It’s not always about what you wear, where you go, or where you stay. There’s one thing you can do every time you travel that immediately will make you feel less like a tourist: run an errand.
I’ve noticed that most trips involve some mundane task that becomes an adventure due to not being done at home. It’s not like I take my to-do list with me on the plane but the little things that happen along the way are the things that stick with me long after the trip ends.
It’s the reason I’m such a fan of slow travel. I’ll do a whirlwind weekend if I’ve no other choice. However, I really believe to begin to “get” a place you’ve got to go deeper than the Hyatt Lounge. I don’t think you need a semester to do it, but you do have to be willing to get out of the bubble.
It’s been 20 years since I lived in Beijing.
The things that stick out to me have very little to do with world wonders or monuments. They have to do with sweet potatoes, buying a bottle of water and getting pants hemmed.
As a college student, I was lucky enough to snag a part time job at the HR office in the American Embassy in Beijing. It was the fall of 1997 and during the three mile walk to work I would buy a 2 RMB (a quarter) hot sweet potato off of an oil drum and eat it like a Popsicle…still my favorite way to eat any veggie. (Side note- I don’t know if they do that anymore as the coal in those drums created terrible pollution).
“Yī píng shuǐ.” “Na ga shuǐ?” “Zhe ga shuǐ” (One bottle water. Which water? That Water.)
The conversation above marked a turning point in my Chinese adventures.
It took me two weeks to conduct a transaction entirely in Chinese. Before that most “conversations” were a mix of English, smiles, and nods. Most of my first two weeks were more tourist sight driven but on my walk home one day I got thirsty. I didn’t even realize I had spoken Chinese until two blocks later.
Towards the end of my stay I needed to get my new Winnie-the-Pooh denim jumper hemmed. (I’ll spare you the photo- it is truly tragic.) I had no idea how to find a tailor (remember this is pre-internet). The good news is by that time I realized that commerce in Beijing was everywhere. So I wandered down a random Hutong (block) and-lo and behold- I found an ancient woman with an even more ancient Singer. Mission accomplished.
So I’m curious- have you had an adventure trying to do the mundane? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.
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