Six months and 15 countries later I returned to the States, but not to my previous life. The travel bug had bit me - hard; there would be no going back to a traditional job for me.
Four and a half years later, having recreated myself into a travel writer and photographer, I look back on those first six months and chuckle. In those days, travel was more about checking places off some imaginary list than truly experiencing them. The extent of my folly is best illustrated by a series of blog posts I wrote at the time; I chose three words - and only three words - to describe each country I visited. Thus, Italy for me was historic, passionate and colorful; while my three words for Tanzania were tribal, safari, and suspicious; and Thailand was decadent, exotic, and opulent.
Over the ensuing years, I have gradually metamorphosed from tourist to traveler. Partially, this is a result of traveling long term. Limited to a two or three week vacation, most tourists rush around, trying to see everything the guide book recommends. With the luxury of time, travelers care not so much for sights as authentic experiences. But this begs the question, what exactly is authentic travel? Broadly defined, it focuses on the culture and history of a destination, rather than its tourist sights.
Does this mean I would eschew the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre during a visit to Paris? Absolutely not, as both are cultural icons in the City of Light. However, since both are also tourist magnets, I would try to find a way to turn them into a local experience. After riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower I might relax for a couple of hours in a nearby coffee shop and strike up conversations with locals, asking about their lives and families. At the Louvre, knowing that tourists flock to the Mona Lisa, I would hunt down a matron and ask her to steer me to the most overlooked pieces in the museum.
In some places, authentic local experiences are easily found. In New Orleans, wander back alleys around Bourbon Street, where old-time musicians belt out the blues in one-room, smoke-filled clubs. In Switzerland, ride a cable car high into the Swiss Alps, where farmers in lederhosen herd cattle with enormous cowbells dangling from their necks between mountaintop and valley. Other places present more of a challenge. Cabo San Lucas, Mexico has succumbed to development and the lure of tourist dollars; its harbor and marina are indistinguishable from any one of a hundred in the U.S. And in Bangkok, despite a proliferation of gilded temples, the main attractions are shopping and sex shows.
Yet even in these two intensely touristy spots, it is possible to have an authentic local experience. In addition to haunting independent coffee shops, stay in locally owned hotels rather than chains. Find out where local musicians jam. Take public transportation. The most rewarding travel experiences result from interactions with local people, so the next time you travel, strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you in the coffee shop or on the bus. You'll take home memories that will last a lifetime.
Do you try and connect with locals on the road? Share your story with us.
Swiss farmers herding cows in the Interlaken Valley, Switzerland
About the Author
After years of working 70-80 hours per week at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, a serious illness made Barbara Weibel realize she felt like the proverbial "hole in the donut" - solid on the outside but empty on the inside. After recovering her health, she walked away from her successful but unfulfilling career, sold or gave away most of her material possessions, donned a backpack and traveled around the world for six months to pursue the only things that had ever made her happy: travel, photography and writing. Four years later she is still on the road, more convinced than ever that we are all more alike than we are different and that travel is one of the most effective tools in the quest for world peace. Read more on her blog Hole in the Donut World Travel.