For us, that word is dirty and tainted. It represents the ignorant masses who only visit monuments and eat at overpriced, mediocre restaurants. But lately, as I've found myself wandering the streets of Singapore with my camera in one hand and city map in the other, a tourist is actually exactly who I am.
Maybe the reason the word "tourist" has such a negative connotation is kind of our fault. We've spent the better part of our careers writing that word as if it's a bad one, associating a tourist with someone who is uneducated, ignorant or perfectly mediocre. People who flock to the Guy Fieri restaurants of the world because they just don't know any better. And I've even found myself ignoring incredible shots of bustling streets and markets out of fear the locals will stick a Scarlett T on my forehead and mumble profanities under their breath as I walk by.
And as I type that and realize it, I'm almost ashamed. Which is why I'm taking a stand on the misuse of the word. It's why I'm going to happily wear that bright-red T and snap photos of open-air markets and mosques. Why I'll happily ask the person next to me on the bus exactly which stop I need to find Chinatown. Because when you really think about it, being a tourist is actually a good thing. And here's why.
When you're visiting a place for the first time, you sort of enter it like a toddler with timid steps and wide, inquisitive eyes. Even those who come with 800-page guidebooks find themselves stopping locals to ask for directions or questioning the cab driver on his favorite dive bar. It's these qualities that keep us constantly learning and growing while we travel. Learning the often untold rich and turbulent history of Montego Bay from a born-and-bred Jamaican and finding the alleyway where Jack the Ripper slayed his prostitutes from a vibrant and colorful Englishman are the highlights of my trips, and they are usually the center of my stories from travel.
When people ask me what my favorite aspect of being a travel writer is, it's this: Having the incredible honor of meeting people from all walks of life, from diplomats to the homeless and everyone in between. As a tourist, especially one who travels alone, you're given a free pass to eagerly introduce yourself to the person next to you at the bar. Or talk politics or food with the farmers in the fields. I find it's so much easier to get a stranger to open up about his or her life when you're entering it as a complete outsider.
Being a tourist already marks you down as a risk taker, a person in search of new lands, new sights and exhilarating adventures. When you're a fish out of water in a crazy new place, you forget your fears, inhibitions and trepidations in order to get the most out of your experience. I'm not an avid outdoor sports person, but I happily repelled off a mountain in the Philippines. I'm terrified of flying, but I got into a two-seater float plane to soar to the San Juan Islands. It's almost like you turn into this incredibly bad-ass version of yourself. You learn just how amazing you really are when you let yourself be.
I live right outside of D.C., and I have seen my share of big-bus tourist groups. The ones who stop on a busy sidewalk to snap a photo of the Lincoln Memorial. And, when I was a 9-5 drone, I hated them. But now? I understand them. For many people, they only get that one trip a year, and they choose Washington, D.C. Snapping that photo of the memorial is the one way they can take their experience home. Sure, it'd be better if they stepped away from the commuters, but this is the way they record those once-in-a-lifetime moments.
No matter how you look at it, that statement is true. Whether we're traveling to Asia or America or Europe, we're all tourists somewhere. We all get lost on big-city subways and ask the local next to us which stop we need. We all pay too much for a crappy hamburger because we're starving. We all stop to take a picture of a snow-capped mountain, swaying palm tree, 14th-century castle or white sandy beach. We all talk too loudly on buses, stand where we're not supposed to, carry big maps and ask too many questions. We all buy tacky souvenirs to give to our moms. We are all tourists in this beautiful, big world and the sooner we all realize that the better. Because to me, being called a tourist is now something I'll take as the highest compliment.
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