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Photo: wili

What do travelers hold true long before they set out on a trip?
1. The further “off the beaten track” you go, the more authentic a place becomes.

Japan isn’t Tokyo, Thailand isn’t Bangkok, New York isn’t the U.S…to this refrain I say: what? Sure, U.S culture can’t be summed up by New York nor can Japanese culture be summed up entirely by Tokyo; but these places are as integral to their country’s culture as any tiny town in the backwoods.

And while it can be much harder to navigate cities and find local haunts amidst all the big, glittering tourist destinations, cities are by no means cultural voids.

Even Starbucks, the easiest global corporation to hate for sucking all the local rootedness out of coffee culture, is inevitably local. Japanese Starbucks serve Coffee Jelly Frappucinos, and have four different trashcans for sorting garbage.

This is obviously not a grand cultural revelation every traveler to Japan should experience—but it does go to show that local culture creeps up in a variety of places, from the apartment blocks taking over downtown Beijing to the ramshackle villages in the far reaches of Hebei province.

2. It’s always better to go independent.

This is a given truth for many travelers. However, there are times when a tour will give you access you couldn’t have as a solo traveler.

Be it a bike ride around Paris with a well-informed guide, a trek through the Ecuadorian Amazon to a village swallowed up by jungle, or a neighborhood tour of a Brazilian favela, it could offer views and insights which are difficult to come by independently.

This is particularly true when time is an issue. Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to spend the weeks or even months that might be necessary to get to know people and get a feel for the realities of life in a certain place.

Strong-willed travelers raised on the Lonely Planet’s how-to-go-it-alone philosophy often have an instantaneous, negative gut reaction to tours. I know I do. But sometimes it’s pretentious and blinding to think that it’s possible to really learn about a place on one’s own.

Well-designed, respectful tours run with the participation of and for the benefit of local people can be worth it.

3. Everyone who travels shares a certain sense of enlightenment.

There is undeniably a lot to be learned from travel, and in my opinion most of it is learned unconsciously and drifts to the surface only after the traveling is done.

However, travel does not inherently bring on some new way of seeing, and can in fact do just the opposite. Anthropologists have long noted how traveling frequently reinforces the same prejudices, fears, and biases travelers had before leaving home.

It all depends on the person traveling, his/her attitude, and the degree to which he/her is willing to alter assumptions and beliefs.

4. Travelers stay in hostels, tourists stay in hotels.

Putting aside the bundle of issues behind the supposed tourist/traveler dichotomy, this is just plain B.S. If getting wasted at the hostel bar with a couple cute British girls and an Australian surfer is your idea of a quality traveler experience, good on ya (as the Australians would say) but don’t lord it above hotel dwellers.

I’d rather stay in a crappy budget hotel in a second than come back to a dorm room full of backpacks and lonely planets and horny, hungover twenty-somethings.

Photo: idalodiskho

Full disclosure: haven’t stayed in a hostel since I studied abroad seven years ago, and believe me, I haven’t been earning any more money than I was then. I’ve just gotten smarter about choosing budget accommodation.

5. There is some sort of almighty List Of Things To Do (as in, “have you done the rainforest walk yet?”) that all travelers must uncover and dutifully check off.

The best part of Kota Kinabalu, in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo, was sitting on the corner of the same beaten down coffee shop every morning. Kota Kinabalu is the essence of unspectacular—boring architecture, tame seafront, tired-looking markets, laid-back restaurants that all serve the same things.

We went to the tourist office. We found out what there was to do. Giant flower here, mountain there, orangutans there. It sounded interesting.

But we went back to the same coffee shop every morning. Met a Filipino fisherman who took us to the water village where the Filipino immigrants lived, where kids jumped off wooden planks into the water and women cooked in tiny barren rooms suspended above the ocean.

I went running on the hillside behind the city until its geography became so familiar that I felt the rush of having a pseudo-home on the road.

We ate durian at a night market underneath a pedestrian bridge.

We went back to the same Filipino fish market every night, to the same woman’s picnic tables, and ate cuttlefish with fern salad.

That was one of the first times I’ve traveled list-free, and Kota Kinabalu remains one of the favorite places I’ve been.

Surely these preconceptions are the tip of the iceberg—travel has become so widespread, and so picked apart and analyzed, that travelers hit the road now with a whole bundle of beliefs packed up in their head.

What are yours? How have your preconceptions changed the more you travel? Please share below!

Community Connection

Interested in the way people think about travel? Explore inner travel, read up on persistent travel myths and debate the nature of “real travel.”

 

 

About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/vmcalves Vera

    Amen!

    I agree with every word, Sarah, and I’m so glad to read it as it is, instead of listening to people that would probably kill to stay in a hotel but will book the hostel because they think that’s what cool travelers do.

  • http://thelonglayover.blogspot.com Carlo

    Nice one Sarah. Guilty on one and two…to an extent. I have muttered Paris ain’t France many, many times and I still hold to that. Many people’s idea of France, especially the travelers on the whirlwind Contiki tours that take in the capital city of 30 countries in 30 days, is Paris and base their judgments of France on Paris.

