Accidental Tourist

I started traveling solo because I craved the freedom to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, no compromise necessary. What I didn’t expect from this selfish indulgence was how much I would come to enjoying meeting and connecting with other travelers. I love hearing people’s stories and contemplating how we each ended up in the same place at the same time. I tend to look for the cosmic connections in what is usually just a random occurrence, and sometimes I do have to reign in my imagination. But still, I always learn something from each person I meet. It may be hearing about a destination I then add to my list of places to go. Or it may be discovering a band, film, or book I then add to my list of things to check out. I make a lot of lists. But, many times, it’s being inspired by someone’s life story, an inspiration I’ve drawn from travelers of all ages.

However, in a recent conversation with a traveler I had just met, I found myself experiencing a different reaction. While I enjoyed hearing about her adventures, at some point I noticed that she had frequently ended up in situations that could have easily turned dangerous. She was younger than me, and I recognized that in my early travel days I had done similar things. It was only when later reflecting upon my experiences that I considered how risky I had been with some of my choices. My romanticized Jack Kerouac-Before Sunrise illusions of bohemian travel had eventually matured into a romanticized Merchant Ivory standard of comfort travel. And I was okay with this. When this fellow traveler asked me about my travel mishaps, I hesitated. A part of me wanted to offer her advice, but I decided against it. She was old enough to make her own decisions. So I told her a few stories from my early adventures. And then the conversation ebbed and we went our separate ways.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about a particular part of our discussion. One of her mishaps involved a destination which I had been to as well. She had gone on her own, a hiking adventure that ended with her becoming misdirected as she returned to town. I had gone with a tour, which involved no hiking but still some time for exploration. I wouldn’t mind going back again and enjoying a proper hike away from the main road. But the reason our different experiences stayed on my mind was because, during my tour, I learned about the history of the destination, including a significant event that still shapes the character of the country today. She did not learn this. While she seemed to enjoy her solitary hike, even with her mishap, I felt bad that she wasn’t able to benefit from a full appreciation of where she was hiking. It’s possible that she felt bad for me, that I didn’t get the opportunity to explore beyond the tourist path. Yet experience has taught me to value the tour.

I used to avoid tours. In my younger days, I wanted to feel like I was exploring and discovering. Sure, I had a guide book. In fact, I usually had two guide books, a big one that stayed in my suitcase and a small one that fit in my cross-shoulder bag. I would read the big one at night, but didn’t bring it with me during the day because the last thing I wanted was to look like a tourist. I suspect that I looked like a tourist anyway. But somewhere along the line, my attitude changed. Well, everything changed, thanks to the internet, our phones, and social media. Tours no longer mean being part of a crowd and trying not to lose sight of the red umbrella. Tours are increasingly smaller, personalized, and, surprisingly, fun.

One of my favorite tours was a one-on-one walking tour of Bangkok. I found the company on Trip Advisor, and the owner partnered me with a local woman about my age. We spent the day walking around the city as she took me to the tourist sights but also showed me some of her favorite places. It was a great way to get to know the layout of the city, and as we walked past large tour buses stuck in the insane traffic, I almost felt like a local hanging out with my friend. I was only in Bangkok for one day, before meeting a friend at the airport for a trip to Cambodia. I could have walked around on my own, or visited a handful of tourist spots. But there is no way I would have had such a full and educational experience had I not gone on this tour. By the end of the day, we had also taken a river taxi and the Skytrain. When I had another day in Bangkok on my way back from Cambodia, I was able to spend more time in the city fully confident as to where I was going.

My experiences on smaller tours have also taught me how to be a more responsible traveler. Certainly, it’s hard not think about tours when discussing over-tourism. Yet, while opting against passage on a conspicuous, polluting tour bus may seem like the right thing to do, avoiding tours entirely is not necessarily the most responsible choice. Tours have undoubtedly left an environmental footprint, and in some cases contributed to the erosion of popular natural sights, but they can also be part of the solution. Local tour guides know the best alternatives to crowded sights. They know how safe a place is to explore, or which route to take when a main road is unavailable. Most importantly, they inform you on the cultures and customs of the destination, reminding you that putting that lava rock in your bag as a souvenir is disrespectful.

I can almost feel your resistance as you read this. We’re travelers, not tourists. We seek to blend in, not stand out. And I get it. I live in the Washington, DC area. Every spring and summer the caravans of large buses arrive full of tourists. They stop at the same places – the monuments, the museums, the Capitol, the White House. All important places to visit. However, I can’t help but think about all the other cool parts of the city these tourists will never see. It’s likely they have no interest. But other travelers do, so they explore the neighborhoods that they’ve read about on Thrillist and other sites. And these neighborhoods are just as worthy of a tour. Georgetown is pretty, but so much more interesting when you take an espionage tour, learning which house was used to spy on the Soviet embassy, or where the drop off point was for a secret document. Given the gentrification of the U Street neighborhood – home of “Black Broadway” during the early twentieth century – a stroll down the street may seem unremarkable without a tour to give historical and cultural context.

We all have our own motivations for traveling. I’ve found that most tourists have a specific reason for going to a particular destination, whether it’s exploring ancestry, visiting Game of Thrones filming locations, or fulfilling lifelong dreams of seeing famous landmarks. But I also know that there’s a group of us who are motivated by the experience of travel in and of itself. The destination is not as important as the act of discovering a new place, a new landscape, a new culture. Travel provides meaning to our lives. We can survive out of a carry-on for weeks. Even if we’re still working full-time jobs doing something else, the next trip is always being planned. But because we are the exploring type, we can feel like we don’t need the tour. We know how to figure things out on our own. Mishaps are part of the adventure, right? Some of my favorite travel memories have resulted from mishaps. But figuring things out is not the same as learning. And learning from a guide book is not nearly as interesting as learning from a guide.

Thinking back upon that conversation with the other traveler, I realize that part of her motivation may include proving that she did it. She traveled on her own and had a great time. I was the one who understood what she had missed. Perhaps she’ll return, or perhaps that box has already been checked for her. I suppose if I could go back to that conversation, I would offer her one piece of advice. Take a tour first, then allow yourself time to explore. It’s more fun to get lost when you know where you’re going.