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.
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.