Backyard Trails: Being a Tourist in Your Own City

Next time the travel bug bites, start with your neighbourhood.  
Museu Picasso Barcelona
Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Stringer/Getty Images

Every kid gets a biscochito!” says Pratt Morales with a broad smile on his face. When Pratt was a young boy, he loved going to the local bakery for a treat, and today, as the owner of the Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he recreates his childhood memories for the kids that come into his store. Pratt and his son Chris go to great lengths to keep things local in their small shop: They stock only local beers, use aquaponics to grow herbs and vegetables, and hire staff from the neighbourhood. I’m pleasantly surprised to see the number of times the Morales’ greet their customers by name. But what I find even more surprising is that my girlfriend Lydia, has never heard of Pratt’s bakery. Despite growing up just 20 minutes away (where her family still lives), the delightful bakery has remained unknown to them.

I realise that this is frequently the case with the places we call home. Despite travelling the world, we often know very little about our own backyard. For instance, it wasn’t until three months after I’d started living in Barcelona that I actually visited the major sights. Absorbed in the minutiae of daily life—groceries, cleaning, cooking, work—it was easy, even for a travel writer, to slip into “home-mode”, rarely moving out of my comfort zone or the familiar. In fact, it was a visit from overseas friends that forced me to experience the ethereal lighting of La Sagrada Familia, the giant basilica designed by the Spanish architect Gaudi that has been under construction since 1882 and still isn’t completed. And although the Museu Picasso is only a stone’s throw away from my apartment in Barcelona’s El Born neighbourhood, it was holidaying mates who finally took me there.

Three years ago, my mother and I were travelling through Kerala when we decided to take our first river boat tour. Although she had grown up in the state, and I had spent many summers there, we’d never done what almost every tourist in Kerala does. There are a profusion of backwater tours, but somehow we’d never gotten around to cruising one. And though my mother wondered why she hadn’t got to it sooner, we were both glad we’d finally had  the experience.

An old college philosophy professor once described his move from New York City to the tiny town of College Station, Texas. “I explored the campus,” he’d said, “I went to the top of the highest building. If you haven’t been to the mundane parts of the area you live in, have you even really been there at all?”

The professor raises a valid point. There is after all more than one benefit to this type of experience. That’s why the trend of staycations, which started with the economic downturn, has taken on a life of its own. By treating one’s own town as a travel destination, staycationers live at home or at a nearby hotel, and explore it as they would a faraway place. Although it started with travellers looking at ways to reduce expenses, it’s now grown popular as staycationers realise there’s much to discover in their own backyards.

Over green chilli crust pizza, local draught beer, and engaging conversation with Chris Morales, Lydia exclaimed “I have to bring my family here!” We both felt charged with enthusiasm to explore her hometown, to take chances, to try a new restaurant, or step into a new store. It wasn’t always great, but we wouldn’t have found the gems we did without taking the plunge.

I wondered to myself, what if my next break was a staycation? Instead of sticking to my mainstays, I could try something different. After all there’s an amazing discovery to be had just around the corner. Even better, the adventures can continue long after the holiday is over.

Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Backyard Adventures”.

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    Biju Sukumaran is a travel writer currently based in Barcelona, Spain.

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