that of course these people seemed so friendly, happy to me. All of the people I had met until now were treating me like the big tourist I was. I did not see their masks. The people I had met in those coffee bars and touristic places were also either fellow-tourists or they were serving them.

It was one of those important instances where I felt cheated by my own eyes.

This local proceeded to tell me that he made this observation years ago when he saw a trend in the travellers that were visiting his country.

He noticed that at a certain point backpackers turned into tourists and the true backpacker, the flâneurs, became a dying breed.

And much of it was the result of the impact of that devilish “Lonely Planet” guide and the now constant dependence on internet access.

He continued saying, “Travellers don’t look around anymore, they don’t see with their own eyes, they don’t get lost. They are all rushing to see the same things on their travel, they all express exactly the same things about their travels. They return hime with the same pictures, they have the same stories. They are always rushing. They need to have a good time. Everything is planned out from the moment they step on the plan, and with this all is lost. They do not experience their travels, the experience is already decided for them.”

“Some people have travelled the whole world like this,” he believed, “probably live out their whole life like this.”

“But, the sad thing is that they have seen nothing for themselves. They did not go on a travel, they went on a tour. But life is not to be lived like a tour.”

I felt quite embarrassed and sad about lost time living in this state, because I had to admit that much of what he said described very well the automatic mode I had been in myself.

Simultaneously I felt free, freed from a layer of conditioning, free from my plans for the next days.

I promised myself that I would try to never allow myself to travel in this way, even when walking around my own city at home: to sign a sort of inner contract with myself to keep a constant watch of my manner of looking at the world and to get alerted when I was seeing reality too much from the experiences coloured by others.

To be more like the wandering flâneur allowing the world to come to him without plan and expectations.

After our conversation I thanked him for stopping me on my tour.

He told me he was writing a book about his observations, his own guide for backpackers one could say:

“The Phoney Planet.”

I don’t know if this man ever finished his book, but I’m quite sure he’s still fooling with those poor travellers on their well-planned tracks.