As our plane descended into the city of Dubai, my friend and I tried to figure out if we should leave the airport and do some sightseeing. We were coming back from Ethiopia and were tired, and as my wife was quick to point out a few hours later, smelly. After looking up to see how far the airport was from the inner city, we decided that the four hours our layover provided us was enough time to see just about everything we wanted to see in Dubai, which truth be told, wasn’t much.
A customs agent stamped our passports and a few feet later a cab driver waved us in with a friendly smile. We told him our mission: we need to be back in four hours and we’d like to see what Dubai has to offer. He liked the challenge, and off we went. We saw the Palm Islands, he pointed out the Burj al Arab, and then he dropped us off at the Burj Khalifa. It was also important to me that we sit and eat or drink something, so before he left us, he told us where we could grab a drink. We took a cheesy picture in front of the world’s tallest building, had our drink, and grabbed another cab back to the airport. It was everything I really wanted to do in Dubai. I’m not saying that Dubai isn’t interesting, it just isn’t high on my list of places. If the opportunity arises to go back, I’ll take it, but until then I’m satisfied.
So, when I found myself standing over a scratch map that my wife got me, a map of the world in which one scratches off all of the countries one has gone to, I couldn’t really decide if I should scratch off the United Arab Emirates. I mean, I had been there. I have the passport stamp. I saw the sights and had a beer! What more was there to it? The problem of course comes when, in an imagined conversation, there is a follow up question. What was your favorite thing about Dubai? Did you see X? How much did you love Y? I’d panic and be unmasked as a hack. “You haven’t been to any of these places, have you?”
My own social anxieties aside, the question of, “When can you say you’ve been to a country” has come up a lot on my travels. Trying to squeeze in as many countries as possible is a feverish goal for many, but physically standing in a country does not mean that you have been there, or even better, that you know anything about it.
Since flight attendants frequently visit countries for only a few hours at a time, I asked one myself who happens to be the wife of a lifelong friend. “Well, you have to spend a night there,” she said at first. But she quickly scaled this back. “Well, maybe not.” The complexities of this question quickly assaulted her. Her husband chimed in with a story. He had to go to a meeting in Miami. He said a taxi picked him up, brought him to his hotel where he ate every meal and spent all day. Then, the moment the meeting was over three days later, his bags were tossed in a cab and off he went to the airport. He never saw an inch of Miami.
The teacher in me believes that the best way to approach this is with a rubric, a kind of matrix that assigns a value to different experiences.
Before I do break it down though, I have to say that in many ways, this cold rubric below runs the risk of reducing travel to mere events. The real reason I feel guilty about my layover is that despite seeing things, I made no connection with anyone there. Travel is about sharing experiences and cultures; it’s about learning and connecting. But sometimes it’s also about scratch maps and bragging rights, so let’s do this!
Add up your score to see how you do. You need above a 64 to claim you’ve been to a country.
For 10 points:
You got the passport stamp! It’s nearly impossible to visit a country without the stamp. I have technically—but only technically–been to Zimbabwe. While on a canoe / camping trip on the Zambezi River from Zambia we spent a night on the Zimbabwe side of the river, but no stamp. So it doesn’t make the scratch map. Additionally, I needed to get the South Africa passport stamp just for a layover in the airport. So, while I have the stamp, I only get the ten points for South Africa. It also doesn’t make the scratch map.
For 20 Points:
–You’ve eaten or drank there (10 for food, and 10 for drink). Spend enough time in a place and this is unavoidable, but ordering food in a country can teach you something about it, so it has to count for something.
— You’ve taken public transportation. With the exception of hiring a private driver, this is almost also unavoidable, but like ordering food, using public transportation (yes, even a taxi!) can teach you something about that place.
For 30 Points:
— You’ve visited the sights — I don’t put too much value on a trip in which one checks off sights on an itinerary. But it’s true, seeing the September 11th memorial can teach you a lot about something sacred to New York just as the Eiffel Tower is a point of pride for Parisians and the Acropolis is for Athenians. There’s always more to see than just sights, but not seeing these things would be a mistake.
For 40 Points:
— You’re confident with the local public transportation system. Just taking it is one thing, but being able to move around at the mercy of a city’s public transportation system is a whole other monster. Such confidence requires not only an understanding of where you are going but of etiquette as well.
For 50 Points:
— You’ve learned enough words to get by. Once you can exchange pleasantries, order food, ask for directions, etc. just by being there, you are really getting the hang of it. This of course doesn’t count if you knew the words before you got there.
For 60 Points:
— You’ve befriended a local. In Nairobi I paid my taxi driver to hang out with me because, frankly, Nairobi scared me a bit. That doesn’t count. What I mean here is that you pulled up to a bar and really connected with someone and you guys stayed in touch, whether it be online after your trip, or the next day, meeting up for some more fun.
For 70 Points:
— You’ve fallen into a routine much as you have at home. I spent so much time in Kathmandu (it was only a few weeks but what a few weeks they were) that I started going about my life. I had made friends there and we went out for dinner, I got a haircut, and we even went to the movies.
For 90 Points:
— Your local friend has invited you to something special. Whether it be their favorite spot, a party, a wedding, chances are that at these events you will experience all of the meaningful connections that make travel really special. A few points get deducted if that was the purpose of your visit.
So, not surprisingly, I passed my own test. I got the stamp (10 points) had a beer (10 points) took two cabs (20 points) and saw some sights (30 points) for a total of 70 points!
When I was asking my friends for their input, another friend chimed in. He thought the whole thing was ridiculous. He sagely protested, “life’s too short to see it all, so if you’ve been to a place, just count it!”
My thoughts immediately sprinted back to a flight to Kalamazoo, Michigan I once took. I sat in my seat next to a bright eyed, happy young blond teenager. Her chipper attitude told me she was more from Michigan than New York. As it turned out, she was from Minnesota and in New York for a symposium of teenage leaders. I asked her how she liked New York and she told me she loved it. “Did you take the subway?”
“Oh no! It was much too scary.”
“Oh. How about the New York pizza? Did you like the pizza here?”
“Well, I couldn’t find any.”
“Really? Where were you?”
“My hotel was in Union Square. I went for a walk but after a block I got scared and turned back. I ate at the hotel.” She went on to explain that she was from a small town where everyone knew each other, and at this moment, talking to my friends, I knew that the second she arrived back in that sleepy hometown of hers and everyone asked her how she liked New York she told them all about how exciting and great it was, my own point system be damned.