‘Touristy’. Besides the negative connotations of the term, it gets used all too frequently. It’s a term branded as the accepted extortion of novelty, the artificial appropriations of a culture and its location, in order to give its audience a convenient, comfortable, and spoon fed experience of a place and its quirks. That doesn’t seem to deter its audience, though. Rather it gives an idea of what to expect when you inevitably experience it, because as a tourist that’s what you do! Why would anyone want to spend a whole day on foot getting the feel of a place, learning its roads and social habits while visiting two major attractions, when you can see all of them in half a day from an open top bus as your earpiece tells you everything that you really need to know!?
As a personal preference, I tend to avoid the touristy attractions unless its something that I’m genuinely interested in. I’d very much rather spend a day roaming the streets of a new place, taking in its environment and architectures, watching its inhabitants and visitors interact with its world than view them alongside fellow visitors behind a piece of glass that costs me twice as much for my own convenience. Maybe its my lack of enjoyment in crowds, or my thrifty budget, but I often find myself avoiding those ‘touristy’ places, especially at their peak visiting times. It wasn’t until the end of a day spent amongst Amsterdam’s finest greenery in Vondelpark, one of her many central city sanctuaries, that I realised I may have been too quick to judge the term.
I stood at the traffic lights, waiting for them to turn red. The plan was to go back to the hostel and prepare for the impossible task of choosing where to eat. Just as the lights changed and the herd of people surrounding me began to cross the road, I spotted the letters MOCA to my right. “I’d highly recommend going to the Moca art gallery”, I recalled yesterday’s roommate saying. I had a new plan. As I approached the large sparkling windows that stood in front of polished waiters who seemed to define perfection, my brain began to recalculate. “I’d highly recommend going to the Moco art gallery”, is what I realised he had actually said.
Well, here I was now with no urge to turn back to my familiar route and so I kept forward. As I left the prim and proper restaurant behind, I felt myself slowly being swept into the systematic traffic of people and bikes as they fed in two directions through some arches. These arches, they were grand beyond belief. They were the kind of thing you don’t expect to see when you don’t know what you’re expecting. They belonged to what I later found out to be the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s national art gallery. The arches separated the two buildings of the gallery and towered towards me.
The sky was golden with a setting sun. I left it behind as I entered under the shadows of the arches that formed a long tunnel. In the middle was a road of regular rush hour cyclists, patiently passing swarms of tourists who didn’t know where to walk. I knew then that I was entering uncharted territory, but my stubbornness in my refusal to go back on myself was too strong to stop me. A smooth jazz poured from the saxophone of a busker, in the entrance of the tunnel. The unshaken burr bounced off the walls and echoed out into the other side. I kept forward, still clueless as to where I was or where I was heading.
At that moment, it just so happened that the setting sun peaked out from the exit of the arch ahead of me. Even through a squint it was blinding, and blocked my view of the unknown destination, the now metallic secret that was being kept from me and me alone. From the blackness of the tunnel, all I could see was white. The sun continued to lower itself, headed for the ground and with each inch that it moved it shone a glow around the hustle and bustle of movement surrounding me. It coated the people in black silhouettes and suddenly I knew less.
I followed the echo of the jazz into the sun. As I stepped into the light, everything was different. I stood for a moment, still, to process the view ahead of me. The unshaken jazz had metamorphosed into the trembling bass of Christmas carols that were blasting through speakers. There were people in every corner of my sight. The world was running around me. I watched their backs as they posed against huge letters that read I amsterdam, and posed again, and then once more. Behind the sign lay lights that were sprinkled along narrow lanes built up of stalls and rides. The centrepiece of this mini-village was the famous ice rink of one of the cities top ten Christmas markets, according to all the guide books and articles.
Behind the dimly sparkled lights and temporary structures lay a purple-orange sky. The sun continued to lower into the horizon of the high rise buildings and designer shops that sat in the distance across a large field of green, shortly cut grass. I strolled through the twisted lanes of the market towards it. I looked around me, soaking in the laughter and extortionate scent of dutch waffles and other sweets that filled the air. This was the heart of tourism. Surrounding me were hundreds of people, emptying their purses for a top ten Dutch Christmas experience.
What struck me the most, was that through all the fleeting faces that I saw as they ran from one stall to the next, or waited patiently for an hour to spend half of that on the ice rink, was that they were enjoying themselves. There was a glow on every face, the glow of the sun, of the fairy lights, and of the joy of Christmas. Everyone was happy, and so was I. This wasn’t just tourism as a brand, this was tourism as a full sensory experience, and suddenly it made sense to me. This was the reason the touristy destinations didn’t deter crowds. I paused at the end of the market to watch the last of the sun disappear, and just as the sky began to change and a herd of people walked towards the market behind me, I spotted the letters ‘MOCO’ to my right.