I come from a family of travelers.
My mom, a director of an international nonprofit, travels so often that I rarely know where she’s gone off to, especially now that I live away from home. I’ll text her for small favors like forwarding me mail or saying hi to our dog, only for her to respond that she’s in France for the weekend, or Australia, or Amsterdam.
And while I love hearing the new stories she comes back with each time, my favorite trips are the ones where she takes my sister and I along with her. From Montreal, to London, to France, to Iceland, each journey brings with it a new adventure, and a new lesson.
Be a traveler, not a tourist.
This is something my mom has taught me through our trips together, and is something I still keep in mind any time I go exploring on my own. I think one of the most beautiful parts of traveling is the ability to explore the unknown. Diving headfirst into the mystery of a new place, immersing yourself in it, and surfacing with a new sense of familiarity and belonging, that is the essence of travel.
Touristing, however, does not follow this trajectory. Instead, it replaces mystery with comfort, the unknown with the familiar. Touristing is hurrying down the Champs-Élysées to seek out the Abercrombie or GAP. Touristing is selecting a restaurant with a menu full of pictures and simple English explanations. Touristing is spending a week on a resort that conveniently obscures the island’s poverty from view. Touristing may be fun, but does it really give you much to gain?
From our very first vacation together, my mom made sure we were always travelling, and never touristing. Everywhere we went, we explored, hoping that by the end of our vacation we would know what it was like to live there as a local. We wandered side streets on the edge of town. We asked hotel staff where they ate in their free time. We rode subways so much we nearly had their maps memorized. We didn’t wait for hours to visit the top of the Eiffel Tower; we bought sandwiches and admired the monument from the park. We didn’t care about the landmarks or the “must-sees.” We only cared about the culture.
As author Erol Ozan once said, “Some beautiful paths cannot be discovered without getting lost.” Over the course of my travels, I’ve found this to be an incredible truth. The times where I ventured off the beaten path, and into the shops and cafés tucked away in the shade, are the times when I’ve felt the most astounded by the city I was in. This is where the culture is at its strongest and most authentic. Down a quiet alley with laundry strung across the balconies and cats napping in the sun, nothing is asking for attention. As I stroll down the cobblestone, I lose all interest in reaching for my camera, and forget that I’m a foreign visitor at all. In that moment, I suddenly feel at home in a place I’ve never been before. And that, I think, is travelling’s greatest reward.
So go travel.Take in new cultures exactly as they are. Look past the main attractions, seek out the smaller storefronts, discover hidden gems, and lose yourself in your surroundings. Don’t fear the unknown, embrace it until it seems familiar. Be a traveler, not a tourist, and you might just find that some things in Paris are even better than the Eiffel Tower.
Kathryn Rowe is an undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, pursuing majors in Business and International Studies. She is working to tackle local food security and sustainability issues in Richmond, particularly through working with a sustainable produce garden and by serving as president of the university food bank. An avid traveler, Kathryn plans to study abroad in the future and implement similar sustainability and food security projects in at-risk communities.