    I love Paris. And I would never tell anyone to skip Paris, but they need to understand that it’s a world apart from the rest of France.

    I will avoid tours at all costs. But I do agree that you will probably learn things you wouldn’t know on your own (unless you have a book about the place)…but then again, you compromise a lot, mainly your independence to see and do things at your own pace. Of course, if the only way to do something I wanted to do was on a tour, I’d do it.

    #3 couldn’t be more true! Traveling can facilitate a profound change in a person, but it’s certainly not a given. You have to be open to it and be able to question the world. If your idea of travel is a gap year after school, then on to a career, chances are traveling won’t have much effect on your life. You’ll have a hell of a year, but that’s about it.

  • http://www.photojbartlett.com Jeff Bartlett

    I agree entirely with your post, however, I think its important to point out the difference between a hiking or cycling guide and a trip around a Brazilian favela. These trips are entirely unfair and possibly been my worst ever travel experience.

    A company profits of other people´s poverty and then cannot return the money to the community because improvement would ruin their ¨product¨. It is really something best avoided unless you will further your trip by personally aiding or working to improve those communities via another means.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

    I’ve got a 10,000 word rant in me about how much I hate the word “do” in relation to travel, as in “I’m going to do Brazil after I do Argentina.”

    So yeah, #5 is right on, Sarah.

    • http://thelonglayover.blogspot.com Carlo

      Tim, I have at least 5000 words in me on hating “do”. Wanna collaborate?

      If I ever feel the need to say “do”, I at least have the decency to do the “finger-quote” thing. :)

      • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

        Yeah, a collaborative rant sounds like fun.

  • Kathy

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky with the tours I’ve been on, but I’ve found almost all of them (especially the ones we took in Peru) to be memorable and they taught me things about the areas that I couldn’t possibly have learned on my own (at least in one lifetime). What was amazing about several of our tour guides in Peru, too, was that we really just picked them up on the side of the road, and they turned out to be these incredibly well-informed experts. I got to thinking that everyone bi-lingual in English in Peru must be like this.

    And, Tim, the “do” thing is one of my very pet-ist peeves (and I hate when I catch myself “doing” it!).

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

      Any recommendations of tour companies you had good experiences with? And I’m glad you hear me on the problem of “do” :)

  • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

    Excellent points all round. I’m finding #2 especially true on my current trip. Tour guides (the good ones at least) are paid to know their sh*t and share it all with you–how convenient!

    And wow, your time in Kota Kinabalu sounds incredible!

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

      Yeah, agree that my mouth was watering over the Kota Kinabalu descriptions.

  • Aaron

    I’m glad I read this. I thought it was only me who hates party hostels.

  • http://evaholland.com Eva

    Testify, Sarah!

  • Alan

    I wholeheartedly agree with the hostel vs. hotel thing. No shame in staying in a hotel and avoid the possibility of someone else ruining your trip.

  • http://meganahill.wordpress.com Megan Hill

    My travel preconception: DON’T EAT DURIAN!

  • Kathy

    Tim: our Peruvian travel agent–Exprinter (I can’t find a website for them, hope they’re still in business, we were there in 2006) did set us up with a few tours that we liked, in particular the Sacred Valley, our Inka Trail/Machu Picchu excursion, and our Amazonika rainforest trip. I’d recommend them if they’re still around. However, in Chan Chan, Sacsayhuaman, and Huaca Pucclana (Lima) we literally just picked guides up by the side of the road and/or took the next guide in line at the visitors’ center. And they were terrific.

    Another point I meant to make in my previous comment, is that I almost always learn a lot and thoroughly enjoy docent-led tours in museums.

  • http://www.huevosalamexicana.com Sarah

    @ Kathy: Thanks for the insight about tours in Peru. I’ve hardly ever taken tours traveling, but the few I’ve taken have been so, so worth it. I took a tour of Monte Alban, a major Zapotec archeological site in Oaxaca, with my parents when they came to visit, and I felt like a complete jerk for not having done it before. I’d been to Monte Alban twice and never gotten a guide! Which basically meant, I’d not understood hardly anything about the place or it’s history. Bits and pieces from the museum, sure, but not even the tip of the iceberg.

    @ Jeff: I agree that favela tours and “poverty tours” are something to be wary of, but I don’t think all of them are looking to exploit poverty and maintain conditions of squalor. Township tours in South Africa, for example, have actually helped improve living conditions, create jobs, and decrease violence. There will always be tours that are more and less exploitative of local areas–but I don’t think all tours to places like favelas can be written off as such.

    @ Tim: Doesn’t “do” make your skin crawl? It seems to me like something a frat boy says the morning after…

    @ Megan: Hey now! Durian tastes like bubble gum! Chewy, gluey, fruity, smelly bubble gum…

    • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

      I think “frighteningly chicken-y” needs to figure into that durian description, Sarah.

