That time I was just another tourist where they filmed Game of Thrones

Photo of Lovrijenac Fortress, Dubrovnik, Croatia with blue and cloudy sky

I look around, and I barely see what I came here to see. Instead, I see unimpressed and pasty old white people straight off an expensive cruise, coupled up like they’re on a buddy system.

Source: That time I was just another tourist where they filmed Game of Thrones

 

I JUMP OFF THE PACKED PUBLIC BUS at the Old City walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the tourism hits me all at once. As I jostle for a space on the sidewalk, I’m accosted by strangers leaning over makeshift podiums, screaming gimmicks at me, their smiles plastered on insincere faces.

Hi there! Are you interested in a Game of Thrones tour? Wine and bike rides? Kayak tours? Dalmatian tours? Explore Dubrovnik by boat? Etc, etc?

How does one reply to all of this unwanted attention, this breach of private space? My New York breeding taught me to keep my head down. Don’t make eye contact. Keep walking. The tourism workers don’t seem to like that. I get called rude as I pass by. Some make passive aggressive comments.

Oh, so you’re not interested? That’s fine. Have a nice day.

I walk with the throngs of other tourists towards the city walls, but then I beeline towards a sliver of water I see beyond a bit of the old fortress. I’m searching desperately for a semblance of normalcy, to gaze out at the ocean and not at a sea of other assholes like me, toting a camera, hat, water bottle. Dressed in comfortable, quick dry clothes and ugly, easy-to-walk-in shoes. The whole ensemble that screams: I’m foreign! Take advantage of me!

There is a line to get to the wall that looks out at the ocean. I stand on my tiptoes to see that people are lining up to take a shot with one of the ultimate King’s Landing views. I don’t actually know what I’m looking at. A later Google search tells me that it’s the Pile Gate and the Fort Lovrijenac. Tourists are hastily snapping selfies and posing before someone obliviously steps in front of their shot. I push my way in to take a cheeky pano of the scene before I am pushed away by others eager to do the same.

I walk away from this disturbed ocean view to see what the fuss is about inside the city walls. Each movement is held up by the need to say “Excuse me” to more strangers as I awkwardly stroll-duck through their pictures. I look at them as I pass, the fascination of Dubrovnik’s fortress completely lost to me in my horror at what tourists like me have done to its assumed charm. Some posers pose excitedly, some look away nonchalantly — perfect for Insta. Some stand there grudgingly, looking truly over the experience of proving that they went somewhere by standing in front of it and every other person just like them. I feel their pain.

What the fuck am I even doing here? You hear the name ‘Dubrovnik’ on the Balkan backpacking trail often enough. It’s the next stop after Kotor, Montenegro. You Google image the city, get a feel for it. You think it looks cool. Incredible, really. You need to see it for yourself. Some people warn you that it’s touristy. A few backpackers at your last hostel or at a bar in Skopje tell you something along the lines of: When I was there a few years ago, Dubrovnik was just a small, cute town. Game of Thrones ruined it. And, it’s pricey. But worth a look.

I knew all this, yet here I am with the others. We, the tourists, flock in heinous amounts like pseudo-traveller drones. I wonder if anyone here even knows anything about Dubrovnik or Croatia? I realize that my own knowledge is slim. I’ve been moving around so much, jumping from place to place, that I keep catching myself in a new city without even knowing what the currency exchange is or how to say “thank you.” The Old City is amazing, architecturally speaking, but what am I even looking at? What am I snapping photos of? I feel as though I had better take a picture of the stately structures elevated around me because a photo will last longer than my meager impressions of this city on display, bared to appease the demands of the Almighty Tourist.

I could be anywhere in the world right now. I look around, and I barely see what I came here to see. Instead, I see unimpressed and pasty old white people straight off an expensive cruise, coupled up like they’re on a buddy system. I see Asian tourists with masks on, and loud, overweight American families toting frozen beverages. I see other backpackers like me, staring upward and eating ice cream. A lot of people are eating ice cream. The only locals I see are the ones who serve the ice cream.

I’m overstimulated. I stop at a cafe for an espresso. You know a place is touristy if you can pay with a credit card, at least in this corner of the world. Extra points if all the signs are in English, and if the menu is in six different languages.

I take my time using the cafe’s wifi. I’m scouring Wikipedia for historical context about Dubrovnik. It’s a Croatian city on the Adriatic in the Dalmatian region. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Maritime trade increased the prosperity of the city. City walls constructed from 12th to 17th centuries. Never been breached. The Republic of Ragusa existed from 1358 to 1808 and was a commercial hub that acted independently, despite being a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. The people mainly spoke Latin. Their motto was “Liberty is not well sold for all the gold.”

Fabulous.

