Some of my least favorite sites when traveling are the tourists themselves when they are taking pictures of descriptive signs. Directly in front of them is the Eifel Tower or Niagara Falls. Instead of staring in wonder at something truly amazing, which they drove or flew thousands of miles to see, they ignore the awe-inspiring marvel, and focus instead on something secondary.
Or, instead of enjoying the spectacle for more than the obligatory thirty seconds (“Wow! That’s big.”), they saunter over to the row of gift shops and spend an hour or two there. Dumb. Not that I want to be judgmental, but really, really dumb.
Savor the experience. Linger. Listen. Wander around.
St. Andrews, Scotland, is more than a golf course. Every year thousands of people, when in St. Andrews, do no more than play golf and visit a few tourist shops. St. Andrews has an amazing history and is a charming as well as a vibrant village. I don’t play golf, yet St. Andrews is one of my favorite places on earth. My memories there have little to do with the Old Course. I remember my youngest daughter Julie and I wandering around through cheese shops and antique stores, walking along the coast of the Firth of Forth. Sally, Julie and I took a boat ride to the Isle of May and saw puffins and wandered on this uninhabited island for a few hours.
When traveling, if you can figure out what the locals do, then do it. I was in a random hotel once next door to the Chelsea football (soccer to Americans) stadium in London. I am no great soccer fan, but I paid my money and went to the game.
If you are visiting Chicago, go see the Cubs play. If you are in Kansas City, eat a steak. If you are in California, France, Italy or Spain, drink the wine. Eat ceviche in Peru. If you are in New York City, see a play, not a movie. If you are in Wyoming, ride a horse. Play dominos in a pub in Scotland. If you are on a South Carolina beach, get up early enough to see the sun rise over the ocean. This is not rocket science.
One of the first travel articles I considered writing was “Why I Would Not Send My Teenager to Europe without Me!” Sally and I were in London, staying near the Tower Bridge at the same hotel as a couple of tour groups of adolescents. Overhearing their conversation was easy enough. They were eating their meals at McDonalds and going to the same movies that were showing at the malls in America. Why travel if you are simply exporting an American experience?
I love international travel with my daughters. Jenna, Sally and I climbed the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza when Jenna was six years old. Jenna, Julie, Sally and I spent six weeks in England one summer. Julie, Sally and I spent a day on Gibraltar when Julie was a teen. A monkey jumped onto Sally’s shoulder and into her hair. You can’t pre-purchase spontaneous moments.
If I had to choose between purchasing mementos and experiencing memorable moments, I would choose the memories every day.