I’ve waxed on about the differences between a traveler and a tourist for what seems like my entire life. But to be honest, I could really care less how other people choose to “travel” because we all have our own style when it comes to adventure.
I personally don’t like to do too much in the way of planning past actually buying airline tickets. There are simply too many adventures that come along via times like when you’re trying to catch a cab and relate your destination to the driver when you have no clue how to speak their language past the simple “hello” and “thank you”. There is nothing like eschewing a tour bus and meeting people (and their chickens/goats/livestock) on a “local” bus which will make no less than 50 alarmingly sudden stops alongside remote stretches of desolate roads to pick up and drop off passengers…all of whom seemingly run out of fields or forests to get the attention of a driver who strangely almost expects them to be there. Or to have your stomach growl as you stroll a market (such as in Bangkok) but everything you see being tossed into a wok either has a beak or the toenails still attached…but you eat it anyhow because “you’re there”.
I honestly can’t imagine taking a trip without such experiences. But the 100% flipside of that is something that a person here in my office is partaking in this coming Friday. And let me preface this blog entry by the fact that he is indeed traveling to a faraway country, which is definitely a good thing so I’m still quite envious. But being envious of foreign traveling is kind of where the correlations between our styles begin to rapidly part ways.
He is heading to Asia, obviously one of my favorite places. For the past few weeks I’ve been listening to him tell other co-workers about his trip and done my share of inquiring about some of the details of the trip. As I mentioned earlier, “details” about any trip I do pretty much stop after the words “I bought airline tickets to…..”. Anyhow, I’ve heard all kinds of cool stuff he’s planning like touring temples, seeing the Great Wall of China, a train ride, etc. etc. He even said this week, and I quote, “every minute of every day is now planned out”. When I heard those words it was as if a noose was being tightened around my neck and all oxygen had been cut off from my being. All the things his tour had planned sounded so cool….except….there is no room for adventure, at least my style of adventure.
Wow, every single second of every single day of this trip will be spent with a tour guide…directly from the airport upon arrival until the time they leave. Meals will be eaten either in a cushy hotel or at a guide-directed eatery (so as not to eat the wrong things). There will be an allotted amount of time for each activity/museum/photo op, no awkward language translation worries, no worries about presenting the correct documents when asked by some official type person wielding a gun, no wandering errantly into poverty riddled neighborhoods, no frightening bus rides on sketchy mountain roads, no hair-raising moto-cab rides with life not guaranteed past the time the kick starter is kicked…because the guide will handle it and make sure no real adventures happen on their watch. Granted, this is the kind of travel that some people like because it’s safe. And while I admire the fact that they are at least getting out of their home state, it just seems so insulated from what they are actually thinking they’re going to experience.
After listening to this for weeks, I finally decided that had I been doing this same trip (without a guide), there would have been a slight difference in experiences. Well, there are many differences. Okay, everything would be different.
Adventure #1 would begin immediately upon arrival in the airport where there’d be nobody holding a sign with my name ready to whisk me to safety. I’d have to dig out my Lonely Planet Phrase Book and start hacking away at figuring out how to tell the cab driver what the name of my hostel was, where it was and then start with the price negotiations…all of which would fail miserably and I would have to trust he was taking me to the place I finally wound up just pointing to in my Rough Guide book…and trusting that he wasn’t gouging me on the price.
After the life-threatening dash through insane traffic at 0200 (because the cheapest flights don’t arrive until after midnight), I’d step out of the mechanically challenged taxi or collectivo, dragging my big red North Face bag behind me, into the sweltering humid heat — barely before the driver would zip away, leaving me for adventure number two — securing a room at an unknown hotel, without a translator.
Much like my peer here at work, I too would visit museums and historic sites throughout my stay, but the difference would be that I’d only have my Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and/or Moon Guide books to read about what I was seeing instead of someone telling me. I usually learn more that way anyhow. I’d gain entry to these places only after trying to figure out the currency for the hundredth time that day and still not be sure I gave the proper amount to the person at the entry booth (remember, no guide to “guide” me through the rough spots). Regardless, I’d say “thank you”, or at least try, in my broken and naïve dialect
Every meal would be eaten at some totally unknown establishment or street vendor where I’d have no idea what I was ordering save for the out-of-focus Polaroid photos alongside the completely untranslatable Asian writing. Afterwards, Donna and I would agree that it was likely the best $1 food we’d ever eaten, though we still wouldn’t be sure exactly what it was, although it had a beak, still attached. Repeat this scenario for every meal during our stay and you get the picture. If the meal didn’t work out like it was supposed to, well, that’s what our pre-filled Cipro prescription and Immodium are for. It happens but I can say that street food is ALWAYS the best option for the BEST food. Don’t believe me? Try street Pad Thai Goong (Shrimp Pad Thai) anywhere in Thailand. Only $1 and better than anything you’ve ever eaten…period!
Traveling this way certainly isn’t for everyone, but it sure is fun for me. Not only does every single thing I do, from reading menus to attempting to buy bus tickets, become a huge adventure, it’s also costs about 1/10th of the other insulated style of travel. People always ask me how I manage to travel to so many places. Well, the answer is because it’s cheap!!
Here’s a perfect example. A couple of years ago a five day trekking trip via REI to Machu Picchu, not including airfare was $3,500 each. Tack on $1,000 for the round trip air to Peru and you’ve easily dropped 45 Franklins on your sterile trip, just for yourself and not including your significant other. Conversely, I cobbled together the exact same trip on my own (I know this because the REI folks were camped right by us and I asked them), including airfare, for $2,500 — for two, and that included food and hostels for several more days in Cusco before and after our trek. Basically I’ve spent less on three trips to Machu Picchu (I’ve been twice and Donna once) than a single person would pay for a trip going through a organized guide. Crazy!!! I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m all about a 3-for-1 travel deals!!
Anyhow, I could easily take the same photos a zillion tourist will take from the tour bus or standing in exactly the “right” spot the guide shows you, but I’d rather have the candid photos of things like our terrified faces in the back of a dilapidated taxi, maybe our photos with the owners of the tiny neighborhood café where we’d eaten our breakfast every day, maybe a photo of us comically trying to negotiate the price of something in an obscure market waaaaay off the tourist track. Although the photos of the temples, famous churches or other iconic symbols of that country will make for fun photos and I’ll take my share of them, it’ll always be those off-beat, awkward and sometimes nerve wracking moments and places that will make for the best memories.
I don’t know, I guess just seeing something “foreign” simply isn’t enough for me. I don’t want to just “see it”, I want to experience it. And to me, the only way to truly experience a new country is to throw myself out there, be vulnerable, be willing to laugh at myself (a lot) and trust that the people I meet along the way will show me what their culture, food and every day hospitality is really like.
In fact, I often think about all the random people we’ve met in our travels and how much of a positive impact they’ve made on our experiences. Noi in Thailand. Maribelle in Mexico. Diego and Boris in Peru. Stefan in Austria. Nancy in Mexico. Frau Fruendorfer in Germany. The chic with the diamond in her tooth in Italy. Love it!!
To me, that’s travel.