I pay my bill and move along, searching for a route to the holes in the wall. Someone told me you can jump into the water from there. I didn’t bring my suit. In my quest, I find a slightly more quiet part of town, so I sit on one of the old fortress walls and try to look out for a sign of these holes. The stone is hot from the sun, and I pull my hat down over my eyes for a bit of extra shade as I look out at the bay. I think this view may have been in Game of Thrones, too, but I can’t remember. The sound of water gently lapping against the sand and the tranquility of the small fishing boats, so neatly lined up before the small beach, calm my senses and help me think about why I even travel. Man, this city is starting to break me.

Ok, why do I travel?

I travel because I get to have genuine experiences every day. I get to be free, to roam as I please. That’s why I like to stay a bit off the beaten track. If my experiences aren’t genuine, then what am I doing traveling? It’s more about what I’m not doing. Like not working, not making commitments. As I ponder my existential crisis, I wonder how all of the people touching and sitting on this ancient stone is affecting its longevity.

I walk back into the main strip of the Old Town, the Placa, to get my bearings again as I continue my search. As I look around, I get the sense that I’m at the Eiffel Tower combined with Six Flags on a Saturday in the summer. Some place that would warrant and forgive an influx of tourism to this magnitude. Only I’m meant to be in a city still. But it’s an “old city” so every stone is a monument, every alley is art.

Armed with my Olympus, I snap photos with a grudge. I think I’m getting closer to the hole in the wall. I’m walking around that bay that I had looked out at earlier, contemplating my traveling woes. The smell of the sea is comforting, and the Adriatic is a sapphire. I walk close enough to the edge for my feet to feel the spray and occasional crash of salty water. Three local fishermen sit together on a bench, a beer in each one’s hand. The smell of fish emanates from their direction. They look dirty and weathered compared to their fresh tourist counterparts, but not because they’ve been working. They look exhausted from watching all of us walk past all day. What must they think of us? They look at me as I walk by, seemingly ready to make a cheeky comment that reinforces their sense of manhood. I stop in front of them and ask to take their picture. Two of them smile accordingly. One covers his face with his hands. I take the photo anyway and look at the picture on my camera screen to make sure no tourist walked into my shot.

Fishermen on bench in Dubrovnik

Almost every photo is ruined by the tourist, so I start taking photos of the tourists. One point for an awkward solo photo. Two points for a photo of a tourist petting a stray cat. Three points for a photo of a tourist taking a photo of a stray cat.

Tourist taking a photo of a stray cat in Dubrovnik, Croatia

This entertains me until I reach the holes in the wall. I walk through some quiet back alleys where laundry hangs between the buildings, and this visual gives me hope. I don’t know if I’ve actually made it to the alleged “holes”, but there is access to the sea, and surprisingly few have stripped off their clothes to jump in. I figure, why not? I’m here. Better than taking photos of tourists. I take off my quick dry clothes, my cheap sunglasses, my baseball cap that says ‘Godzilla.’ I put down my chunky camera, cover it with my clothes, and jump in. The water is fresh, salty enough to restore me. Suddenly, I’m a traveler again, living in the moment, going with the flow. I smile at the child who has jumped in after me, at the couple who share a wet kiss as they tread water next to me. Because at the end of the day, the essence of traveling is realized in small moments, like when you look up at the sky as you float on your back and realize how lucky you are to be bobbing away on this particular body of water.

Hole in the wall Dubrovnik, Croatia

by Rebecca Bellan

9 Tips for New Travelers

Traveling for the first time can bring you a whirlwind of emotions, from excitement to fear. So I offer you a bit of advice to help you take that first step into the wonderful world.

 

I’m talking about long-term, solo travel, here. Just because you spent a week by the pool at a resort in Mexico, getting drunk off margaritas and riding ATVs on the beach, doesn’t mean you’ve truly been to Mexico or traveled. So for the individual looking for a more real experience, but who is maybe afraid to take the plunge, keep reading.

I’m no expert, and I certainly have a lot to learn, but I’ve figured out a few things that I wish I had known when I first started traveling.

1) While saving up money as a fallback is a good idea, you don’t need to be rich to travel. So many people that I talk to back home are always saying how they’d love to do what I do, but they don’t have the money. And I do? You just have to want it. What’s the point in slaving away at a job you hate, living the same life every week, just to scrape by? Hell, I can just scrape by anywhere in the world, but at least I’ll be adding experiences to my belt, possibly on a beach somewhere…

2) No, hostels aren’t gross and scary places. I don’t know if it was that ridiculous horror flick Hostel or what that has made so many of my fellow Americans fear hostels, but many of my friends and acquaintances back home have been horrified by either my staying in hostels or my suggesting that they stay in hostels. Either they think they’re bound to be dirty places, filled with leering foreign men who are just waiting to rape you or rob you in your sleep, or they are just not thrilled with the prospect of sharing a room with 11 other people. My advice? Get over it. Hostels, in my experience, are often the highlight of a trip. Sure there are some shitty ones, but for the most part they offer a home away from home and are a great way to meet other travelers and find things to do. You needn’t worry about privacy, either. There is definitely some unspoken rule about reading other people’s energies. If you want to be left alone, your new roommates will pick up on that and stay clear, and if you want to make friends, the possibilities are endless.

