I began my trip in Dublin, Ireland. After a full day on two planes with a lovely 13-hour layover in Boston, I arrived at the crack of dawn, severely jet-lagged, dehydrated and exhausted. After a full day recovering, I went, with my guidebook as my bible, around Dublin, exploring every sight that was listed and taking countless pictures.
I tried to find the ‘best’ of everything: the best food, the best streets and the best beer. Well, the best according to my guidebook. My first lesson learned in travel was that ‘best’ in the guidebook did not mean best for me.
The ‘best’ for me was meeting the people and experiencing the culture in an authentic, honest way. What better or easier place to get in touch with the local culture than in Ireland? This was the easy to do after stashing my guidebook in my bag and relying on wonderfully open and chatty people with the ‘gift of gab’.
I found my guidebook was acting like a barrier between me and the culture. I was obviously a tourist and too often, tourists are a nuisance to the locals, especially when they think they know exactly what they are seeing and where they are going or if they don’t know, by golly, they can figure it out by themselves or with their trusty guidebook. Tourists are, stereotypically, the ones with the big map unfolded on the street corner or their nose in their book, walking into people trying to get somewhere. Ugly tourists. We’ve all seen them. We’ve probably all been one at some point. I know I have. But I realized quite quickly that this was not who I wanted to be anymore.
There is a huge difference between seeing a culture and immersing yourself in one. Sadly, many tourists go to see a culture, to observe it from their 5-star hotel and come back home to tell their friends what they saw. I prefer to immerse myself. I like to get to know people, live in their life for a while and take a bit of their culture along with me.
It’s not that difficult to meet people (especially in very friendly Ireland). My favorite and most memorable moment was when I walked up to a bunch of Irish guys dressed up in green outfits. I can’t even remember what question I asked them, but it must have been why they were dressed up or something to that effect. They were so enthused that they picked me up, told me to give one of them my camera and all the sudden, they were throwing me up in the air and cheering. I have no idea how it happened, but that moment is one of my favorite from Dublin.
Going out of the ‘tourist bubble’ and into the local culture can be so rewarding. Just in the possibility of going for a drink with a new friend is better than going alone makes it worth doing. It can be simply asking someone directions to a specific place or asking their suggestion for a good place to eat (and I can assure you their place will be more local and authentic than the one in your bestselling guidebook). It can be the highlight of your trip. It’s something you can’t search for. It happens naturally.
People you meet this way can have huge effects on your day and, likewise, you can change theirs. They might decide to show you where their favorite cafe is and sit down and have a coffee with you and you can spend time learning from each other, comparing your cultures’ similarities and differences. Of course, they might just blow you off and you’re left with your question unanswered, but then you just have another memory unique to you.
The experiences you have immersing yourself in the culture are not the same as your guidebook taking you to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, but they are both wonderful experiences in different ways. I can guarantee you will be one of millions to see the Mona Lisa, but by going outside the tourist bubble, you will have a very unique experience that no one else can match!