When does a tourist become a traveller?

To be a tourist is almost as bad as to be a terrorist, some smart people say. Tourists are eating, swallowing, consuming zombies who visit attractions and leave a place without understanding a thing about it. A traveller, on the other hand, will drink in the local culture like a connoisseur.

Recently, I was a tourist in New York.

Believe me, a piece of sea foam, à la the end of The Little Mermaid, is all you can be while floating with the crowds on Times Square. Usually all you see are other tourists watching, like you, the jaw-dropping skyscrapers stretching up and up into the sky, the man walking around with a pineapple on his head (see the picture above), and the woman boasting in only a G-string, an ‘N’ on her one um… “cheek” and a ‘Y’ on the other… (unfortunately no pictures of that).

If you fork up $35 for the seventy floors with the elevator in the Rockefeller building, you are still only a tourist. With American efficiency (‘stay two in a line, guys, there are many people, click click, snap snap,’) the guides get the crowd to move upward. At Top of the Rock everyone is interested in only one thing: a selfie with the Empire State in the background.

Look, we tried to be good travellers. When we, children of Africa with souls fed on space, could no longer stand the throng, we hopped off the red Hop-On, Hop-Off bus at Central Park. Our mission was to find Cafe Lalo, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had their great fight in You’ve Got Mail. Now that’s something original, I told my husband and kids.

Unfortunately, even there we still were only tourists. Almost twenty years after parts of the movie were shot in the restaurant, photos from the movie are still emblazoned outside the restaurant. It seems Nora Ephron’s movie was a good break for the restaurant. The place was crowded, but the service fast; my frittata was fair, the olives my son stole from my plate were apparently delicious and the cappuccino very nice. I received a matchbox with the restaurant’s name for free. Nothing to blog home about. The pizza and tiramisu we ate at Capizzi, a little restaurant as big as a shoebox in Hell’s Kitchen, the next day, was more memorable.

Back home in Maryland, after our very expensive New York excursion, I kept wondering how I could be less of a tourist and more of a traveller. I remembered the French family who took a photo of our family at Top of the Rock. We returned the favour. Then the father and mother, no longer spring chickens, have taken a selfie while kissing each other. Okay, well they made sure that the Empire State was in the picture. But you could see how happy they were to be there together. Did they plan as long as we did for their journey to New York?

Our Saturday in New York was a little miserable because it suddenly started to rain. Hurriedly we bought four $5 umbrellas that we carried with paralysed arms for kilometres through Central Park. When we were completely exhausted and everyone’s irritability level as high as Top of the Rock, we smelled a wonderful aroma. We looked around and saw a booth where a man fried candied nuts. We bought a $3 packet of almonds and tucked into it right there under our black umbrellas on our way to the bus stop. Those hot nuts, my daughter told us later, was the best thing she has ever eaten. She was so tired and the nuts were just what she needed.

Now I know what makes you a traveller – the shared memories: the laughter because everyone’s nerves have gone to bits that we would end up on the wrong train, the excitement of our first ride with Uber, the nuts in Central Park.

Hit the road with your loved ones – they are the ones making you into a real traveller.

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