Playing the tourist at home

You know you’re a tourist when you take a photo like this…

Whenever I get my camera out in Melbourne city, I am overcome by a wave of self-consciousness.

People must think I’m a tourist, I panic, as though I couldn’t be branded with a more offensive label.

For this very reason I only ever reveal my camera on rare occasions – to occupy myself at otherwise empty Sheffield Shield games or to photograph hilarious signs. Every now and then, though, an exception will bob up and I simply must capture the moment on film, albeit as discreetly as possible.

In my recent trip to Sydney, I took over 1,500 photos. For a faux-local, that was 1,500 moments of I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this awkwardness.

In reality, I was indeed a tourist and should have felt at ease with my camera. Yet Sydney felt like such a familiar setting. I could speak the language, use the currency and work out the train system with relative ease. As much as I was a foreigner, I felt I didn’t deserve to be one.

For three weeks I resided in Newtown, a hipster hotspot south of the Sydney CBD. From Monday to Friday I was a busy intern, volunteering at a nearby not-for-profit organisation. When coming and going from work, I paced around the neighbourhood with my nice chequered shirts, my polished black shoes and my dark professional-looking jacket. Passers-by were asking me for directions, such was the this-is-my-hood vibe I exerted.

As tempting as it was, I didn’t buy one of these cute critters.

On the weekends, I was free man – left to roam the streets of Sydney. Having seen Sydney’s harbour highlights as a child, I wasn’t struck with awe upon coming face-to-face with the bridge or the egg shells. Nevertheless I still participated in much of the typical traveller behaviour – I walked everywhere with an oversized backpack, visited tourist offices to collect maps and looked out the window on my way to and from each train station.

More important, however, were the things I didn’t do.

I didn’t, for example, stress about my security. Nor did I search for tacky mass-produced goods in souvenir shops. And I didn’t befriend a single Dutch backpacker.

In many respects, travelling around Sydney was much like taking a walk around my beloved Melbourne. The main difference was that I actually wanted to see what the city had to offer, instead of just taking it all for granted. In Melbourne, I’ve always reasoned that “I can see it another time”. In Sydney, it was more of a “now or never” attitude, even if I’m bound to return sometime in the near future.

The other obvious difference between Sydney and Melbourne was that I knew close to nobody at my temporary destination. Besides one distant friend, an unfamiliar family relative and my temporary friends-of-friends housemates, this was a largely hostile city.

This point was drilled into me one night at the Oxford Art Factory, a bar in the trendy inner-city suburb of Surry Hills (not to be confused with the middle-class neighbourhood in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs). That night the most recognisable faces for me were the celebrity musicians on stage – Lior, Emma Louise, Bob Evans and Andy Bull.

This photo was taken on a ferry, alongside hundreds of Chinese tourists. I was essentially one of them.

For me, their familiar faces reassured me like old friends. To them, I’m certain I was nothing more than an anonymous face in the crowd.

As I looked around at my fellow crowd members, I felt as though I was in a parallel universe – the people around me were roughly my age, listening to roughly my type of music, living roughly the same life as me. I just didn’t know any of them.

And that’s when it struck me. Being a tourist has nothing to do with what country I’m in. So long as I’m a stranger I’m essentially away from home.

Home is where I have people within arm’s reach – friends, family and that strange man who always catches my bus. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in Frankston, Sydney or deepest darkest Africa; if I’m travelling alone I’m essentially a tourist. Whether I like it or not.