Photo by Emily Long
I have two friends that personify the extremes of what I like to call “the tourist spectrum.” The first one, whom I will call Melissa, eschews all things touristy. Melissa strives to travel to remote areas of the globe that none of her Facebook friends have been to, and when she does go somewhere popular, she proudly declares that she didn’t step foot in a museum or take any guided tours. Her favorite adjective when talking about travel is, “cliche” – a word which she uses so frequently, yet so derisively, that she has actually become one.
On the other side of the spectrum is Kerri, who approaches travel like a to-do list. She likes having her days planned out with clear “must-sees.” Though she takes no personal interest in art or architecture, her traveling days are filled with snapshots of every pretty cathedral or famous work of art listed in her guidebook. After a recent trip to Barcelona, she commented on how beautiful the Sagrada Familia Cathedral is, but had not actually read up on who the famous architect that designed it, or why it was so unique.
Both of these friends are extremes, but when traveling it is hard to strike a balance between seeing everything you’re “supposed to see” and not being a totally lame tourist. The problem with Melissa’s approach is that in wanting to avoid being a “tourist” (and to impress people on Instagram), she may miss out on some of the best the world has to offer. This approach is comparable to being invited to someone’s house for dinner, where they have set up a beautiful table and prepared you a delicious meal, and insisting on eating ramen in their bedroom because it is “more authentic.” Yes, the Taj Mahal is a very touristy place, but there is a reason for that. If you’re not careful, the quest for “authentic” experiences can result in deliberately seeking out the bad and the ugly, and forgetting all about the things that often are a source of pride for a country. When admiring the David, standing in awe of the wonders of the Great Wall, or ziplining in Costa Rica, we are not merely being tourists; we are engaging in a sensory experience shared by millions of people over hundreds of years. Is the view from the top of the Pao de Azucar in Rio any less breathtaking just because other people have also stood in the same spot and felt the same way?
This is not to say that the other extreme is desirable either. The Kerri approach results in a perfect photo album of all the must-sees, but leaves little room for the wonderful stories and personal growth that comes from spontaneity. When the day is so rigidly scheduled with things that you haven’t taken the time to truly appreciate, you miss out on some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I still laugh with my friend Angel about the time we crashed a midnight birthday party in Buenos Aires in a hair salon. One of my family’s favorite memories is the time we stumbled upon a bullfight in a little town in Provence. And let’s be real, the opportunity to make out with a cute local and ride on the back of his motorcycle is not going to happen while visiting your 3rd museum!
The word “tourist” shouldn’t be a bad word, but how do you strike a balance between the desire to discover uncharted territory and the need to make sure you haven’t missed out on the best the place has to offer? The first thing is to take a step back and examine your motivation for doing a particular activity. If you’re honest with yourself, do you really want to do this thing or see this place, or are you seeking bragging rights? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it cannot etch into memory an entire sensory experience quite the same the way being present in the moment will.
I like to pick a theme, and do some research before a trip to help me better understand and appreciate the things I see, and even be able to engage in intelligent conversation with locals. I will be going to Berlin in a few weeks and have decided that the theme will be Cold War Europe. Hopefully, when I go see the Berlin Wall or take a tour of the amazing graffiti, or wonder about the “modern grunge” personality that the nightlife there has taken, I will have some historical context with which to better understand the city.
The most important thing is to be curious! When you are curious, you seek out the highlights because you wonder what makes that particular place or experience so important or appealing. Gives equal importance to the history museum you’re visiting and the people watching at the local bar. Don’t poo poo experiences or live for the approval of other travelers or Twitter followers. Being curious means exploring the world to find the answers to questions about the world and yourself. And if you’re doing it right, you may develop new questions in the meantime.