Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Travel Talk: Why It's 100% Okay to "Look Like a Tourist"
Last Saturday, I took my camera out with me on a jaunt around Walthamstow. It was sunny, the sky was beautiful, and I thought I'd see some nice things to photograph. "Hey!" my neighbor yelled to me as I returned from my morning out. "You look like a tourist with your camera!" he shouted with a grin. "I am!" I shot back, laughing. "I'm a tourist of Walthamstow!" I smiled as I shut my front door.
But it made me think: since when did the word "tourist" get such a bad rap? When "tourist" meant stopping at the bottom of the escalator to look for signs; when "tourist" meant blocking large portions of the sidewalk to gawp at something ahead; when "tourist" meant brandishing a selfie-stick in the National Portrait Gallery - that's when.
Recently, I've noticed an emphasis on being a "traveller" rather than a "tourist". But who am I kidding? When I travel, I'm a tourist. I'm a guest in a country. More often than not, I don't know the language, except for a very mispronounced, "Hello!", "Please", "Thank you" and the ever-so-important "Toilet". In fact, the definition for a tourist (according to the online dictionary) is "a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure." There you go.
There's this obsession with "blending in with the locals" (how often have you heard that phrase, right?). And I get it. I try not to draw attention to myself when I'm being a tourist. I wear what I'd normally wear at home (unless the country's customs dictate otherwise, of course) and carry the same bag I'd carry at home. None of this "travel bag" or "travel shoes" business. But no matter how hard I try, I'll never fully "blend in". I intrinsically look different, sound different, act differently.
I'll never forget the time I was walking through Midtown Manhattan in New York, and a guy tried to sell me tickets to the Empire State Building. I was wearing the same clothes as everyone else on the street, yet he singled me out for some reason. "Do I look like a tourist?" I asked. "Yes," he replied, without any hesitation. I remember feeling a little mortified, then shrugging it off. So what?
If being a "traveller" means speaking softly rather than loudly, observing cultural traditions and customs, visiting local haunts as well as famous landmarks, well then, sure, I'm a traveller. But can't tourists do those things too?
Since when did it become so wrong to crane your neck up at the sight of the Eiffel Tower and stop to appreciate it for more than 2 minutes? Or take photos of XXL olives at the Mercado in Madrid? Or squeal at the sight of baby monkeys jumping from tree to tree in Sri Lanka (but not too loudly because, as I learned, that scares the sh*t out of them)? Listen: I can't remember a time that I've walked across Waterloo bridge without taking a photo of Southbank. And I've lived in London for nearly 10 years.
Heck, I wasn't joking when I told my neighbor that I was a tourist of Walthamstow - sure, I live there, but I don't know it all that well yet. I'm still in the process of discovery. And that's what I think tourism is. Discovery. Discovering.
Why is that such a bad thing?
I'm off to be a tourist in Bordeaux in a few months' time. I'll be snapping photos, speaking broken French (only to be saved by John's flawless French language skills, thank goodness!), and pointing at ... things. Lots of things.