3) Learn a trade. I can bartend, serve and generally work in any sector of the hospitality industry. I am also a writer and possess a fair knowledge of social media, brand marketing, research, etc. These skills have helped me find places to work in exchange for food and a place to sleep. And when the day comes that I can stop moving, I’m sure that these skills could also provide me with a paid job in a foreign country. Sites like workaway, helpx and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are great sources to find volunteer work in exchange for room and board and at least one meal a day. From working the front desk at a hip hostel in Santiago, Chile, to picking grapes in a vineyard in Italy to helping at a zoo in India, the opportunities are endless.

4) Trust people. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Americans seem to generally not trust foreigners. Our media has instilled us with such fear of “the other” that many Americans are afraid to branch out. “You’re going to Colombia?!?!” Friends and family would ask me. “But it’s so dangerous. Don’t get your head chopped off!” Ok, Mom. Colombia was a grand old time, and I felt perfectly safe there. The whole world is dangerous, even America. That doesn’t mean that everyone is out to get you. Using sites like workaway and helpx is a good way to realize that the world is full of good people, just like you, who want to help you and welcome you into their country. Couchsurfing also promotes building bonds with strangers. Obviously, keep your wits about you and trust your gut, but you won’t immerse yourself in any culture if you stay hidden in your bubble.

5) Embrace the journey, not just the destination. I get it. You’re eager to make it to the next city. But what about all that space in between? You may not save time, but you’ll certainly save money and gain experience if you take the long way. Instead of flying, try booking passage via boats, buses or trains. You get to see much more of a country when you take your time moving through it, and you train yourself in the art of patience along the way.

6) Enjoy just being somewhere new. Every traveler knows that small thrill in the pit of your stomach, that quiver just below your ribs and into your heart that bubbles up and out of your throat, manifesting itself into a giddy giggle. It’s the excitement of being somewhere new, anywhere. It could be a pit stop in the middle of Colombia or a big city in Vietnam. Every place on Earth that you haven’t been before is new and offers fresh stimulation that should be celebrated.

7) Learn to be low-maintenance. When you’re backpacking or traveling for a long period of time, chances are, you’re trying to save money. You’re probably also trying to save luggage space. Many people aren’t good at traveling because they find it difficult to live without their comforts. If you’re serious about seeing the world, then you need to learn to be comfortable with less. I wouldn’t call it “survival,” but it’s damn near close. Carry the essentials and be thankful when you get a bed or a hammock to lie down in. Accept any free meals offered to you. When it comes down to it, you’re not going to need all the things you think you’ll need, and chances are, you can buy whatever you’re lacking in your backpack along the way. This lesson never became more clear to me than when I was backpacking in South America with only a handful of comfortable outfits, no makeup and a kindle. As long as I can stretch my legs and read a book, I can be comfortable anywhere.

8) Plan, but also be spontaneous. Resist the urge to spend hours scouring the internet and planning out an exact itinerary. Don’t only rely on your guidebook. If you’re going for a long period of time, planning out everything will only serve to limit you. With each new hostel or town you enter, you will meet so many people, locals and travelers alike, who will tell you where they went and show you pictures, so that you’re now wishing you didn’t bother buying that flight to Santiago out of Cusco, and you’d much rather have more time in Peru so you can see some other cities, maybe venture into Bolivia… The point is, you’re free and you can go wherever you want. Your choices and your plans will constantly change. Accept it, and go with it.

9) Embrace your freedom. Travel solo. Maybe you disagree, but I don’t think that you’re truly free if you have to worry about someone else’s wishes. For this reason, I prefer to travel alone, and I think that new travelers should learn to go it alone, as well. I’ve noticed, from traveling with others and from talking with people I’ve met in hostels, that traveling with a best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend can often harm your friendship and your experience abroad. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every friendship or relationship, but I’ve found that when you travel with someone you’re comfortable with, you tend to complain more to them about the strains of travel, and they complain back, fueling a circle of negativity. When shit hits the fan, you’re more likely to blame each other than keep a cool head and just figure it out. When you’re alone, you have no one to blame but yourself if something goes wrong, so you just move forward because, in a foreign country, you don’t want to dwell on hiccups and attract attention to whatever situation you’ve gotten yourself into. Another issue comes up when you want to do different things. Maybe your friend wants to stay up all night getting drunk with those cute Argentinian boys, but you want to get a good night’s rest so you guys can make that 8 am tour of a waterfall. Maybe you want to talk to that Swedish nice girl with the guitar, but your friend hates her because she was loud in the dorm rooms that morning and woke her up. Somebody either has to trudge along unhappily to something they’re not interested in, or you guys split up for a few hours.

There are good parts of traveling with others, of course, including having someone to watch your bag at the bus station while you go to the bathroom or rub your aching shoulders. However, I’d prefer, at least in this stage of my life, not to be tied down by anyone or anything, and to have the freedom to do whatever I feel like, wherever I feel like doing it.

 

by Rebecca Bellan