If you've travelled in 2015, you know selfie sticks have replaced fanny packs and Tilley hats as the most sought-after tourist paraphernalia. I recently returned from Istanbul, and the sound of vendors yelling "Selfie! Selfie! Selfie!" is more memorable than the call to prayer that fills the city six times a day. But like anything trendy, the gadget has haters.
Many of the world's top museums, music festivals and sporting events have banned the monopod because it disrupts the "visitor experience." The device is also rightfully known as a narcisstick: after a steep hike in Turkey, I watched a woman balance on the edge of a cliff, selfie stick outstretched, more concerned with capturing her wind-swept hair than the breathtaking view of the Black Sea. But the stick's most serious offence is that it turns users into anti-social tourists.
Travelling presents a unique opportunity to bond with strangers. At home, most of us won't pick up the phone, let alone approach someone we don't know on the subway. But as foreigners, we rely on randoms to point us in the right direction and take our cheesy photos in front of the Colosseum. Now, high-tech travellers have Google Maps, translation apps and selfie sticks to make them self-sufficient. Yes, you can rest assured that your totally unique shot standing in front of the Sagrada Familia won't be obscured by a stranger's thumb, but you may miss out on an unforgettable encounter with a local.
When I moved to Vancouver for the summer in 2006 I was lonely, heartbroken and desperate to make friends. My signature move was to ask people on the bus for directions and hope small talk would turn into something more substantial. It worked. Once we got talking, people took me on tours and invited me to their parties. I saw parts of the city I never would have otherwise. But I depended on those tourist-y icebreakers to start the conversation.
When travelling, small interactions with locals can easily spiral into friendships. Tourists are needy and open-minded. When plucked away from stress and daily routines, people let their guards down and take more risks -- just ask anyone who has slept on a stranger's couch or had sex with someone they would scoff at back home. That's why touristy questions -- "am I going the right way?" "can you take our picture?" -- can be first steps towards a more significant bond. While technology has made travellers more self-reliant, it limits how much they are likely to learn about a new culture.
As an Ontarian, I've been to the CN Tower once, the Parliament buildings a handful of times, and the Niagara Falls never. I prefer to seek out a place's people. I've become addicted to parlaying small interactions with locals into more enduring experiences. I collect these stories like passport stamps. When a friend and I hitchhiked from the Yukon to Alaska at the end of my Vancouver summer, we ate fresh salmon with the tour bus driver who let us sleep in her trailer. On a solo trip to Italy in 2010, I approached two women on a beach who later invited me for antipasto and wine at their family's home.
Most recently, my boyfriend and I arrived in Istanbul as May Day clashes between police and protesters shut down most public transportation in the city. Not even Google Maps could save us. I asked a local for the best route to our Airbnb, and the young architecture student guided us for hours. When we parted ways, I took down his number. Days later, he and a Kurdish friend told us over beers about growing up in strict Muslim families. Another local took us to a gypsy street festival where sweaty mobs of people danced and vendors sold bottles of red wine by the fistful. Both experiences taught us more about modern Turkish life than any guide book.
When tourists rely on screens and selfie sticks, they miss the chance to learn about a new culture through its people. Being a naive tourist isn't a weakness; it's a rare opportunity to approach locals who might invite you into their lives. If you're going to pay thousands of dollars to see a new part of the world, it's better to bring home good stories than good selfies.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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