Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. It’s a little speck on the map; getting here required a big plane, another big plane, a taxi, a small plane, a small boat, then an even smaller boat. It is, you might say, off the beaten path.
Off the Beaten Path
In my daily life of reading, thinking, and planning travel, I see the phrase “off the beaten path” all the time. Lots of travel writers—especially on Instagram, for some reason—like to throw that around. But what is it, other than a way of labeling yourself “not an average tourist?”
What’s wrong with being an average tourist, anyway?
We have a definite preference for places where tourists go, because we ARE tourists. (Not insignificantly, we also really want a certain minimum level of tourism infrastructure: hotels, internet, restaurants, things to do/see). We are not locals, never will be. We’re just passing through. I’ve read that Iranians don’t eat out much, therefore the best food is found in people’s homes. That’s the only reason it’s taken us this long to commit to a visit. I’m too much of an introvert for that. I don’t want to have to eat all my meals with strangers, so that’s why I’m glad we’re going with a tour group (not that we have a choice)—at least by day two, my table mates won’t be strangers.
Because of the time we’ve spent in touristy places, we now know people all over the world—other tourists we’ve met and befriended. Sometimes tourists are interesting people—shocking, I know. We’ve met Chinese journalists, older Dutch sisters, an English family with two young daughters living in Singapore and vacationing in Sri Lanka, a Brazilian couple in Myanmar whose all-time favorite holiday spot is Zanzibar—I could go on. There was charming group of young Kiwis backpacking through Laos, an Israeli mother and daughter on a pre-military holiday in Vietnam, an American family who chucked it all in and spent two years traveling all over the world with their teenager. All fascinating, engaging people, many of whom we’ve kept in touch with and would dearly love to spend more time with.
When I look at tourism through the lens of all the other tourists we’ve met, and which group of people I identify with, everything becomes a blur. When we met the Chinese couple, we were in the north of Jordan. They were as far out of their element as we were. We were all tourists, in a home stay with a local family, as well as a visiting Saudi family. We’ve stayed in touch with the Chinese couple—they’re awesome, fascinating people. If we met up with them again in China, they’d be locals, and we’d be tourists. Does that mean a wall would go up between us? Would it change my sense that we had connected with them over our shared experience in Jordan? I don’t think so, but it sure wouldn’t make us locals.
When we were in Beijing a couple of years ago, we found it a little difficult to meet local people, because not so many spoke English. That’s often the case. But when you meet tourists from a country that you’ve been to, or want to go to, there’s often a commonality (the desire to see more of the world) there that makes the connection easier. They’ve often learned enough lingua franca to be able to manage outside of their home country. Luckily for us, the lingua franca of the last fifty years or so has been English (I don’t expect that to last).
One thing we love to do is go to the mall. Lots of American travelers wouldn’t be caught dead in the mall, either at home, or when they’re visiting another country. But we almost always go, at least once. You know what? The mall is definitely “off the beaten path.” You almost never see tourists in the mall. If you REALLY want to get “off the beaten path,” go to whatever the local version is of the Golden Corral. That’s where real people go, normal people. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul? Nothing but tourists—not that there’s anything wrong with tourists.
From my writer’s notebook: Egyptology buffs, take note: the new Antiquities Museum in Cairo is scheduled to open late this year, but in the interim (and for those who think Egypt is too far off the beaten path), the biggest Tutankhamun exhibit ever assembled is currently in London. It’ll be there until May 3rd; as far as I can tell, tickets are still available, so if you’re going to be in London in the next couple of months, go. From everything I’ve heard, it’s wonderful.
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