September 9, 2014

How to be a traveler, not a tourist, in five easy steps

a hike in the woods brought us to an abandoned homestead

They caught me off guard. We were standing at a lookout, tracing the path of a waterfall down a cliff face when we were asked to move out of the way so a young woman could take a photo in the exact location we were standing in. So we shuffled over a meter to an almost identical spot and watched as a queue formed behind her. And then one-by-one each person held their phone out (many phones even had a telescoping handle to get the best angle) and they snapped a selfie or two.

most waterfalls are better in person than on the screen...
It was Maia who noticed that most people never even looked out at scene they were documenting. They had their back to the falls except for when they were queuing for their photo.

being tourists for Maia's 13th birthday--we went on the skyrail to Karunda then took a historic train home
As odd as it sounds, we really don’t spend much time being tourists. All those fantastic attractions and restaurants that you visit on your holiday? We pretty much bypass them. When we hit a tourist hot spot like Cairns, our time is spent locating where to take our garbage and recycling, doing laundry and finding the best grocery story within walking distance of the dinghy dock. If we still have time after getting the outboard serviced, the sail repaired and the SCUBA stuff checked out we might splurge on a museum or head to a national park for a hike.

the trip was beautiful and we met some wonderful people
Part of the reason for skipping most of the must-dos, is tourist activities are really expensive. When travel is your everyday life, and not a vacation, those expenses can add up fast. Another reason is that all too often those tourism activities feel manufactured and predictable: as though you could sleepwalk through the experience and just show up for the selfies.

most of our adventures are the free variety--and usually we learn about them from a local--the Mossman Gorge
The chance to encounter something new is why most of us travel.  But it seems as though our relationship with travel is changing. We’ve exchanged exploring and serendipity, for top tens and bucket lists. Instead of immersing in a place, all too often we seek out the highlights then find ourselves in a line six-people deep waiting for a photo-op.

Don’t get me wrong—sometimes the highlights are really awesome. The waterfall we were looking at was Barron Falls, one of the stops along the Skyrail Journey—a fantastic 7km Gondola ride through the rainforest. And I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to travel for months and years on end.

Another free spectacle--the burning of cane fields
But we all can travel like travelers and not tourists. We can skip a few of the highlights and let ordinary serendipity take hold. And we can pay attention to the places we are: really pay attention.

Maia was the first to grab hold of this lesson. She had been instagramming her day (it was her birthday) with her friends so they could see her selfies; on the gondola and in front of the waterfall. But as she watched her fellow tourists focus on themselves, rather than the place they were, she tucked away her phone and became a traveler.

Here or our top five tips for being travelers and not tourists:

1)      Do what the locals do. Ask the people you meet what they do for fun, not where they send the tourists, but where they spend their days off.
2)      Don’t over plan. Even if you are heading off on a tourist excursions leave plenty of room in your day for travel to happen.
3)      Leave your camera, cellphone etc behind. Experience travel with all your senses, not through a filter.
4)      Talk to people. And not just other tourists. Talk to the shop clerks, your waitress and people in the parks and gardens. Ask questions—lots of questions.
5)      Head out with no destination in mind. We find all sorts off cool things by heading out on walks and reading signs and chatting with people as we go.


Jill U Adams said...

I love this post. We learned this by traveling to England with young children. The touristy spots were too crowded for any of us to enjoy (Hold my hand! Just a few more minutes! I'll pick you up so you can see!). Once I planned that we walk from the Tower to St Paul's -- and the walk was the best. Time for talking (especially about the everyday people who *lived* in London) and noticing and spying interesting things. Other days, time out in the park feeding ducks or finding a pub with a playground, where my kids made friends with English kids.
We did it this way for the sake of young kids, but we've held onto it since.

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

You're so right, Jill. I hadn't thought about it, but we travelled across Canada with Maia when she was a toddler and ended up opting out of most crowded touristy spots for the same reasons. Then we found we got more out of ourselves.