Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Case Against Tourism

One of the amazing things about being alive in this age is that it is easier than ever to travel. I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world in the last fourteen years of my life. It started with a trip to Ghana with my parents when I was ten and my most recent longer distance trip was to Montreal last summer. I love travel and traveling, so whenever someone tells me they're going somewhere, I always ask them what they're going to do there.

"Well, first we're going to wake up on Monday and see the Eiffel Tower. Then, we're going to go to Pere Lachaise at 2 in the afternoon for a tour and then we're hurrying to the Arc de Triomphe by 3:30 and then it's dinner in the Saint Germain at 5. The next day..." Ok...good, I suppose.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I just want to see Paris." Better!

Right after I graduated high school, I got to take a five week trip to Thailand with a group called The Experiment in International Living. Occasionally, our group leader would give us short assignments to do when we were there. Usually, it involved him giving us a quote to think about, followed by us freewriting our thoughts on it for a few minutes and then sharing. On the plane ride across the Pacific, he gave us a quote to write on. It went like this:

"A traveler sees what he sees. A tourist sees what he has come to see."

This has since become my mantra for traveling. Here's the way I look at it: Any given place you go to has much more to it than any travel book on it you will ever buy. It's up to you to find it while you're there. I don't think it's a bad idea to plan out a vacation. If you go to London, it's not a crime to see the changing of the guard. However, I don't think you should be so distracted on the way to Buckingham Palace that you miss everything on the way. I think that it's important to stop at places that look like they might be interesting because chances are they probably are.

When I went to Australia with my grandparents a few years ago, my grandpa was very specific with my cousin and I when it came to our souvenir shopping:

"Don't buy anything you can get back at home."

For me, this turned into the purchasing of a didgeridoo, a handcrafted boomerang, a kangaroo pelt, and a cement stuffed cane toad. My grandpa took his own advice to heart and ended up with a crocodile hand back scratcher and kangaroo scrotum coin purses for all of his friends. Since the trip to Australia, I haven't been able to travel anywhere without remembering his advice. To this, I've also learned to add a new element as far as eating in other places is concerned: Don't try anything you can get back at home.

For me, one of the most exciting things about going to a new place is the opportunity to try new foods. In particular, I really like trying different meats. When I was in Ghana, the locals sold something along the side of the road called grasscutter (to non-Ghanaians, grasscutter is barbecued rat on a stick). While at the time I was appalled, now I can't stop wishing I had tried it. Granted, the idea of a rat on a stick isn't really appealing, but the chance to eat something truly unique like that in a place like Ghana is to me. Since then, I've tried not to pass anything up that looks or sounds unique. My first experiment was a crocodile pot pie in Australia. I followed that up with a kangaroo steak a few days later. After that, my appetite for trying new meats had been whetted and I was just getting going. Since then, I've been able to have crocodile again in Thailand, snails and a reindeer pancake in Holland, a wild boar sandwich in London, and rabbit in Paris. On the home front, I've been able to try frog legs, buffalo, deer, elk, eel, crickets, kudu, just about every kind of fish imaginable, and, most recently, sea cucumber.

I absolutely love trying new meats, but there are a few lines that I wont cross.

1. Nothing that might kill me- While you could argue that grasscutter might fit into this category, I'm still putting grasscutter on my safe list for now. The number one thing in this list has to be fugu. Fugu is the name given to pufferfish meat. While, if prepared correctly, pufferfish has the potential to be delicious, I'm staying away from that one at all costs.

2. No weird body parts- I like meat, but there are some types of meat that I'm not a fan of. If someone offered me weasel brains today, I would probably think: "Hmmm...weasel...yes." A few months ago, a friend let me try a cabeza taco at a local taco stand. For those not familiar with Spanish, cabeza means "head," so you can see where they're going with the cabeza taco thing- cow brains. While it wasn't the worst thing I've ever had, I think the idea more than anything else got to me. Therefore- no strange body parts.

3. No endangered animals- As far as I know, I'm still good on this one. I've eaten a lot of strange meats, but I would never eat anything endangered. This includes animals like whales, dolphins, gorillas, pandas. I don't care how good looking a piece of panda meat looks, I won't touch it.

4. No pets- Having had both dogs and cats as pets, I think it would be nearly impossible for me to eat one and keep a clean conscience. Now, I know that the boundaries on this one are kind of vague. There are probably those out there who would consider a rabbit and maybe even a kangaroo as a pet. For now, I'm sticking to the traditional ones- dogs and cats. I'll throw horses in there too. Guinea pigs, you're still fair game.

I think the biggest mistake that people make when they're traveling is being afraid to try new things. Obviously, you shouldn't just go for everything. Streaking down a back alley in Caracas or urinating on Angkor Wat may be new but they wouldn't necessarily be good ideas. Every new country should be looked at as an opportunity to try new things, not just as a chance to see what everyone else has already seen there. So go out, try new meats, explore new places, and see what you see.

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