Avoid the rip-offs and see what you want to see
From the crowded shops of the Monkey Forest Road, we strolled to the outskirts of Ubud--an arts-and-crafts village in the very center of Bali--and then scrambled down a hillside path to a river below. And there at dusk, the Balinese people, men and women alike, were bathing away the sweat and cares of their day's work, chatting and socializing with one another.
As Roberta and I approached, they looked up and smiled. Some small children shouted "hello," their one English word. It was a magical moment, the highlight of our trip thus far, and an example of what can happen when you wander away from the tourists, on your own two feet, and simply roam about the villages and neighborhoods of this world.
We had resolved, on this trip to Bali, to stay far removed from the beachside hotels and stores of the southernmost tip of Bali, and instead to go directly from the airport to the island's rural interior. What a lucky decision! Not a day went by but that we would pass a religious procession on a near-deserted country road, of gaily-clad people going to make a fruit-and-floral offering at a nearby temple. Not an hour elapsed but that some unusual human activity would quietly occur before our very eyes: farmers threshing rice by hand, as their ancestors did centuries ago; a group of young men seated earnestly in a shaded pavilion down a narrow alleyway, practicing the ancient art of the xylophone-like gamelon of Indonesia; school children reciting their lessons aloud.
It is said by some travel experts that on a first trip to a foreign land, you should immediately take an "orientation sightseeing tour" by motorcoach. That way, it is claimed, you gain a "once-over-lightly" of the area, and can later return on foot, at leisure, to the places that most intrigued you. What nonsense! The sights you experience from the interior of a fast-moving bus are simply a glob of vast, buzzing, blooming, confusion, in William James' phrase, of which you later remember nothing. The view from behind the windows of a motorcoach is sanitized and unreal, utterly removed from the authentic sights, sounds and smells of the country you are visiting. The commentary to which you listen is usually stale from repetition, geared to the lowest common taste, full of inane anecdotes, and peppered with historically inaccurate fables.
The best way to experience any destination is not in a group vehicle, but on foot, without itinerary but simply at random, wandering where your spirit leads you--as Roberta and I did in Bali. You do this even in the largest of cities. In London, Paris or Rome, the smart traveler simply sets out without a plan, plunges into the very center of town, and goes wandering down the nearest street, experiencing the actual life of people, looking into grocery stores and the courtyards of hospitals and schools. In this fashion you will eventually get to the same major sights that the group motorcoach tours have passed--the museums, the monuments, the city hall. But you will have done so much more; you will have felt the contemporary life of the city.
"But what if I get lost?" That's the retort that often greets me when I proffer this advice to friends. "What if I get lost?"
No one ever gets irrevocably lost in a major city. Sooner or later there passes a trolley or bus with the words Central Station ("Gare Centrale," "Stazione Centrale") on its hood, and you easily return to where it all began.
But the nicest things happen to people who get lost in a foreign city. You stop at a sidewalk cafe to calm your nerves. You have a coffee. You ask instructions of the native residents. You talk to people. And your trip is enhanced by the experience.
The very same advice is valid for most major U.S. cities. No one has really experienced San Francisco who has not walked its colorful streets, from Union Square, say, to Fisherman's Wharf. No one has felt the raw, vital energy of New York who has not hiked down Broadway from Columbia University to Times Square. Or strolled the built-up sections of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.
Some cities attempt to facilitate your do-it-yourself walking tour by supplying a brochure that maps out the routes, as Boston does for its "Freedom Trail." More recently, the major publishers of travel books have issued one after another of thick, self-conducted "walking tour guides" to cities ranging from Tokyo to Washington, D.C. All can be found in the travel sections of any large bookstore, and their easy availability robs you of an excuse for not experimenting with the do-it-yourself walking method.
Six other ways to improve your sightseeing
1. Know before you go
Learn something of the history and culture of the destination in advance of departure, and your trip will be immensely enhanced. Those Americans who simply assume that someone there will explain it all, are condemned to confusion and unhappiness. Even on a trip here in the United States, a few hours in a library, boning up on the destination, will provide you with a framework for understanding and enjoying what would otherwise be odd and dull.
2. Move about like a local
Use the subways, trams and buses of the city you're visiting--they're an important part of the local lifestyle and culture. Screw up your courage, ask instructions at your hotel, and then use the city's public transportation for getting about. You'll not only save money, but you'll learn how people live there. And you'll gain an entirely different perspective of their city--a more realistic one--from the impressions you'd have on a sightseeing motorcoach.
3. Go into the neighborhoods
On at least one occasion, use that public transportation to visit a real-life neighborhood of the city, away from its central tourist areas. On a visit to the showplace sections of East Berlin at the height of the Cold War, I took a subway to the working district of Prenzlauerberg, and learned more in an hour than tourists learned in their entire stay. In the same fashion, I've gained a more impressive view of Denmark by dipping into the residential neighborhoods of Copenhagen.
4. Haunt the bulletin boards
In both U.S. cities and English-language countries, the university-area bulletin boards are a treasure trove of free lectures, concerts, workshops, and social gatherings open to all. The locals attending these events are also among the area's most dynamic visitors, and the occasion gives you a chance to observe them (or even meet them), a form of sightseeing.
5. Use evening museum hours
Increasingly, major museums around the world are adding once-a-week evening hours to their schedule. Inquire. The viewing is calm and uncrowded at that time, and the museum visited by local residents, in large part.
6. And if you must book a guided tour...
At least book the non-standard ones, the inexpensive kind conducted on foot. Most major capital cities have them, and the local tourist office will tell you when and where they start. So-called "sidewalk tours" (they bear different names) of London, New York, Paris, wherever, draw thoughtful people, and in my experience are more profound and rewarding than the motorcoach variety.