Dec 212008

Before starting this trip back in Los Angeles, I picked up an interesting-looking book to read on the plane: First Time Around the World – A Trip Planner for the Ultimate Journey.

Although I found most of its advice to be fairly obvious and repetitive – stuff I’d picked up on the road long ago – I could see how it would be useful to those just getting started. Far more interesting to me personally were all the little tips and blurbs that crystallized so perfectly what it is that I love about traveling; they were the same types of things that I loved about the documentary A Map for Saturday when I stumbled on it about half a year ago.

Some examples:

Are you a tourist or a traveller?

Why on earth should you go out of your way to try some sport or activity you’ve never heard of and will probably never do again? Why bother with the slow, less comfortable modes of transport? Why go anywhere near a squat toilet or, for that matter, a Vietnamese ear-cleaner armed with what seems to be shish-kebab skewers?

Because if you’re not doing something new, you’re doing something you’ve done before. If you’re not taking local transport, you’re taking Western-style transport. If you’re not using the local language (or hand gestures and phrasebooks), you’re probably speaking with professional guides and concierges. if you’re not staying in places with local standards, you’re staying in places with Western standards. If you’re not eating local food, you’re probably eating food you know from home. If you’re not using the local toilets, you’re using Western ones. The creature comforts (and language) of Western life are now available virtually everywhere, and if you don’t go on a creature-comfort diet, you’ll be getting a Disneyfied view of the place you’re trying to see. It’s often the inconvenient and uncomfortable elements that give travel its extra dimension, and separate the Sphinx in Las Vegas from the one in Egypt, the gondola ride in the Epcot Center from the one in Venice – and the tourists from the travellers.

Should you see the world on a tight budget?

Independent budget travel isn’t for anyone. Especially if you’re not thrilled about riding on buses that use the horn as a turn signal, greeting, and emergency brake. Or using toilet paper better suited for removing barnacles from the underside of harboured yachts. Or spending the occasional night in a place that considers the urine stain on the mattress all the decoration the room needs. If this little sample didn’t faze you (much), you’re in luck. The cultural and social payoff of budget travel is enormous, the experience invaluable, and it’s unlikely to bankrupt you. If you’re not planning to travel on the cheap, you should be aware that a thick wallet has a tendency to insulate you from the very culture you’re trying to experience. Also, you may have to limit your time on the road, or knock off a bank. A year of air-conditioned tours, meals served on real tablecloths, and comfortable hotel rooms could set you back $100,000. Whereas it can be done for as little as $10,000.

  12 Responses to “Mottos to Travel By”

  1. Another interesting one:

    What is Adventure Travel?

    These days, with 70-year-olds waiting for hip replacements signing up for “adventure tours”, it’s hard to know exactly what the term means. An adventure used to involve exploring uncharted waters and lands with hidden dangers. It meant not knowing where it would end up or how or if. Similarly, safari was once used to describe a hunting expedition in Africa and now encapsulates taking pictures of animals from a bouncing minivan, then relaxing by the pool with a dry martini.

    “Adventure travel” is typically applied to whitewater rafting, bungee-jumping, trekking, and getting spun about in jet boats, especially when these activities take place in foreign countries. The fact is, they’re completely packaged activities with an outcome nearly as predictable as a fairground ride, rendering them closer to the X Games than what any explorer would dub an adventure. Does that mean you should avoid them? No. A little adrenaline is healthy and good fun. Does that mean there are no “real” adventures left? No. Just make sure you understand which kind you’re signing up for. Come to think of it, if you need to sign up for the adventure, that’s a pretty good indication of what kind it is.

  2. Here’s something I’m embarrassed to say I was pretty guilty of after returning from my first year in Japan.

    I never did get around to writing about the intense reverse culture shock of going home – although I’ve always wanted and intended to…

    Finding patience (from the section “Going Home”)

    It’s common to feel superior to those around you who haven’t had such international experiences. Suddenly, their views may seem pedestrian and insular and you feel the continued need to ‘set them straight’. Just remember: your own views may not be that popular, either. Time outside your own country tends to highlight its faults, and you may come off sounding like a born-again critic. Take heart. You will have enlightened perspectives, but don’t expect others to come around easily.

  3. I kind of feel the opposite. The more I travel, the more I love where I live. Of course, Santa Monica is a pretty little island in the sea of squalor known as middle Americana.

  4. yup, you were definitely guilty of that. glad you recognize it. didn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothered others, but maybe now you can understand better some of their reactions towards you?

  5. If only I’d picked up that travel book 3 years ago, hehe 😉

  6. hope you’re doin well, Fn blows we can’t seem to connect on the phone

  7. How hard is it to answer?

    Hehe J/K 😛

  8. well call some other time than 12:30 in the morning, stupid time difference!

  9. It was 8:57pm (in LA) the second time!

  10. interesting thoughts

  11. Regarding the “going home” realization that you mention… it is nice to hear you acknowledge that. I think it bothered Shahin the most, not because he is supremely patriotic, but because it did make you come across as holier than thou. I am sure that he would greatly appreciate it if you emailed him and apologized for that specifically, the way you have done to us here.

  12. I only mentioned it just now because I thought it was interesting that my book referred to it specifically as a common symptom for returning world travelers. Not only was the Shahin thing much broader, but it’s years in the past and has been discussed and dealt with dozens of times already. Let’s let bygones be bygones, shall we?

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