One statement I see often on travel sites and blogs is “be a traveler not a tourist.” While I still end up enjoying a museum or temple or two during any place I visit for the first time, I think I’m pretty loyal to this travel rule. When I’ve picked a destination, I typically start my research with any photo locations that I want to hit. I try to pick only two or three shots that I want to get, and keep the rest open to random opportunities.
View of Harbor from Victoria Peak, Hong Kong One example of when I don't follow this rule is when I go to Hong Kong. I am always hoping for a clear shot of the city skyline and harbor from Victoria Peak. I still haven’t gotten a clear day. I don’t let getting the picture consume my time there. If I did, I'd be hanging around Victoria Peak all day, which is definitely a tourist trap. However I am always checking on the weather. If it is clear out, I'm definitely grabbing a cab to the Peak and setting up my tripod. This was the clearest day I got during my last trip. Foggy and rainy. The clouds did end up making for a nice picture, but I still haven't gotten lucky with the weather. I’ll have to go back. This is definitely a touristy shot that I'm going for, but it's one that I want.
In some cases since I know I won’t have Google Maps with me, I’ll make “notecards” to find my way to the places I want to see. I made these for my Singapore trip. I had them printed out on 4x6 inch photo paper. I included pictures of the destinations next to the maps, just in case I couldn't spot the places. I also research the local food.
I am adamant about not eating anything but local food when I travel, and I have to try any local specialties. I’ve never been good at taking food pictures though. I tend to eat everything and only after the meal is finished do I remember that I should have taken a picture. At the same time, whipping out my huge dSLR in a restaurant is also pretty lame. This was dim sum from a place in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong. I went early in the morning, and I definitely got some stares from the locals. With enough pointing at the pictures on the menu, I was able to eat. Couldn't force myself to order the chicken feet though, which was what literally every old taxi driver was eating for breakfast.
I’ve also gotten better about buying gifts. Yes, I will still stop at the duty free shop to pick up scotch or sake before coming back, but aside from the experience, I think the pictures I take are enough for me as something to bring back. I used to pick up a shot glass from whatever airport I was at, but I ended up getting annoyed at all the space they took up in my small kitchen cabinets. If I do bring something back, I tend to stick with unique items that remind me of my trip.
Hand-Made Japanese ToothpicksNihonbashi Saruya in Tokyo, Japan. Definitely one of the more interesting souveniers that I've brought back with me from a trip. I don't think I've ever used any of them. These are hand-made toothpicks from Nihonbashi Saruya in Tokyo. I remember walking into the store. I saw two old toothpick makers in the back who stared at me like I was lost. I started looking at all the items in the display cases and when a lady came forward to try and see what I wanted, I ended up pointing to a set of three toothpick cases that looked like they may be for sale. Not a word of English was spoken, at least when I visited. It may have changed since then. After a lot of pointing, and the lady finding a really old calculator, I ended up getting through the purchase. In two of the cases, each toothpick had an paper sleeve with something written in Japanese. I don't think I will ever be able to bring myself to use any of these. They are too nice.
When visiting the area of Tokyo where all of the fake food displays are made, I had to get something to bring back. The level of detail that goes into each piece of food is amazing. This was definitely more of a touristy destination, but I think it’s worth visiting. I’ve definitely caught a few people in my office thinking that I’ve left uneaten food under my computer screen.
In the end, travel is about the experiences and memories for me. Tourist pictures and trinkets will always be a distant second.