One day, when you’re lost in Manhattan, staring quizzically into the origami-like folds of a concierge’s city map, you might keep an eye out for a certain kind of New Yorker quietly watching you.
If you’re in my neighborhood, this person might be me. I live to give directions. Walking the city, I am constantly alert to any visual clues of Lost Tourist Syndrome. I am like a superhero with one tiny, extremely limited superpower: I can situate you on the grid, point out the nearest subway, and direct you from Dean & Deluca to the Uniqlo store. A lot of us want to help. Not because we’re exceptionally kindhearted, though thanks for thinking that. Nor are we members of that self-righteous breed of city folk who feel the need to impose our taste on the visitor. We like to help because it makes us feel like that most firmly dependable and indispensable urban dweller: the in-the-know insider. Perhaps it’s because I’m so often traveling and in need of the guidance and goodwill of local experts that I long to be one when I’m home.
We used to travel to see the sights: Indian palaces; Italian cathedrals; big game in Africa. For some places, it’s still sufficiently moving to simply stand near them, feel the power of their proximity (the Taj Mahal, say, or the stone men of Easter Island). But for much of the world, just looking isn’t enough. It’s not enough to sever ties with our own daily lives; we need to connect with others. We seek the real—to feel that we’ve been truly transported to a definite somewhere rather than the vague, dizzying nowhere of shuffling through airports. We’ve become collectors of people; we’re all locaphiles now.
The social side of travel is big business now, life imitating the Internet. Luxury travel can be isolating because of the natural distance between the way you see a place and the lives of the people there. So travel agents have enlisted the expertise of residents to show you around. Unfiltered access, connections, insight—these are the new value-added.
What is a local? Just living somewhere doesn’t qualify you for the job. Being a local requires more than knowing how to read a map (there’s an app for that). The kind of local we want to meet is someone with a take on a place, a story to tell, a passion or particular expertise—all linked to where we are. They’re the London cabbies of culture, the Baedekers of burger joints and best bartenders, the translators of foreign topography; they’re trivia nuts and social anthropologists, insightful old-timers and knowledgeable newcomers. They’re the kind of people you’d be happy to fall into casual conversation with anywhere you go. And, increasingly, more than all the museums and points of historical interest in all the guidebooks in the world—they’re why you traveled there in the first place.
Think about the boxes or hard drives full of all the travel pictures you’ve ever taken. How often do you look at that snapshot of the corner of the Colosseum? Or the one that captured the full splendor of the breakfast spread at Rio’s Copacabana Palace Hotel? We can get the postcard images anywhere, it’s the human sentiment of the handwriting on the other side we miss. The pictures I care about most, the ones I linger over, have as their subjects not places but people. Friends, family, strangers who’ve wandered into my line of sight long enough to merit remembering. As nice as it is to share travel memories with the people we set out with, there’s a special feeling reserved for the ones we met along the way—a combination of the excitement of something new, curiosity undimmed by extended contact, and relief at not being lost in an unfamiliar place, or not being stranded alone with a dull book at the restaurant bar.