The rules of being a tourist

In the summer of 2019, I was cycling along Drake’s Trail. It was a beautiful day, I had time on my hands, and just a rough idea to cycle out to Okehampton, and back, also riding on the Granite Way.

Just as I passed through Yelverton, there are a set of double gates on the path, to prevent ponies and sheep from straying onto the roads, and a girl on a bike held open one of the gates for me. After thanking her, she replied in a gorgeous accent “You’re welcome”.
I stopped in Tavistock for a coffee and a slice of cake, and as I was getting ready to go, I saw her again, so we started chatting.

She was in the UK on holiday from Italy, and she was thinking of riding towards Okehampton, so we decided to cycle together for a while. The ride was slow, as we stopped often to take photos. More accurately, I was taking photos of her, using her phone.

She kept taking photos of sheep in fields. If you know anything of not only Devon, but almost anywhere in the UK, you’ll know it’s difficult to be anywhere rural without seeing sheep in fields, so I asked her about this enthusiasm.

Her reply was simple and superb: she said that it was a quintessential British scene.

Her words, right there, was a life-changing moment for me, and since, when out for a bike ride, I try to take at least one photo of sheep, purely to remind me to always be a tourist, even in areas local to me.

Valeria, I can never thank you enough for that, as the realisation that it’s so easy for us to become jaded by, and therefore blind to the everyday beauty right in front of us will live with me forever. (And yes, she’s genuinely called Valeria, she’s charming, gorgeous and a pleasure to spend time with, but I’ll not tell you her surname).

So, about these supposed “rules” of being a tourist – well, rules might be too strong a word for some of them, and not strong enough a word for others.

  • Always be a tourist. This may sound stupid, but one of the saddest things is a tourist walking around with an “I’ve seen it all and nothing is wondrous to me” attitude. The world is wonderful. Open your eyes, and see it. Yes, even in things that may otherwise seem ordinary and mundane there is wonder, but you have to look again, with fresh eyes. You can thank Valeria for this one.
  • Never be one of those tourists. Never look down on others. Never point, stare, and laugh at locals. No matter what you might think, no matter where you’re from, no matter where you are, you’re neither better, nor worse than the locals.
  • Respect nature. This is not-negotiable! NEVER litter, and do pick up litter that you see. Yes, even if someone else dropped it. The old adage of “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” apply.
  • Go visit a local bar/tavern/drinking hole, if you drink alcohol. Not the glitzy, hip bistro bar. Visit a place used by locals. Next, talk to the locals and listen to them. Do not simply tell them all about where you’ve been. You’re there to learn about them.
  • When planning your trip, slow it down. You’ll gain nothing of value by racing through an overloaded itinerary. Take your time, as life is all about experiences.
  • If going somewhere you’ve never been, read up about it. Ideally, buy a book from an author local to the area, and avoid the obvious tourist guides (though sometimes they contain good information).
  • Be child-like. Be amazed. Spot the little things, as that’s where you’ll see the wonder.
  • If travelling somewhere foreign, learn to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you in the local language, as an absolute minimum. Also learn what is considered offensive or rude in the local customs.
  • As far as is possible, avoid flying. Climate change is real, and your leisure trip isn’t important enough to kill a planet for.
  • Consider the eithical impact of any activity. Does the activity lead to, or cause animals (or people) to suffer? Is it steeped in exploitation? If there’s any doubt in any of this, avoid that activity.
  • Whenever reasonably possible, avoid package tours and certainly avoid all-inclusive resorts, as the experience you’ll get won’t be authentic.
  • Be humble, and show gratitude for the kindness others have shown you, especially strangers. Nobody owes you anything.
Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments. Also, I hope one day you’re fortunate enough to meet Valeria by chance.
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