Why I Am Not Like Other Tourists

I’m very quiet, so you hardly know I’m there until you see my bright-yellow safety vest, my walking stick, and my traveller’s badge, which features an image of binoculars and reads “World Explorer: Official.” To blend in, I wear khaki shorts with deep pockets, like a local.

I study the region’s language. For example, in many languages, I know how to say, “Hello,” “Do you have lite mayonnaise?,” and, “What is the Wi-Fi password?”

I wear my sandals with socks to prevent chafing. My socks are a heathered oatmeal color, and I feel that they lend my travel outfits a special warmth and authenticity.

I can go without air-conditioning for a few minutes.

I like to eat how the locals eat. For instance, I know that Maine is famous for its seafood and I have a feeling that people who live there eat fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But, when I was visiting Maine, a resident told me, “Well, I like to go to Denny’s.” I said, “For fish, no doubt.” He said, no, he prefers hash browns, but I imagine that’s highly unusual in Maine.

Sometimes, I get off the beaten path. I like to walk on the grass right next to the path, just to see what that feels like.

Some tourists take a tour bus everywhere. I’ll admit, I do that—I ride to old churches, museums, and historic battlefields. But I don’t just ride the bus—I get off the bus, as well. In fact, I may even check out a nearby fish market, buy a cooler of fresh hake, and bring that on board, so that I can cook it up on a hot plate back at the hotel. It can be a struggle to hold a cooler of hake on your lap, but that’s the thing about travel—it’s not always easy.

If I get lost, I can find my way back to the hotel using my wits, dramatic hand gestures, and smartphone. I used these survival tools when a tour-bus driver left me behind one time at a fish market in Spain, where I had just purchased some cod. I’m sure it was all just a miscommunication about what time I was expected back on the bus—maybe I needed to return by 16:30, not 17:00. That’s how time goes in Spain—it goes into the teens, up to 24 o’clock. I finally got back to the hotel at 19 o’clock, ate some of the cod, and slept like a baby. What a day.

I understand that, when I am travelling, locals might eat dinner at a different hour than I am used to. Dinner is important to me, but I can eat it at 7:30 instead of 7:00 if that is customary for the people of a particular region.

One time, in Spain, someone said, “Actually dinner here is served starting at 21 at night, also known as 9 P.M.,” and I said, “But that’s bedtime.” Then I thought, “Hold on. Maybe at around 18 o’clock, to tide myself over, I can have some smoked mackerel fillets, and then do a little waiting.” And you know what? That fish kept me sated until the big bedtime cena. (For those of you who haven’t been to Spain, that means “dinner.”) Getting out of my comfort zone is what travel is all about.

Next, I’m off to Florence, Italy. I’ll be heading to some lesser-known spots that Rick Steves highlighted on PBS.

If you live in Florence and spot me striding around in my safety vest, take a second to think, That person must be from the area—look at how confidently they stand. Then come on over anyway, introduce yourself, and invite me to join you for a conversation about local things, in a local place for locals that also has powerful air-conditioning and room for my fish cooler. I look forward to meeting you! ♦

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