The tourist paradox
04/09/2014 - 04/10/2014 56 °F
To be [a tourist]
Or not to be [a tourist]
That is the question
The term tourist is one that I’ve struggled with for a while. The paradox of being a tourist but always striving to be the furthest thing from a tourist has been an ongoing battle on the road. If you read any long-term travel literature, you’ll find a recurring theme of people distinguishing themselves as a “traveler” vs a “tourist”, or analyzing and defining the differences. And I’m no different.
It’s even more pronounced on a long-term, no rush trip like this, but even on my last European tour 4 years ago with Nick, I found myself making conscious decisions to not be a tourist. If an activity fits into a Jeff Foxworthy-like “You might be a tourist if…”, I usually try to avoid it. Like what?
- I typically steer away from many of the “main tourist attractions”. Some for sure are worth seeing, and I try to pick those out, but some are so obviously tourist traps. Ex: The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, the famous old clocks in Prague and Munich, “The Heinekin Experience”, etc
Instead I try to find those unique, lesser known attractions
- I avoid any pub named “Euro Pub”, haha, where you will likely not find a single local in there. I much prefer to find those cheaper, less flashy pubs that may actually have a local or two in there.
- My favorite bar in Amsterdam is called “Cafe de Wetering” that Nick and I were brought to by our original Amsterdam host. Every time I’ve been there, I or the people I brought, were the only tourists, and they were so darn friendly and inviting.
- Recommendations from locals always trump what I read in a guide book.
- When renting a bike, I purposely avoid the most popular rental companies that only give you bikes that are bright red (or green or yellow) to label you as a tourist for everyone else to see.
- CouchSurfing is a great way to be this type of anti-tourist traveler. You stay outside of the major tourist areas, dine and/or drink with locals, and you can hit up your host for all of those local, lesser known recommendations for what to see and do.
In many ways, I have a little bit of a snobbish attitude towards “tourists”, thinking of myself as a better and more authentic traveler. This travel style has typically served me very well and made for some amazing experiences. The major problem in this grand plan is that when you’re traveling alone, tourist areas are the best place to meet people.
When you’re traveling, fellow travelers are the easiest people to meet and befriend. Even those traveling in groups are always looking to meet people from all over the world. For a solo traveler, hostels represent the best social structure you could hope to find - an oasis in this new and unknown land.
Likewise, touristy bars have the same environment, with an added in level of chaos that can only come from alcohol combining with groups of people dissociated from their normal lives and therefore free of normal social constraints. All of the 20-somes drinking their way thru European pub crawls, clammering for whatever alcohol they tell you is the local flavor. In many ways, I turn the other cheek to this, knowing that my way is better and more real. On the other hand, those pub crawls are a hell of a lot of fun, haha.
So after traveling for almost 3 weeks, I have made a decision. To really get the most out of this, I’m going to have to start embracing my inner tourist. I’ve been sticking to my guns, stubborn with my approach. I’ve also been CSing much more than going to any hostels. The first 3 cities that I hit (Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam) will likely be the top 3 most expensive cities I go to, so I was trying to be smart with my money, but in the end I’ve just be hungry for companions thru much of this. So more hostels and more touristy things! While I’m not abandoning all of my instincts, I’ve got to give that a try as well.
I did get this started at the end of my visit to Amsterdam. Trevor Fink rolled into town, which certainly helped this out. He wanted to see the Red Light District, so right away I broke one of my cardinal rules and went out in the tourist-filled Red Light District. The full happenings of the night got a little hazy near the end, but Trevor did have his umbrella destroyed by a prostitute. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I’m sure he deserved it.
The following day I hit up some of the popular tourist sites, specifically “I amsterdam” in Museumplein. It is actually a beautiful area and found myself just sitting down and really enjoying watching all these different groups of tourists figure out their poses. All ages and sizes, some were content with simply standing in front, while others wanted to climb the letters. Given my nature, I had to top them all:
While I was sitting there I recognized another solo traveler and introduced myself. When you are one yourself, it gets very easy to spot fellow travelers, even in non-touristy areas. Sporting a backpack or bag of some sort, they are typically taking things slow, trying to drink in their surroundings. And the budget traveler’s always got some cheap snack that he’s munching on throughout the day. Viktor, happened to be chowing down on a banana when I sat down. Bananas, btw, are the best vagabond food. They’re super cheap, nutritious, and naturally come pre-packaged.
We had a good talk, took each other’s classic tourist picture, and then were suddenly approached by 2 cute girls. At first I thought Viktor must just be a chick magnet, but instead they were there from a Dutch magazine, interviewing foreigners about what we thought about Dutch girls. After answering their questions and unsuccessfully trying to get the girls to join us for the day, I made sure to get a picture with them. Chalk one up for tourist traps.
I even caved and decided to check out the Heineken brewery, even though I really don’t like Heiney. It had always seemed like the classic tourist trap, but given my new philosophy, I wanted to give it a try. Plus its beer, so it can’t be all bad. I made it in the door and saw 18 euros for the “Heineken Experience”. Are you kidding me!?!?! I fell back into my old ways, split that overpriced tourist trap, and instead followed the advice of my good buddy Viktor and found my way to “the brewery by the windmill”.
Great brewery and fun tour (only 5 euros), so I guess my instincts do serve me well some of the time. Anti-tourism draws even. I will have to try to find the good balance over the next few cities. I know that continuing to take the locals advice is the way to go much of the time.
To be or not to be. That is [still] the question