My friend Carla is an epic world traveler. Some people try to say I am, but I really don’t travel that much. I just take lots of pictures and over-post them on social media. I mainly go to Thailand to visit family, which I realize still constitutes a big global trip but the majority of my time there is spent hanging out in our family compound, reading great literary works of fiction while watching my cousins farm rice (I’ve tried to help; they’ve asked me to stop, explaining I am not actually helping but in fact making more work for them with my efforts), and making tons of merit providing food to the monks in the village temple (okay fine, I may also go to socialize with the other villagers and to eat the leftovers…). Apart from a very tiny handful of trips, including four days in Montreal in December 2012 and some side excursions during a 2013 visit to Thailand where I had friends from the US join me, all of my non-work travel involves spending time with local friends or family, doing normal things that don’t deviate too much from their daily activities and with very little special treatment. And even during that 2013 Thailand trip, although my cousins waited on my friends, cooking meals and cleaning up so they would feel comfortable as guests in our home (and also because my mom paid them), the second they left Thailand…and I do mean the very second they left, prepared meals and washed dishes were a thing of the past. “Here,” said my cousin, handing me a brillo pad after bidding my friends adieu. Domestic trips are usually very similar. New York City for me is less about Times Square and Broadway and more about delicious home-cooked Turkish dinners at my cousins’ apartment, and early morning walks through Central Park or the High Line. As an MBA recruiter, I have traveled extensively but this is less sightseeing and more airports, hotels and college campuses that you didn’t have the leisure to visit at length. Once I was in Buffalo for three days (a luxury in the graduate recruiting world) and I managed to gather a group of fellow recruiters together to spend some time at Niagara Falls in the evening. We ended what had been a marvelous night at the falls with a dinner out and let the local resident pick the restaurant. I was expecting a place with the best beef on weck or some great local dive. But instead, he took us to…the Olive Garden. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Olive Garden, but you can go to one in almost any city in the country. Pass the salt.
Because of my limited “tourist” traveling history, I had never actually taken a tour while on vacation. The thought of sitting in an open top bus in downtown Chicago getting only a superficial glimpse of a culture through aerial views of its people felt almost imperialistic. Sort of an “I have money that you want and I refuse to learn your language or have any meaningful connection with your people. Modify your cultural offerings to suit my amusement and tastes.” I know I am being dramatic but there appeared to be something very disconnecting for me to enjoy the fruits of a place without getting to know the people whose history and daily lives gave birth to those fruits. This open agenda with opportunities for organic discovery perhaps suits my personality but it also makes for very minimal sightseeing and the chance of pretty lousy meals. So for a milestone birthday in December 2014, I decided to take a chance on a fully touristic adventure with my world traveling friend Carla, where we were going to see the sights in Iceland. And we booked tours. Lots of tours. Where we traveled with other people not from Iceland. Who didn’t speak a word of Icelandic and who didn’t care that they didn’t. I felt like the long-term farang expat in Bangkok who barely spoke Thai and didn’t see the irony in it. However I realize that for a week’s stay, maybe it was okay that the only Icelandic most tourists had fully mastered was halló and takk (thanks). Maybe my linguistics standards for travelers could be adjusted down a bit.
I also discovered on this trip that tours, the right ones, are actually a very good way to see a place. Two things I loathe: Driving and navigating. On a tour, you don’t need to worry about either of those things. The only thing you need to worry about is getting back to the bus reasonably close to the departure times. As a human chatterbox who just can’t help but say hi to everyone who makes even side eye contact, I was guaranteed at least a handful of people would notice if I was missing from the bus even if the driver failed to do a headcount. And while the local cultural context is lost, you do have the opportunity to meet many people from around the world, giving you a somewhat global cultural experience that was just as engaging. And at the least, it was definitely a cultural plus up from interactions at the IKEA cafeteria back in Orlando.
While on tours in Iceland, I met a graffiti artist from New Jersey who explained to me the intricacies of what could best be described as a graffiti fraternity. We wandered through Þingvellir National Park with a sweet and very inspirational couple from Edmonton, Canada after we lost our tour group (because four people can actually lose sight of 46 other people in a massive snow-covered national park where the trek is mostly through valleys or on expansive pedestrian bridges over icy cold water running over the hardened volcanic rock). And while stuck in “traffic” behind a fleet of other Land Rovers with monster tires after chasing the Northern Lights, we may have had an epic iPhone rap battle with two businessmen from Dallas whom I now consider friends. Apart from the loss of local cultural interaction, another downside to taking a tour may include fifty people with cameras and selfie sticks in a tiny church in Iceland thereby ruining any chance of spiritual connection or even a decent picture. We were all there trying to get the same shot and wanted each other out of it. I did manage a single good photo after sneaking up the back interior stairs to the third floor where I found myself standing in front of the stained glass panel everyone was trying to photograph from below. Yes, I got out of the way once I realized it. I’m not intentionally rude, just very curious!
Visiting a place through tours allowed us to focus on discovering and experiencing the places before us without the hassle of researching/driving/navigating/having contingency plans for inclement weather and in general being prepared. There were still many magical moments as we trekked through the landscape, and although we had limited in-depth interaction with Icelandic people, we were able to gain at least a superficial glimpse into their lives and gain some insights for a more involved follow-up visit.