Traveler or a Tourist? Reflections on a Dialogue

Story and photo by Alex Jones, jones.ale@husky.neu.edu

I’m riding on the back of a moped through the Old Town of Rhodes, and my mind is on the syllabus. I have class in an hour and I remember a quote from it: “Be a traveler, not a tourist.” That was the guiding philosophy of our Dialogue to Greece and it’s one I tried my best to live by. At that moment, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job.

Rhodes has a bit of a split identity. The New Town looks like a street in Tampa.  It’s full of beachfront hotels souvenir shops all selling the same thing, and tourists. The Old Town, on the other hand, is a maze of narrow market streets surrounding an old crusader fortress. Rhodes has been the prize of empires from Ancient Greece to the Crusaders; from the Ottomans to the Italians. Each of these empires left their distinct mark on the island and you can see traces of them all in the Old Town.

Our local guide, Charlie, spoke with near-resignation about how many visitors don’t know that that an Old City even exists. Apparently, thousands of visitors can visit the city annually and not even notice the giant castle. In one sense, it’s easy to see how one could get pulled into the New Town. The city of Rhodes has beautiful beaches where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean. There’s a massive casino that was built by Italian fascists and a string of great restaurants in the New Town. And it’s not as though the Old City is deserted; plenty of visitors see it every day. Still, some don’t even know it’s there.

But what does any of this have to do with a syllabus? Our professor encouraged us to “be Greek” for a month and put down our phones to try new things. Meet new people. Experience a new culture. It’s the second oldest Dialogue program at Northeastern, and I believe it’s the best of what the program can be. At each place we visited, we had the opportunity to try something new, whether that’s a new dish or experiencing what it’s like to climb 999 stairs.

At the same time, we did a number of touristy things, too- including taking selfies at the Parthenon.  It’s easy to understand how someone could be happy to just relax by the beach in Rhodes- however, what I was confused by, I suppose, was a lack of attention to the surroundings. I couldn’t help but look around at all the empty stares into the ocean and wonder, you came all the way to Rhodes, and you don’t notice the giant castle in the near distance? I met plenty of people who never left the area around their hotels- people who had no idea what these locations have to offer.

Going to Greece on a Dialogue put me in a position of privilege. Not every visitor to Greece gets access to such amazing guides or gets such a comprehensive view of the history and culture. The reason I was on that moped was because I had lost my debit card a day before, and the owner of the hotel offered me a ride to a Western Union to pick up money that was wired to me. He went out of his way to do this, and I’m extremely grateful. I’d stumbled into an experience by accident, and learned about the generosity of Greek hospitality in the process.

In the end, I don’t think that the difference between being a traveler or a tourist is about the sites you visit or the activities you choose. You don’t have to eat at restaurants off the beaten path, you can absolutely wear a fanny pack (here’s looking at you, Rick Steves), and you can spend all the time you want in the New Town. But listen to what the locals have to say. Look at what’s around you. Want to be a traveler, not a tourist? Easy: Just pay attention.