Talking To Strangers: Guidebooks and Sushi

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Unless you are an omnipresent, immortal being there is no way you will know every piece of information about wherever you are in the world. It is the accumulated knowledge from different perspectives that, if you pay attention, can transform your stay from a simple holiday where you tick the usual tourist boxes (not a bad thing) into a memorable tale that even your great grand kids will know by heart.

When we travel we always do our research and pick out the sights we want to see and the places we want to go. Sometimes we’ll make a short list of the top spots to hit. You wouldn’t go to Paris without a visit to the Eiffel Tower for instance. It’s a sight that as an iconic piece of engineering and architecture is worth wrestling past a thousand other tourists to get to the top and is something you shouldn’t dismiss as cliché. The point of this post is to perhaps encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Don’t simply ignore the guide books. Guide books are useful tools to help make your destination readily navigable from the moment you step foot in them. Once you feel comfortable enough to do so though, you should explore on your own. It’s the sense of the unknown that can create real excitement when travelling as you look away from the page and instead fully take in your surroundings. The sights, smells and sounds of a place will often be enough to put a smile on your face. You can go from your hotel to the tombs of ancient kings but be sure to take in the space between.

The inspiration for this post came from a simple interaction with a family who were obviously new to Wellington (at time of writing, our city of residence) and looking for a shopping centre that was listed in the guidebook they were carrying. The problem that sometimes arises when trying to navigate a new location is judging distance and this particular destination lay around a half hour’s bus drive away from the city centre. We asked why they needed to reach it and the response was that they’d heard there was a sushi bar there and wanted sushi. There was a moment’s pause in slight disbelief and then an understanding on our part that when you’re new in an area, sometimes the easiest answer is not always at the forefront of your mind. You see, within a five to ten minute walk from where we were having this conversation are a number of great sushi bars and restaurants with one of them just next door! By simply following a guidebook to grab a bite to eat in a city with more top eateries than days of the year, four grown adults had blinded themselves to the rest of the city, lessened their free time and created unneeded stress. We directed the family next door and in half an hour they were back, smiles on their faces, thanking us for recommending a lovely place to eat.

Hopefully the lesson was learnt.

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Giant Sand dunes (and our car) in Northern NZ. Not part of the planned day. Photo by Steve Collier.

Of course it’s not always this easy to divine information. Language can be a huge barrier and honestly we’re still learning to break out of our comfort zone and just try a few simple words and phrases. Google Translate has some useful tools including a conversational mode which translates both sides of a conversation. Offline phrase books are also available for many major languages. Traditional phrase books are always available too and the majority of guidebooks (see, they’re still useful!) will also feature key terms that will help you on your way.

It can be pretty intimidating approaching someone for advice as you imagine them silently judging your stupidity as a tourist. Perhaps you’re just not that confident striking up a conversation with a stranger in which case travel will likely force you to grow as a person. Just remember that the very first people to explore new lands had very little to zero knowledge of what they were getting themselves in to either. Can you imagine, after months at sea, stepping on to strange land and finding yourself in an environment no human had yet encountered or recorded? It’s hard to claim that even happens anymore but that’s only because the explorers who did just that took a potentially fatal risk and went way out of their comfort zones to learn and discover for themselves. You’re already at an advantage if you’ve spent even a short amount of time on Google.

*Disclaimer: We’re not endorsing life threatening exploration over using a Lonely Planet guidebook unless you’re sponsored by Red Bull/ are Sir Ranulph Fiennes!*

Side note: It’s worth remembering that on the flip side, someone visiting your town even from a few miles away might have no clue where they’re going or how to do something so do help them out. We asked what a “trumpet” was at a food stall the other day. It was simply another term for an ice cream cone. And now we know so if an ice cream seller asks if we want our scoop of pistachio in a trumpet we won’t stare blankly and wonder why we didn’t take up playing a brass instrument as a kid..!

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Sunset at Whangarei Heads. Photo by Steve Collier.

So here’s a challenge for anyone reading this who doesn’t already do what we’re about to suggest. For the first day in your new location speak to everyone you can who serves you at a café table, supermarket counter, petrol station, clothes store, campfire or wherever and ask them what’s good to do, see and eat that may or may not be in a guidebook and we guarantee you’ll begin to break the habit of religiously following in the footsteps of two hundred pages of someone else’s opinion and discover something special for yourself.

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