01 October 2010

Finding the new on the beaten path (it's easier than you think)

“The traveler, then, was working at something; the tourist was a pleasure-seeker.The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.' ” -- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image

I know, I know. I've already said I'm done with the whole "traveler" vs. "tourist" thing. But as I went back through my notes from The Tourist, I rediscovered the Boorstin quote at the top of this post, and I was struck that this is a common sentiment: proper travel is active, while shallow/inferior/cliched travel is passive.

I'll put aside for the moment the fact that passive travel has its place, that cruises and Disney World and time-shares provide a much-needed, all-inclusive escape for so many over-worked people who want to use their hard-earned two weeks of vacation time on some rejuvenation. Another post.

What interests me most, at the moment, is that if you go by the active/passive definition, then the destination is irrelevant. If mindset is all that matters, you can go to Disney World as a traveler and to the most remote parts of the globe as a tourist.

In Berlin, Lee and I took a walking tour of the city. It started at a Starbucks by the Brandenburg Gate. As we waited for the tour to begin, we watched street performers and trinket-hawkers do their thing, as you'll see anywhere on the tourist trail. Our tour group was mostly backpackers in their twenties (like us), and I'll confess to expecting, almost hoping for, some stereotypical stoner-hippie-"I'm not a tourist" types. It would have made hilarious fodder for the book.

I came up empty. Everyone was inquisitive and engaged, peppering our guide with questions and genuinely interested in the landmarks and history.

In the most fundamental sense, we were sightseers, surveying the landmarks of the city in whirlwind fashion and taking absurd amounts of photos. I even did the tourist thing and got my passport stamped at Checkpoint Charlie. ... But I did that because I wanted to talk to the guy selling the stamps. He was wearing an American military uniform from World War II, but I had a pretty good hunch he wasn't American or, for that matter, originally from Germany. I figured he had some interesting stories, maybe even some insights into tourists or tourism or the Berlin's split personality of both commemoration and commercialization. ("I'm from here, of course," he said, taking offense when I asked where he was from. "Right, sorry!" I replied. A few minutes later, he added, proudly, "I've been here six years!")

I can't help but think--and perhaps this is a bit of smugness creeping in, but I hope not--that we were, in fact, more actively aware of where we were (geographically, culturally, historically, and otherwise) than people who go on a package tour of Antarctica or see Thailand as a never-ending party fueled by mystery booze and banana pancakes

In every city, Lee and I wandered until we got lost and then we wandered some more. We asked locals for directions. We chatted with souvenir vendors and bartenders and others who saw the tourist experience from the other side. We stopped to read the historical markers. Granted, we weren't settling down for a year or even weeks. Ours was a whirlwind tour. We didn't meet a lot of the Authentic, Eccentric Locals (TM) who populate so many travel memoirs. But we did our best to get a sense of the culture and the city in the short time we were there. We were tourists, no doubt, but we were active, always searching for what was beneath the surface. Does that make us "travelers"? Are the pursuits of pleasure and adventure mutually exclusive? To the latter question, at least, I'd say no.

Lee and I weren't outliers. As we saw on that walking tour of Berlin, plenty of "tourists" are active. Plenty of them are there precisely because the beaten path is full of stories. (I've said it before: avoiding somewhere just because there are lots of people there is just as absurd as going somewhere because other people are.) Many tourists--not all, but a whole lot of 'em--are pretty damn interesting. Case in point: Jian from Malaysia, who was also on our Berlin tour. He was taking the long way  home after getting his degree in England, and for him the Grand Tour was the fulfillment of a dream. He'd put in extra hours at his job as a waiter in London to save up for it. Or there was Sally, an American law school student also on that tour, who told me about all the books I should read about Berlin's history. Shall I go on? Point made?

There are plenty of stories to tell on the beaten path. You might need to put in some extra effort to find them, but they're there, if you're willing to ask around and talk to people. People have stories; places have stories. To take a walking tour of Berlin--and then to keep exploring the city on your own--is to see living history. To take in the sights of Rome--assuming you do your reading and ask your questions--is to learn why this stuff is important and cool, to understand the very good reasons why this path is so beaten. It may not be more active in the physical sense than, say, meditating in a hermit hut or climbing a mountain, but I bet it tells you more about history and (a specific) culture.

The point is this: if travel is all about the journey, not the destination, as the aphorism has it, then we have to concede that the beaten path can be every bit as interesting as the road less traveled, that in the midst of the ostensibly tacky environs of so-called tourist traps, we can find the new, the foreign, the surprising, the delightful.

Another aphorism: life is what you make it. The joy of travel is sometimes hiding in plain sight. Find it.


  1. I agree with you that there are plenty of butt munches to be found on the beaten path as well as off of it.

    I had a bunch of backpackers who heaped scorn on me in Toronto because I went to Niagara Falls and had a great time (too touristy for more than a dash in to take pictures and then to leave). Having done some of the more hard-core stuff I just left them to it, I was not going to change their minds even if I did tell them about the time I escaped a flood in rural cambodia or the week I spent in North Korea, all I would have done is encourage a backpacker pissing contest.

  2. Ah, yes, the place-dropping game. Better not to play that one. Funny how many backpackers seem to think that the only worthwhile trips are the miserable ones. Not that I endorse always seeking out the shelter of the familiar and the comfortable--not at all. But there are cool things, interesting things, about every place, both remote/exotic and on the road most traveled.

    That said, I'm pretty sure your week in North Korea would have trumped anything they'd done. Bet that was an interesting experience. (Actually, I just read a couple of your blog posts about that and, yeah, it DOES sound really interesting.)


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