    • http://meganahill.wordpress.com Megan Hill

      Bubblegum? I didn’t know there was lighter fluid flavored bubblegum! I’ve had a couple of near-death experiences with durian in Seattle’s International District. Yuck!

  • admin

    Lighter fluid, chicken, and bubble gum. Dang. Anybody else have any other flavor interpretations of durian?

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

      I think this is an article of its own.

      • http://thelonglayover.blogspot.com Carlo

        What in the name of jeebus is durian?

        • http://evaholland.com Eva

          It’s “the King of Fruit”! Ask anyone in Malaysia. Looks a bit like a misshapen pineapple. Banned in many apartment buildings in Singapore and KL due to its pungent odor…

          • http://thelonglayover.blogspot.com Carlo

            Ahhh…durian! Whay didn’t you just say so in the first place! ;)

            I remember this in SE Asia now…never tried it though. I really like custard apples.

  • http://musictravelwrite.wordpress.com Michelle

    Awesome article, Sarah!

    So the Jelly Frappucinos are a Japanese thing….dang. I had one in Korea and thought it was unique to this country. Nope, it’s either taken from the U.S. or Japan.

    Amen on the hostel thing. I think there’s just a time and place and certain kind of trip that warrants a hostel, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with hotels.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbagrrl al

    Thanks for the post. I love traveling, but it is tiring to read about arrogant backpackers that insist that if you are packing more than 3 pairs of underwear, eating only from the supermarket with your swiss army knife and always showering in flip flops then you are not traveling.

    I have done more than my fair share of time in dorm hostels (and grocery store meals), but now I am past 30 and usually traveling with a partner, for the same price we can generally get a private room usually in a hostel. So we get the same hostel experience, without the 8 bed dorm. Some times it’s okay to spend an extra $5 for a private room because some times a good night’s sleep is priceless.

    I will have to disagree with #3. I don’t think people who travel are better people, but I have noticed people who travel are generally better educated, more up on world events and way better in geography. This might not be true in other countries where most of the population has gone abroad at least once in their life, but this certainly holds true in the US.

    Also, in almost any major city I go to, I love to take walking or biking tours. No matter how hard I try, books do not do justice to describe what you are looking at, plus they don’t answer your on the spot questions. Tours provide great information about the place that you just can’t get otherwise. Some tours I highly recommend include:

    Berlin – Berlin Walks http://www.berlinwalks.com/
    Reykjavik – Free walking tour – http://www.goecco.com/
    Munich – Mike’s bikes – http://www.mikesbiketours.com/
    Charleston, SC – http://www.charlestonwalks.com/

  • admin

    Thanks for the tips and the insight, Al. I think as far as #3 is concerned, it depends on one’s definition of “traveler.” I’ve met plenty of travelers who certainly fit your description, and they tend to agree that widely traveled people are more open-minded, more up on world events, and more empathetic to people from different cultures/places.

    That said, I’ve also met plenty of travelers who DONT fit that description. Gap year travelers and backpackers in South America, travelers in China and Mexico who’d been to dozens of countries and yet didn’t seem to have ever escaped their bubble of American near-sightedness. I think it depends on the why’s and the how’s of each person’s travel, and the political/cultural attitudes they have at home.

  • Barbara

    Hi! First of all thank you for all the tips about travel I would die for .. still not having the chance.

    I perfectly agree on all your points and, concerning hostels, I’ve rarely used them, I preferred guest rooms, renting small apartments or finding tiny hotels.. but probably is linked to the tipe of region I’ve visited, mostly Europe, Africa and US, just a couple of times in Asia.

    Italy is another of the countries that stays under the first preconception: Rome, Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples .. are each a different univers and if you listen to the locals speaking to each other, even diffferent languages. And in the very moment you leave the town and stard discovering the region and the small villages you’ll find another a new world. I’ve travelled Italy back and forth for my entire life and still I have plenty of experience to live in this country.. you’ve not idea how much I’m annoyed from friends saying : “I’ve a week to spend in Italy and I want to DO Florence, Rome and Venice .. do you have any tip for me ?”…

    Thank you again for everithing you’ve written.

  • RySnow

    Hey Tim, I know a great tour company that will hold your hand the whole way and prevent you from wandering or asking questions that you can do.

  • Mathilde

    I have two travel misconceptions that I have identified recently…

    #1 (like mentionned in the article and many other comments): I HATE tours. I travel independently…oh, wait, no…it turns out I AM on a tour. It’s called “The Lonely Planet” tour…oh well…I still try to avoid tours, though…

    #2 I HAVE to be a “real, cool, TRAVELLER” (vs. a posh, stuck-up TOURIST)…oh, wait, no…I don’t HAVE to be anything. That’s why I am traveling, right ?

    So now I try to remember that I am not special or better, I am hardly ever off the beaten track but you know what ? as long as I’m having the time of MY life, why should I care about what other fellow travellers are gonna think ?!

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