While in Italy one summer, my dad caused my entire family to be kicked out of a gelato shop.
My beloved father suffers from the tourist-disease that seems to plague a majority of Americans when they travel abroad: he’s a bit loud when exploring foreign cities, and expects every country to operate like the US.
That particular incident mentioned above occurred in Rome when I was just a shy 12-year-old. It should come as no surprise that I was appalled when the Italian shopkeeper began to yell at us in Italian as we scurried outside (all I could understand was “stupid Americano”) because my dad had helped himself to some ice-cream before paying for it.
Where my dad is from in America that harmless action is normal – no matter how much he ate by the time he reached the register he would’ve paid for it. Of course, the Italian shopkeeper didn’t know my dad’s intentions – and she wasn’t pleased that this American felt compelled to act well, like an American, and take whatever he wanted; when he wanted it.
Over the years I’ve come to understand the differences between being a ‘tourist’ and being a ‘traveller.’ Personally, I prefer the latter.
Nowadays being a “traveller” has become somewhat of a mainstream, social media #trend. Therefore the word itself has lost the weight it once held, but I think it’s important to maintain the distinction between these concepts.
Kaitlyn Cawley from Off the Grid actually wrote a fantastic article for Elite Daily this year discussing the differences between a tourist and a traveller, saying:
“Tourists squander; travellers wander.”
Cawley describes tourists as those individuals who go to places for the photos and the opportunity to say “been there, done that.” Whereas travellers seek to explore new places and immerse themselves within. Often, they stay for longer periods and visit more than just the monuments and museums.
Cawley’s article doesn’t go far enough however, because she doesn’t expand on the important relationships that exist between tourists-and-locals, and travellers-and-locals. There are important distinctions to make, because anytime an individual travels to a new place they leave an impact on that city, town, or country. Either negative or positive depending on their actions and behaviour.
Most of the time a tourist tours the place they’re visiting without interacting with locals (except for tour guides and shop-keepers), while a traveler seeks to meet locals and understand their country through their eyes.
So with that said, here are four ways you can be more of a traveller instead of just another tourist.
Do your homework.
I’ve met plenty of tourists and so-called travellers who visit a country or city without knowing anything about it. You need to know more than the particular monuments, museums, and other sites you want to visit – you should know the cultural, political, and social context of that country. What kind of government do they have? What issues are they dealing with? What types of behaviour are offensive? What languages do they speak? What’s their history? Do locals even like tourists?
You get the point.
Doing your homework beforehand will better prepare you for interactions with locals, and actually allow you to have meaningful conversations that can expand your knowledge and understanding of that place.
Learn the language.
Of course you will not be able to converse fluently in the local language of every place you visit abroad – unless you’re an incredibly gifted person. Learning a few words however, can go a long way – particularly if you’re hoping to immerse yourself and speak to locals. Often, just understanding how to say “hello” and “how are you?” is enough to break down the barriers between foreigners and locals. Once they’re comfortable with you, and they feel you’re not just another damn tourist then you’ll have a better chance at having awesome and sincere conversations.
Don’t just talk to locals, listen too.
Americans really struggle with this. Unfortunately, I’ve been told time-and-time again that Americans are some of the easiest tourists to spot. Why? Because we’re loud. While visiting Cambridge last summer, a local barista told me that one morning a group of Americans walked into her shop, and before she even took their orders she knew where they were from, what they ate last night, and that one of them had hooked up with an Australian guy in London.
She didn’t ask for any of this information, they were just so loud that she overheard it.
Don’t be those Americans! Go sit in coffee shops instead, and talk to locals like that barista. Listen to their thoughts on their country or city, without interjecting your own opinions or experiences – unless asked of course. You’re there to listen and learn, not to be heard and educate.
Share your experience, not just your photos.
OK, I’ll admit I’ve done this before. I love taking photos, and there is self-gratification in posting a beautiful photo on Instagram of that cool mural you saw in Istanbul. However, travelling isn’t just about beautiful pictures, or the Turkish coffee you brought back for your mom. It’s also about the story behind that picture – what is the history of that mural? What does it mean to the locals who pass it everyday? Why is coffee so integral to Turkish culture?
Again, you get the point.
The easiest way to go about becoming a traveller rather than just a tourist, is to put yourself in the shoes of locals. Share the stories, ideas, and history that you would want people to know about your own country.
Be present, aware, respectful, empathetic, and most of all – quiet.