Authentic adventure may involve avoiding the 'tourist blob'
September 28, 2016
I spent a month this summer traveling abroad in Scotland through the UW-River Falls Wisconsin in Scotland (WIS) program. While I was there, I happened across an exploration phenomenon that seasoned travelers likely recognize and which first-timers should beware of. I’ve come to call it the "tourist blob."
A common theme in the WIS orientations was "Get outside your comfort zone." We were encouraged to try new foods, explore strange places, talk to natives, etc., and I discovered that the very worst way to do this is to tour around with a large crowd of people you’re familiar with.
It’s difficult to talk with natives when you’re cocooned inside a crowd of fellow Americans. It’s difficult to wander into shops you find interesting, or towards food you’d like to taste. You are, in effect, insulated from the culture.
I met a woman named Aileen (Gaelic for Helen) while taking a ferry off the coast of Scotland, and she told me that her daughter had gone traveling alone when she was about my age.
“She liked it better because she found people talked to her more and she saw more of the culture when she was alone. When you’re traveling with someone, you’re talking with them, and you never get to talk with anyone else,” Aileen told me.
I disagree with her slightly; the ideal number of companions is, in my opinion, one. A traveling partner is nice to have because two heads are better than one—two pairs of eyes watching for critical information, two brains keeping track of tickets and schedule—and sometimes it’s just nice to have a buddy. Bad situations seem a little less terrifying when you have someone familiar to share them with, and having someone to watch your back is invaluable (especially if you’re petite and female). At the same time, you’re still open to talk with strangers and meet new people, and it’s fairly easy to move about with and keep track of just one other person.
Another thing to beware of is tours. They can definitely be a fun, interesting way to see a country and a good one will get you off the bus and into the culture—the MacBackpackers tour organized by WIS, for example, was fantastic. The danger, however, lies in falling in with a guide like Malcolm, the bus driver who grudgingly hauled myself and some 20 or so tourists on a Paddywagon tour around Ireland.
We spent a lot of time on the bus, and what time we spent off it at landmarks such as the Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Hedges was brief and rushed. Conversely, groups of us were periodically stranded in big, sketchy parts of cities like Belfast and Londonderry, and he once abandoned us at a pub for the night without showing us where the hostel was.
The trick with tours is to pay attention to reviews. Check online, get a guide book and if possible, ask people who have gone on lots of tours to see what they recommend. Keeping away from extended tours (6 or more days) is also a good rule of thumb, on the off-chance that you end up with a guide like Malcolm.
Personally, I found that I like to avoid tours altogether. They can be a good way to get insight and history about an area (as well as accommodation and transportation), but they do not provide the same level of personal challenge and freedom that comes with going it solo.
I ended up doing a lot of solo traveling in Ireland after I escaped the Paddywagon tour. I figured out the train system, rented a bike, booked my own hostel and ended up doing a self-guided tour of the Gap of Dunloe. I met and talked with a variety of interesting people, and time and again had to rely on myself to deal with a crisis when things went bad.
It was terrifying, but in the end immensely gratifying to know that I can handle myself when things go horribly wrong. Traveling is an opportunity to "get outside your comfort zone," as WIS likes to remind us, and for those wishing to travel, my recommendation is this: Make your own plans.
Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.