The boundless sands of Bondi Beach. The mysterious, mildly amused Mona Lisa. Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Just some of the bucket list, drumroll experiences that make travel worthwhile. Except… except having tucked a fair bit of journeying under my belt, I no longer pin holiday hopes on pivotal tourist attractions.
Don’t get me wrong, most have an intrinsic beauty or legit wow-factor that has preceded and promoted their fame. And there’s no doubt chalking up that visit can be worthwhile. For instance, I have a soft spot for Venice, even though I once broke up with a boyfriend by a canal (to make up for it, years later, I got engaged at the Cipriani, gazing out at St Mark’s Square…what made that more memorable was Marilyn Manson sitting at the next table).
That said, there’s always the chance tourist meccas can turn out to be a bit, well, meh. For a start, there are variables that can deflate the inner tube of hopefulness; huge crowds, shit weather, piles of litter or an ill-timed row with your nearest and dearest. But the greatest risk is these hallowed sites will crumble under the sheer weight of expectation, paling under the glare of a million filtered photos.
Even as a teen, the Eiffel Tower failed to wow me on our family’s first ‘foreign holiday’. I can’t even recall the ascent. I do, however, remember with crystal clarity the spectacular row my dad had with the sniffy woman in the kiosk.
He was trying to help by stacking an abundance of currency in neat, easy-to-count rows but she simply made a sour face, threw her hands in the air and shouted, ‘Oh là là!’ at him. Bad move. I’m afraid he retorted, ‘I’ll give you “oh là là”,’ and muddled up the coinage so she had to start from scratch. Voilà. That’s my abiding memory of the Eiffel Tower.
Then there’s the Taj Mahal. While I found the edifice unquestionably impressive, the scale of selfie-taking visitors was almost as jaw-dropping (in 2018, the number of entries was capped at a mere 40,000 a day!).
Yet after we’d ticked the Taj and were en route to Jodphur, we hiked a remote mountain and not only came across a colossal white marble elephant but also a holy man wringing out his washing in the doorway of a sun-bleached hut.
As we wondered at his life, surely spent mostly alone in contemplation, he bestowed on our foreheads a bindi in marigold orange. The encounter had a great impact on me. More so because later, on our way to the nearest town, he overtook our cab riding pillion on a speeding motorbike, giving us a toothy grin and hearty wave.
The true value of travel, I believe, is what you see, feel and discover as you journey beyond the brochure. Other people’s everyday doings and dealings. The funny things that happen on the way to the forum, as it were.
In Buenos Aires, we skipped the tourist tango gala for a local, late-night milonga and I danced with an elderly guy who knew a man who knew a girl who’d danced with the Prince of Wales…something like that.
While in Laos, when Paul and I were on honeymoon and thought we’d signed up for a small, swift blessing following our registry office ceremony in the King’s Road, the village had other ideas, setting up a traditional wedding. It started in someone’s front room, complete with a shrine next to the TV, and ended in a dance party under fluorescent lights in a massive car port.
But the moment I really learned to stop engineering bucket-list moments was after trying to photograph cherry blossom in Japan. Before I booked my flight, I studied the online ‘blossom alerts’ obsessively. All were saying I’d pitched it just right. However, the day I arrived, the heavens opened, halting flowers in bud and knocking petals off those already unfurled. Poetic in a way because cherry blossom symbolises the ephemeral beauty of life.
It was then I realised I love Japan any time of year, come rain, sun, snow, hail, heat. I love the atmosphere. The artistry of details. The way old traditions dovetail with the new and the downright nutty. I don’t love it for a classic pic of blossom in front of Mount Fuji. I also learned to appreciate my own backyard more because when I got home, the trees in local streets were covered in crazy, cumulus clouds of the pink stuff.
Final thought; after lockdown, I said to a friend that in the last three months of 2019, I’d been to Mongolia, Japan and Antarctica, while in the whole of 2020 and 21, I’d only managed Chorley Wood. She replied, ‘Yes, but to an Antarctic penguin, Chorley Wood would be the trip of a lifetime’. There’s something in that too.