Man sun tanning with clothes, Estoril, Portugal.

How not to be a tourist

One of my most memorable trips went to Sydney. Not because the five million city is any special, quite the contrary, but because the things I did didn’t fit the usual tourist plan. I spontaneously met up with a friend, a native Australian, to accompany my stay. Did he take me to the Opera House, showed me around Circular Quay? Nope. We simply drove around, went to the cinema, and picked up some take away at the local restaurant. Ironically, I ended up doing the same things I usually do at home.


Be a flâneur, not a tourist

The difference between a tourist and a flâneur is the map. The tourist has a predefined list of “sights”, discussed in detail during the hotel breakfast, accompanied by a specific plan on how to visit them. The route is pre-determined, logical, and time efficient. Even the next instagram post is carefully selected. He gets back to the hotel with a bunch of photos, almost identical to the previous guest’s who checked in to the exact same room the week before.

The difference between a tourist and a flâneur is the map. The tourist has a predefined list of “sights”, discussed in detail during the hotel buffet, accompanied by a specific plan on how to visit them. The flâneur, on the other hand, let’s randomness guide the way.

The flâneur, on the other hand, let’s randomness guide the way. Like an essay moving between subjects, he wanders from street to street in an unconventional, spontaneous way. He avoids big tourist attractions and relies on the luck of serendipity. He ends up finding a similar, yet unheard place just around the corner from the famous restaurant. As he goes through the menu, hand-written on a piece of paper, he gets to know the owner of the place who invites him to a private party the following night.

Being a flâneur, Bogotá, Colombia.
Be a flâneur, not a tourist, Bogotá, Colombia.

Go local, stay local

Just as you should be a tourist in your own town, you should also be a local when a tourist. How? You bring your ordinary habits. Go to the cinema, have a picnic, and get your hair cut at the local barber shop. Even better, stay local. Exchange the downtown hotel to an AirBnB apartment, preferably in the trending suburbs of the city. I once stayed in a 19th century apartment in Budapest, with a four meter ceiling and a ninety year old babushka living next door. Now that’s character.

When planning your next trip, explore the reasons for traveling other than traveling itself. Pick up an old friendship in Lisbon, take a music course in Moscow, or join a non-profit organization in Papua New Guinea.

When planning your next trip, explore the reasons for traveling other than traveling itself. Pick up an old friendship in Lisbon, take a music course in Moscow, or join a non-profit organization in Papua New Guinea. Why not find your inner self on a Ayahuasca trip to Ecuador or learn to connect during a Tantra retreat in Bali? As part of a photography project, I decided to visit all the USSR metro systems in former Soviet Union, from Saint Petersburg in the west to Novosibirsk in the east.

Finding yourself, Urubamba, Peru.
Finding yourself, Urubamba, Peru.

One of the best ways to go local is by using public transportation. You will not only get exposed to all that random stuff going on in everyday life, but also get to ask the stupid question “So, what’s the next station?”, picking your innocent fellow passenger on the shoulder. Believe me, it’s one of the easiest ways to expand your international circle of friends, getting a local’s insight everywhere you go. If you are lucky, you might end up on the wrong train in the wrong direction and get to see something you never were suppose to see.

De-peacocking

Every backpacker knows that the cost of living fluctuate in relation to the amount of sun tan. Walk out of Bangkok International Airport as a pale unexperienced Westerner and you have to double up just to get a taxi to the hotel. But the biggest disadvantage looking like a dumb tourist is something else. Getting scammed. Something I got to learn the hard way.

Every backpacker knows that the cost of living fluctuate in relation to the amount of sun tan. But the biggest disadvantage looking like a dumb tourist is something else. Getting scammed. Something I got to learn the hard way.

As when I got chased thought Beijing for rejecting “having tea” with two flyers passing girls and almost got my camera smashed to the ground. Or when the price suddenly quadrupled after a taxi ride in Almaty, communicated by my neck tattooed driver, looking more like a wrestler on steroids than a chauffeur. Not to mention the good old fashioned “Bird poop scam” I was exposed to in Buenos Aires, while taking a walk next to the hotel in broad daylight.

Blending in, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The solution? You blend in. Leave your brand new white sneakers at home and pack some sober clothes in darker shades. Ask yourself, is this the outfit I would normally wear at home? Do I constantly walk around with a bottle of water or an umbrella? Ironically, people in Southeast Asia never wear shorts because trousers are much more effective against the sun. And everyone traveled to Italy knows that Italians dress according to the calendar, not the weather, and layer up in the autumn regardless of the temperature.

Don’t chase the seasons

So, when is the best time to travel? The uninspiring answer from the mainstream travel community is to go for city breaks in the autumn, sunny destinations during winter, and skiing resorts at spring. As it is that simple. Of course, you don’t want to spend your once-in-a-year Thailand vacation under an umbrella, but there is a huge hidden value in going places off-season.

Try Japan in late fall when the leaves turn red or head to Stockholm during the cold dark winter, getting the whole city for yourself. When American photographer Steve McCurry covered the monsoon period in India, he captured some of the most iconic photos of his career. You will get surprised how the atmosphere of a place may change with the seasons. Head to the French Riviera post summer and you will get a completely different impression of the Côte d’Azur, far away from the superficial jet set crowds.

Winter wonderland, Stockholm, Sweden.
Winter wonderland, Stockholm, Sweden.

Instead of chasing the seasons, plan your trip after some local event or festival. Try the White Nights of Saint Petersburg, the Holi Festival in India, or the Goroka Show of Papua New Guinea. Trim your timing even more to catch a local jazz festival, participate in a marathon race, or indulge in your friend’s big Iranian wedding. One of my best friends eagerly told me everything about Burkina Faso, getting back from the pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou, where he had the trip of his life.

Instead of chasing the seasons, plan your trip after some local event or festival. Try the White Nights of Saint Petersburg, the Holi Festival in India, or the Goroka Show of Papua New Guinea.

What if the place is still too crowded? Try visit some major attraction at night. When we are so used to make these kind of excursions in daylight, doing it the other way around often changes the mood of the place completely. I once trespassed myself into the Κourion Amphitheater in Cyprus at 3 o’clock in the morning. It happened to be one of my best travel memories yet. Carpe noctum.

Local jazz festival, Lima, Peru.
Local jazz festival, Lima, Peru.

Doing the opposite

Two questions you always get traveling Southeast Asia are “Where have you been so far?” and “Where are you heading next?”. The exception, of course, is in Indonesia where everyone already knows the answers. “Bali, and nowhere else but Bali”. Doing the opposite than the majority is the key to unique travel experiences. And going your own way is the single most important aspect of not being a tourist and a prerequisite for finding the next big thing.

Doing the opposite than the majority is the key to unique travel experiences. And going your own way is the single most important aspect of not being a tourist and a prerequisite for finding the next big thing.

Going your own way, Palawan, Philippines.

Don’t waste your time on crowded tourist traps, standing in line for the famous bakery. You know the places. The Café de Paris in Monaco, La Coupole in Paris, Raffle’s Hotel in Singapore. Ask yourself, would Hemingway go to Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West if he had lived today? Probably not. So do your homework and figure out where the people are heading today, not a hundred years ago. To quote the Persian poet Shaikh Sa’di: “A traveller without knowledge, is like a bird without wings”.


All images © 2021 Erik Ekberger. Travelgrapher is a registered trademark. All rights reserved.

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