Shortly after I began my nomadic life, I wrote about the difference between tourists and travelers. https://kimmie53.com/2014/09/06/lady-who-lunches-or-lunch-lady/ Four years later, my travels have taught me a little more about how to have a deeper experience, to feel a part of a place, and make connections with people. My strategies don’t all work in all situations or for all people, but you get the idea….
In 1979, I visited a town in Spain called Cuenca, and fell in love with its public gardens, historic houses and arts community. I promised myself I would return someday and, 35 years later, I did. What a shock to find Cuenca teeming with tourists, tour buses and boutique everything. It was still beautiful, but for me, Cuenca had disappeared.
Venice is worse. I was there in the “off-season” and the city was wall-to-wall people all day and night. The food was forgettable. The hotels were overpriced. There was no place for reflection or discovery, and I suspect the locals are tired of the whole scene. Yes it’s beautiful and historic but so are a thousand other places. Ok maybe not as much but still….
There are many places set up explicitly for tourism, which may be good for the local economy, but not always good for the local community, the environment, or your experience. When I go to these places, I try to find ways to have a personal experience or go off-season. In Prague, I went biking in the countryside. In Buenos Aires, I visited a small rural town to ride a horse. I visited Paris when it was cold and India in its hottest month. For the next few months, I am living in one of Mexico’s most touristed places, San Miguel de Allende, which probably makes me a hypocrite, but San Miguel is a ghost town compared to Venice.
One of my favorite travel adventures began with a tuk-tuk driver who took me to a small village in the middle of a Vietnamese jungle and drove off before I realized I was not where I was supposed to be — without a clue about how to get back to the city. Within a few hours, I was served lunch by a local family, got a ride on the back of a motor bike, and returned to the city on a small barge with two Buddhist monks.
The days I leave my hotel with a check list from my tour book, I know I am probably giving up opportunities for surprises, connections and meeting people. Museums and guided tours are great, but they provide context, not experience. I walk a lot and remind myself that, except in the wilderness, there is no such thing as “lost.”
Learn Before You Go
My mom was a great traveler but I didn’t agree with her on one thing — she didn’t learn about the places she traveled to in advance because, she said, she wanted to be surprised. I have found that the more I know on arrival, the more I appreciate what I am seeing and doing. For example, learning a little about Colombia’s drug wars helped me understand how Comuna 13 is such a triumph for the people who live there. https://kimmie53.com/2017/12/14/comuna-13-medellins-hillside-art-project/#more-9268
I loved unremarkable Gwangju, South Korea, because I read Human Acts by Han Kang, which brought the city to life for its role in the country’s democracy movement. The novel, Convenience Store Woman, gave me a better sense of Japanese culture and how 7-11’s are an important part of the way Japanese city-dwellers eat. And there will always be surprises!
Talk to People
While traveling in the Nepalese countryside, I met a young Tibetan refugee who joined me for lunch one day. During our conversation, I learned that her sister lived a mile from my house in Oakland and, when I returned home, I delivered a bag of gifts from the Nepal sister to the Oakland sister. The world really is small!
I am not an especially outgoing person, but I am learning to talk to people, to ask questions, for no other reason than to make a connection. A lot of people know a little bit of English these days and humans are really good at sign language.
I love traveling with friends and family. It’s great to have the companionship and share the experience. But it’s easier for me to connect with locals and focus my emotional energy on my surroundings when I travel alone. If I am traveling with others, I take off on my own some days. We all don’t always want to do the same things and the stories my travel companion and I share over dinner are always enlightening!
When I was traveling in Cambodia, I went on a bike ride through the countryside with a tour company operated by a few local young people. The tour involved funky bikes, broken English and the most amazing experiences meeting locals in rural villages, all of whom treated my tour guide like a son. It was truly a highlight of my trip with experiences I never would have had if I had gone with one of the “ex pat” companies offering similar bike tours. https://kimmie53.com/2014/11/23/sabbayrikreay-waiting-for-carol/#more-2279
Sometimes it’s hard to find what is really local. Every big city is now full of international retail, like H&M, Starbucks, Prada, and Marriott’s. Maybe we need these reminders of home sometimes but these corporate franchises take money out of the community, hurting the small businesses run by local people. I try to eat at local cafes, food stalls, and public markets — and at the way-cool eateries owned by young people that offer fresh, innovative dishes, which you can find in most cities. Almost anything else in any price range is available in the small shops of the world’s cities, and their neighborhoods are more interesting than the malls.
Dress with a Little Dignity
For all of our wealth, American women are, on average, terrible dressers. Everywhere I travel, American women are in skin-tight leggings topped with body-hugging, waist-length t-shirts. This kind of attire (along with short shorts and little tank tops) almost assuredly provides too much information, especially in communities that are religious or otherwise traditional. Women in other countries (except Mexico I think) don’t dress like that because, eww. Tight polyester is not even comfortable! And guys, unless you are on the beach, ditch the wife-beaters and the shorts. (A little context for you: wife-beaters are so named after the character, Stanley Kowalski, in “A Street Car Named Desire” because, through most of the play, he wore them and beat his wife).
I am not usually a “relax” kind of person, but I have learned a few ways to enjoy my travels even more:
I try to spend more time in one place rather than a little time in several places, (although whether this is a good strategy depends on how much time you have).
I sometimes travel in the third class train car or on a local bus, rather than a tourist bus with air conditioning. I always meet people that way and I learn to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
I am careful about my safety, but I don’t worry that people are out to get me because most people are honest and want to be helpful. And I don’t enjoy myself when I am wondering whether someone is going to take advantage of me for a couple of dollars. (On the other hand, I do advocate for myself when I am assigned a hotel room that is windowless or smells like smoke).
I take days or afternoons off and allow myself to feel tired, frustrated or not entertained, even if I am in a place for only a few days. I find I am in better shape for the days I am out and about, and I really don’t need to see every museum anyway.
Not everyone wants to travel the way I do, or can — and I don’t always follow my own advice.
But if you like the idea of getting a little deeper into your travel experiences, here are a few simple suggestions…
Don’t hang a camera around your neck.
Sit at a counter instead of a table.
And avoid Venice.
(Apologies to Vic, who has heard it all before. Many times.)