Monday, October 17, 2005

"Seeing the World" Ain't What it Used to Be

I've always had wanderlust. I think I got it from my Mom, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone. She talked about traveling on ships and airplanes as a kid, and I grew up hearing about exotic places from her, as well as my Dad, who fought in the Pacific during WWII.

So I love going to new places and experiencing new things. When I was given a position at CompuServe that required a lot of travel, I viewed the travel as a reward, not a burden. I've now been in 47 states and a dozen or so countries, on both business and pleasure.

But I'm no longer interested in going anywhere famous. I've found that whenever I go to a well-known and heavily visited location, the experience is less than I had hoped for one or both of these reasons:


There are so many tourists there that the time spent is more like a competition than a fulfilling experience. Americans are everywhere. I walked into a loo behind a cafe in the cathedral square in Salzburg and ended up standing next to a guy with an Ohio State sweatshirt on. He enjoyed my "Go Bucks" comment.

The authentic experience has evolved into boring, production line tedium for the hosts and guides. I was aghast that the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery wear shoes with special "clickers" and carry rifles with plastic stocks. When I last went to a changing of the guard in 1960s, these guys wore regulation shoes and carried standard issue M-14 rifles. This new get-up they use cheapens the procedure in my opinion. The point isn't to put on a good show -- it's to honor the Unknowns and in doing so, honor all past, present, and future members of our armed forces. So what if the regulation shoes are hard to click together, and they scuff up? That's the kind of shoes the Unknowns wore. So what if the rifles get heavy during the watch? That's the kind of rifle they were carrying when they went down. And if you are an American visiting this site -- recognize it as amongst the most hallowed ground in our country. Stand in quiet response -- no cell phones, no horsing around, etc. The guys in those tombs deserve more respect and so does America.

When in Austria, we went to an "Alpine Evening" at some hotel. You could tell that these folks put on the same show night after night, and had probably been doing so for years. The food was institutional, but after all, we arrived in huge tourist buses. I've had the same experience in the German Hall at King's Island amusement park in Cincinnati.

This line of thinking really hit me when we visited Canterbury Cathedral. The shops and pubs around the cathedral had been tourist traps for the whole 500 years the cathedral has stood. This wasn't medieval England. It was a theme park dressed up to look like what the English thought Americans thought a medieval town should look like.

I thought Stonehenge would have a mystical feel to it. But it was hard to get that feeling with it sitting along a major motorway and in the flight path of a Royal Air Force fighter base. I took some pretty nice pictures there. I tell friends that the hardest part of taking the pictures was having the patience to wait until a tour bus full of Japanese tourists had left.

When we were visiting England, a friend of ours -- an English woman -- suggested that we get off the beaten path and visit some places the tourists bypass. One place she recommended was Fountains Abbey, in rural Yorkshire. Most tourists go to Bolton Abbey, which is more accessible. We took her advice and had a wonderful, solitary visit. It was our favorite site in England.

There's lots of famous places I would like to visit, but I feel that there is little chance of the experience meeting my expectation. I would very much like to see the Imperial City in Beijing, and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The temples at Ajunta in India sound fascinating, as do the Pyramids. But I think I would rather live with what I imagine those places to be than see what they have become.

So my favorite thing these days is to jump in the Suburban with the wife, or on the bike with some friends, and take off down a US highway or state road I've never seen before. There's still lots of stuff to see and places to go that haven't "gone tourist."

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