Other than my 7:30 am soy latte addiction and omnipresent camera, I’ve never admitted to being a tourist. I equate it to being “spiritual but not religious:” I can travel without supporting the nearly $9 billion-per-year tourism industry that carries our commercialized way of life like a virus, infecting and ultimately killing the charming uniqueness that drew the tourists in the first place. Right? Can I get an amen? I applaud places like Venice that are starting to charge admission fees before they’re Instagrammed into the grave. And — if I’m brutally honest with myself — before i get a chance to go there myself to get my own Instagram shot.
Damn it: busted.
Perhaps my scornful need to distance myself from the tourism industry simply reveals something about myself that I haven’t wanted to see: that I have, in fact, been just another tourist. Not everywhere: not Tel Aviv for nearly three months; not even Cyprus, even though I was only there a week. But in places like Tallinn, Riga, Nida and Marrakech where I hopscotched across the surface, like a smooth, flat rock across a pond, never sinking into the depths of a place: yes, in these cities I was a tourist. I focused on what was lovely to photograph instead of seeing the truth of a place. And hey, while I’m on a roll, maybe this is all tied up with my inability to get close to someone: that I’ve been a tourist in my life and relationships as well. Dammit again: this radical honesty crap is for the birds.
Let’s stick to the topic of traveling without being a tourist: this equation includes much deeper immersion and actual conversations with locals, which isn’t easy for me as an introvert. With a few exceptions, my strong preference has been to stand on the sidelines with my camera… which, I reluctantly admit, relegates local people, sights and cultures to the role of zoo animals. While I was in Riga, I decided to punt this conundrum like a tin can down the proverbial road and turned my attention to what I wanted to photograph. But I knew this topic is like an onion many layers deep, and my job on this journey is to get to the truth. You know, the truth will set you free and all that bullhonky that actually is spot-fucking-on.
I’m reminded of a very extroverted friend of mine who can walk into a bar in any city and leave having made five best friends for life. And since he’s done this probably five nights a week, every week over the past few decades, he’s got a network of connections that make me utterly exhausted just thinking about it. When I put out a call on Facebook to see what people might be interested in reading, he predictably commented: “What are the people like? How do they differ from the rest?” I half-joked, “that would necessitate me putting down my camera and having an actual conversation.”
Yes, I need to do it. I know it will be good for me, sort of like Brussel sprouts. What rings true to me now as I contemplate my resistance in Riga is that I didn’t give this city a chance; didn’t dig under the surface to find the gems, just like I’ve failed to do with countless people in my life. So I’m sorry, my extroverted friend; I can’t answer your question on how people are different. I can only be continually surprised at how similar everyone is when seen from afar. And I can appreciate your question as a gentle nudge that I know I need on my path.
But before I do that, I only want to hide away from humanity in the seaside town of Nida on the Curonian Spit of Lithuania. I’m unsure if I’m running away from something, or running towards. Or perhaps they’re the same thing.