Three months ago, I was driving down the stretch of the highway connecting Puerto de la Cruz to neighboring villages, when a billboard placed in the middle of a field caught my eye.
“Tus hijos no son tuyos.”
A lot can be said about encountering the valley of the uncanny in a tropical paradise. Once you accept a place as a place of happiness and joy, any notion of strangeness feels like something in the universe has shifted.
This is just a feeling, but it is a strong one. Imagine a place where you drink three euro sangria and listen to mariachi tunes while strolling through a picturesque garden.
Now imagine a billboard sign that proclaims your children are not your own with such striking certainty that it makes a smile freeze on your lips. Even if you never had any intention of having children.
As a traveler in the twenty-first century, I have gotten used to everything being shiny and bright for when flocks of us land at the airport. It starts with going through baggage claim and being buried in flyers, continues with our phones snapping photos of capital cities’ downtowns with appropriate #authentic hashtags, and finishes when we have taken selfies near every notable landmark.
The world has become much more civilized in the past twenty years, and if you want me to be honest – I’m not sure I like it.
Strangeness and Charm
The appeal of the billboard which is supposed to invoke a feeling of uncertainty in the random driver is in its lack of context. There’s no immediate connection to something understandable; the billboard exists on its own, and the shock value is made bigger by the fact that it’s in an unassuming place.
The real problem is in our expectations. We expect to be kept content at all times. The world has become civilized, and so we, the touristic flock of happy selfie-snappers, seek out authenticity while making sure we don’t cross the line that would push us into discomfort.
It’s so hard to be surprised in the age of Instagram. Sometimes it feels like I have seen everything there is to see, and there is not a place that can surprise me.
Authenticity still holds a high price, but it’s much harder to arrive to a destination which we have seen many times before through someone else’s lens and feel surprised. We know what to expect.
In part, that is why I don’t travel as much anymore. And when I do, I like travelling differently and I find myself gravitating towards sitting in a café the whole afternoon, just watching people passing by.
While all the landmarks and sights have been polished to generic tourist perfection for geo-tagging on social media, at least the people retained themselves.
For me, there is a strong divide between places I want to see as a tourist, and places I should want to see. A divide between stories I should want to hear and the ones I actually want to hear. People I want to talk to, accommodation I want to stay in.
This is not a critique of travelers. If it’s a critique of anything, it’s a critique of marketing that wants to adapt every destination to a generic standard that seems to work with the statistical average traveler. And while doing that, there’s no travelling differently and individual destinations lose charm.
When I’m in Morocco and when I’m in New York, I don’t want to see the same kinds of things and stay in the same kinds of places, but I have to. Confection used to go just for jeans while these days it goes for everything.
This is the problem of package tours applied to marketing, building, design and other aspects that go into travel branding of a destination. It’s impossible to see everything in just a week or two weeks. To pretend otherwise only helps you lose time while absorbing nothing.
So when I am allowed a glance of something deeper, of a mystery, I feel grateful. No destination will open up its palms for you completely but sometimes, if you’re really lucky, it will show you some of the strangeness and charm that makes traveling an adventure.
The Guide to Strange-seeing
The whole point of this article, of course, is to help you find more strange places that you can fall in love with.
Don’t get me wrong, Santorini is pretty, and so is the Eiffel Tower – check them out. But if you want a specific feeling that you’ll always carry with you as a reminder to a place you have visited, you need to be prepared to offer some strangeness first.
Curiosity helps. And so does listening to yourself. Very often, I’ll get an intuitive impulse to do or see something, which may not make sense. Why would I climb this particular rock like a weird goat when I should go see a museum?
I have no idea. But you bet your sweet suitcase I’m going to find out.
It’s impossible to see everything in a limited period of time, but if you go with your adventurous heart and keep an eye out for things that inexplicably interest you, at least you’ll have something to carry with you as a memory forever. To me, that’s what travelling differently means. What travelling itself means.
Maybe you’ll miss all the important sightseeing tours you should take, and maybe you won’t try all kinds of dishes you should try, but you’ll experience something that you want to see and try.
The only thing I remember as meaningful from my Tunisia trip isn’t camel-riding or fifteen museums. I remember when our bus stopped somewhere en route to Sahara, and the tour guide invited me to meet three Bedouins because I spoke French.
It was weird and I nearly ran away (to be fair, I was 12 and shy), but I decided to go for it. And ten years later, I remember the tea, which was amazing, and doing something that I hadn’t expected but ended up remembering fondly.
Also, make friends with old people. Old local people are the best because they don’t care who they talk to or what they talk about. They are so incredibly chill.
If you can also say that their island is way better than New York or London, and get them to laugh at that, congratulations. You’ve made friends who will tell you which kind of red wine is the best for your cardiovascular system, where to buy actual local produce, and then finish by saying that you are very pretty and should meet their grandchild.
And finally: look for the rough edges, always, and see what you are looking at. Keep your eyes open, not only when you are somewhere where you’re expected to. Don’t be afraid to get messy, to get shocked and unsettled and scared shitless. Because this is a big world and we all use the internet, but we’re not the same.
We live in new times. The saying about travel being fatal to prejudice and bigotry works differently today. Forty years ago, you had to go to a destination to see what the culture was. Today, the culture pretty much everywhere is binge-watching Netflix and tweeting.
We also have the privilege of having all the technology we need to stay in touch with one another, no matter the distance. But so much has been revealed to us today that I feel like I have seen some destinations just by looking at enough photos with the same subjects.
Travelling differently means seeing with new eyes, even if it’s well-known places. Poking at the world until it gives you something incredible.
This is why Globonaut matters to me as a writer and a traveler. Articles defending dull places, love letters to cities – guidelines for travelling differently. Seeing with new eyes, even if it’s well-known places. Poking at the world until it gives you something incredible.
Reminding you that there are still places like St. Thomas Synagogue, whose floors are covered in sand to remind of the desert in which the Israelites wandered for forty years, and Centralia, PA with perpetual fire burning underneath the ground.
Finding Meaning in a World of AirBnBs
When I bemoan the existence of custom-made AirBnB designs, package tours and Instagram travelling, what I am really bemoaning is intellectual consumerism.
When traveling doesn’t come from a place of innate curiosity and the desire to learn more and experience more in order to truly feel it, it becomes a matter of pushing a shopping cart down the grocery store aisle. This sight, this sight and this sight. Many ingredients shoved into a pot and consumed without taking the time to savor every nuance of the flavors.
That is why today, in an age of affordable travel, we shouldn’t forget that we have seen a lot but we haven’t seen everything. So if we can hold on to anything, let’s hold on to our capacity to be surprised. Always, and all over again.