We are nearing the half-way point of our time in Ecuador, and I’m resisting the urge to be a tourist. I’m trying to let go of the urge to go visit the “must see” places, to let go of the urge to always carry a camera, to let go of my urge to stick to an itinerary. Instead, I want to take each day as it comes, to take long walks, to meet people I did not expect to meet, to taste good food where I find it, to be present with my wife and kids.
Last year I read a fantastic book entitled Anti-Fragile, in which author Nicholas Nassim Taleb discusses the virtues of travelling as a flâneur rather than as a tourist. Drawn from a 19th century French literary type, the flâneur is one who “walks the city in order to experience it” (Baudelaire). The flâneur is a saunterer, a loafer, but aware of his or her surroundings and conscious of those who live there. Freed from the itinerary, the flâneur is open to the unexpected. The flâneur is present in the moment, and keenly observant. (As I write this, a rooster crowing in the distance. And there is distant folk music from a café. A man driving a propane-gas truck is announcing his presence over the loud-speaker mounted on top of his fiat.) Never in a hurry, the flâneur knows how to carry on a long conversation with a stranger in a cafe.
The tourist, on the other hand, hasn’t really left the rat race. Guidebook in hand, the tourist feels pressure to stick to the carefully-planned itinerary, because if I don’t, then I won’t get to do everything I wanted to do, and when will I ever get to come back? Tourists easily become anxious, and tire easily (which probably weakens their immune system, causing them to be more prone to illness). Being a tourist is a way of seeing, but it is also a way of not seeing. The tourist only sees what the tourist industry markets as important to see, or sees only through the lens of an expensive camera that must capture the perfect shot. (The best photographers are flâneurs, because only the flâneur is aware of the authentic life of a place.) Tourists carry expectations that, if unmet, leave them anxious and cranky. What if that museum is closed on the day you planned to see it? Then your itinerary is ruined, and you are bummed. Or that restaurant that you read about was less than excellent? (Perhaps because you were tired and cranky while you were there, but this was your only opportunity to go, so you went, compelled). Wise people say that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. Expectations lead us to force things to happen that probably should not happen. Expectations are fragile. They make us fragile.
Some travel aphorisms:
A tourist gives unsolicited advice to other tourists. A flâneur listens, and tells stories.
A tourist doesn’t know a good restaurant from a bad one, and bad restaurants only need a steady-flow of unconscious tourists to stay in business.
A tourist works at having fun. But if you have to work at having fun, you are not going to have any fun (Taleb).
The past week, I tried to be a flâneur. There were certain things I wanted to do this week at some popular tourist destinations, but that didn’t happen. Rather, we stayed in the quiet village of Alangasi most of the time, which is not featured in any Ecuadorian guidebook that I know of. I did get some work done, but wasn’t overly bothered by what I did not get done. We took slow walks to the panadería (bakery), learned the names of some flowers, and received an unexpected cooking lesson by the gardener’s wife, Fani, who taught me how to cook platanos maduros on the grill. Brenna was a flâneur extraordinaire when she took the kids to a popular hot spring on the day it was closed; a local told her about a less-popular hot spring higher up on the mountain, which resulted in a delightful if unplanned excursion involving a scenic ride in the back of a pick-up! I sat on a bus to Quito and marveled (without staring, mind you) at a young Quichua mother who was able to breastfeed uninterrupted while getting on and off the lurching bus. And I think I became a little more human without planning it.
When I get back home to Texas, I hope to be more present in the moment, immune to expectations, and more observant to the curiosities and wonder of life that is all around me. Approaching life as a flâneur is not a bad way to live, whether travelling or not.