Tourist is a word often used in the pejorative, to describe a person who is clueless in a new situation, or a traveler who is just passing through and doesn’t really care. But tourist in the positive sense is an eager student ready to learn. And I hope everyone knows the difference.
I’ve noticed lately that when tourists attend a talk, whether in a private venue such as the Frank Lloyd Wright house or in a national park, the speaker starts with: “Where are you from?” After 25 years in the Foreign Service, I’m trained not to draw attention to myself or impart personal details. However, some people love to brag about their hometowns. This ice breaker lets the braggarts get over it early on.
Last month in the Grand Canyon, the southwest rim was only open to shuttle buses. That was okay since the bus drivers were full of great information. Unfortunately, a guy in my section of the bus, a Park Ranger from Boston, forgot he was a tourist. He launched into a long, loud spiel on the Revolutionary War. I like Boston. I do. Been there several times. However, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, and my goal that day was to learn about Arizona. Wish I knew the right words for this situation.
I have also recently met the tourist-cum-expert. When I go to a talk, I want to hear the local expert, and not some blabber mouth in the crowd, who corrects the speaker on every point or takes over the talk with his expertise. Half the time the speaker is so polite she doesn’t correct the tourist’s inaccurate information, so everyone leaves with a false understanding.
Two years ago my regular traveling group (of eight) went to Costa Rica and had the best tour guide ever. Though only 28, Nacho was wise beyond his years, and we loved him. We became sponges. When he saw our enthusiasm, he added as much as we could absorb, like early morning bird walks and evening critter hikes. We asked him about politics, music, religion, you name it, he knew it. It was the perfect symbiosis. When we left, we gave him a large tip and our e-mails in case he ever needed a reference.
We were shocked to receive a request within the month. His next group was senior citizens from Alabama. Whatever he showed them, they had a story about how things were better in Alabama—the beaches, the birds, the food, everything. When they left, they invited him to visit Alabama. He resigned instead. He had signed on to be a guide: to teach, to inspire, to lead. But when tourists morph into self-appointed guides, everyone loses. And this time Road Scholar lost a brilliant employee.
A spirited traveler must shed her ego and become a student. Someone who, no matter how much she already knows, still pursues enlightenment. If she’s quiet, it will come.