The Merits of Being a Tourist

I usually hate the idea of being a tourist. The standard I try to avoid is the stereotypical Asian tourist: whirlwind travel of as many places as they can cram into an itinerary, awkward bulges created by fanny packs in bad places, cameras slung around their necks incessantly snapping every angle while forgetting to really take anything in. You’ve seen them. Ironically, I now herd these people around, although I try to have a positive influence by helping them see much more than big mountains or famous sites. Travel should change you. Helping people be affected by the places they experience is my mission as a tour guide.

That’s why my last day in Kenya was a strange experience. Over the last two months, I felt I had become a local, even on “the other side of town” where I lived and worked on our project. Although I rarely saw another white person and am under no illusion that I would ever fit in, I knew the routines and was comfortable enough following them. I had an informed opinion on Kenyan politics. I could speak enough Swahili to differentiate myself from the common muzungu. I knew the matatu routes. Besides the color of my skin, I was on my way to becoming a local.

Then a big group of muzungus came from the US and disrupted my world. We overlapped for only one day before I left Kenya, but in that day I experienced many things I hadn’t since I first arrived, almost 3 years ago. All of the sudden, I was no different from any of them, a tourist. During our overlapping day, each class at the school where I worked recited a poem or sang a song in honor of the visitors in a huge gathering. Afterwards, we stood in a line and hi-fived kids for a good 30 minutes before dishing up rice and beans for lunch. Later, we visited an orphanage where kids sang more songs and performed dances. In letting life become normal in Kenya, I had not made time for simple things like hanging out with these kids. It took the mission trip mentality to get me to do that.

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

The wonder and curiosity of being a tourist is something I want to capture and incorporate into my every day life. Why is it that wherever we live, we often stop experiencing new things? Life becomes routine and monotonous, when every place has so many things to keep us growing and learning for a lifetime.

That’s why when I had a 20-hour layover in Montreal, I decided to go experience something. After watching The Netherlands’ 5-1 spanking of Spain, all I really wanted to do was sleep but I rallied, walking somewhere – anywhere. I started out from my hotel until a bus pulled up next to me. Naturally, I entered, having no idea where it was going. Not knowing how to pay for the ticket either, the bus driver and I stared at each other for a good 5 seconds before I just sat down without saying anything. When the bus reached its final destination, I asked the driver how I should pay and he responded by giving me a free ticket – just for being a visitor. Since the bus ended at a metro station, I obviously had to see where it would take me. I picked a station that sounded nice (everything was in French) and got off, walking around for a while before eating fried rice at a cheap Chinese restaurant. As I looked out the window of the restaurant, I listened to Montrealers talk about playing bridge with their friends and different tax laws in Canada and the US.

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

I did make it back to the hotel, and although I was tired I’m glad I became a tourist in Montreal. It won’t be a major event in my life: it’s the attitude that’s important. Wherever we go and whatever we do, sometimes it’s important to be a tourist. You might feel out of place and it requires some effort, but it’s usually worth it.


7 thoughts on “The Merits of Being a Tourist

  1. I’ve worked in the tourist industry for several years in Juneau, AK, almost completely with cruise ship passengers. Those that made it here without the aid of a giant boat we’ve always referred to as travelers as a point of differentiation. The traveler must work to reach his destination, perhaps struggle, and become immersed in the culture, as opposed to tourists, who have most things taken care of for them. And the traveler takes chances, like boarding a bus with no idea where it’s going. Of course this is just one small sample of people that interpret the english language this way, maybe it’s the opposite in New York for all I know. Enjoyed your post, looking forward to reading more. Cheers!

    • Thanks for reading! True, maybe I should have made that distinction because I do believe there are good travelers and bad travelers or tourists, whatever you want to call them

  2. “Travel should change you.” I like that.

    And I like this: “The wonder and curiosity of being a tourist is something I want to capture and incorporate into my every day life.” I wish more people took the time to appreciate the daily blessings in their lives.

    Great post.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  3. We are never so much an outsider as when we allow the trivial things, the language, the customs, the appearance of biological race, to assert themselves as primary over the simple fact that the whole world is covered in Men, “who labor and love their children and die…” (as a genius once said of the whole human race), to assert itself over the fundamental similarity of us all. You must admit that all the songs and poetry intended for the foreigner in Africa makes him feel more foreign, and perhaps more aloof, but in any cases less akin to those from whom he should feel no natural division. It was once said of all Men that God created them and that Sam Colt made them equal; today it seems more the case that all Men are created equal, but that we have creatively introduced any number of subterfuges (such as race and nationality) by which this fact may be forgotten. Maybe that was the whole basis of our prejudice against a tourist: By looking at everything through the lens of “Look how different this is from the familiar!” we forget to recognize the fundamental links that inevitably connect all humanity. When we point a camera at another human being and remark on his difference from us, we are inviting ourselves to ignore the qualities we share, and emphasize the ways in which we differ.

    Excuse my rambling, keep up the good work, i always learn when i read your posts.

  4. The spanking of Spain was well overdue 😉
    Traveling places and becoming familiar with local customs and blending in is built up over a period of time. When I have a short amount time it feels good to do tourist things. Especially the first time in city or country.
    I lived in the US for a while. Looking back I blended in, but still lived with Dutch Glasses on. Somehow I kept feeling romantic as in travel romantic. Being away from home, getting to know people and comparing US with NL. For example I compared US high schools with Dutch high schools and felt depressed that high school in Holland seemed like such an unromantic place.(watched to many movies 🙂 ) I thought I missed out on a lot of great stuff. When I heard about the shootings I changed my thinking. We take our culture with us when we travel. Opinions are mixed with things we learn at home. Even commercials give us a feeling knowing the culture, but still we are individuals and don’t do everything that commercials tell us. I saw female products in the US that I never heard about. I was like: they use this? How strange.

    What I think is worse to being a stereotypical tourist: a tourist who doesn’t know where he or she is. One night I watched a Dutch travel show. They check up on Dutch people abroad during the summer. So they asked Dutch tourists in Spain to point out on a map where they are. Some people didn’t have a clue! Worst type of tourist in my eyes. But they had a good time and enjoyed the sun. Maybe they are just not interested in geography.

    Safe travels and greeting from Holland.

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