6 tips for travel research beyond your guidebook
LUANG PRABANG MAY BE off the beaten path, but it’s still pretty well covered in the guidebooks. Planning to get there overland is really little more than a matter of picking up the appropriate Lonely Planet guide, finding one of the local buses as directed, and holding your breath as it careens around the sides of mountains.
It might not be the safest overland journey you could subscribe to, but it’s pretty well documented that it exists, and quite straightforward to learn the details. This is not true of everywhere, though. Like Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Arua in Uganda, for example. This has been a royal pain in my ass over the last few weeks, as I try to properly plan a journey that passes through both.
The fundamental problem is simply that there are places on many an itinerary which lie beyond the neatly described pages of Bradt or Lonely Planet. In some cases, it’s because they are just genuinely too far off the beaten track. In others, it’s because they were once dangerous, and nobody has been back to update the guidebook since (I’m looking at you Khartoum, Hargeisia, and Gulu). For yet more destinations, it’s because they still are.
Whatever the reason, if researching your upcoming journey is proving a little harder than trying to find good pad thai in Bangkok, you may need to go a little offroad in your research.
1. Enhanced search
As my mother asked me as a youngster, “Have you looked properly?” I really hated that, but she had a point.
There’s a great deal more out there than simply typing the name of your destination into Google. Have you looked through YouTube or Vimeo for videos of the area? If you’re lucky – particularly on Vimeo – someone may have made a documentary or creative piece on the place. If you strike gold here, you’ll likely learn a lot more about deeper issues in the destination than how to get there and how much a beer will cost you.
Then you can search Flickr for images from the area and get in touch with people who seem to have done interesting things there before you. Finally, put a search into Facebook and see if there are local groups pursuing projects you might be able to hook up with when you arrive, or whether there are social groups with ongoing discussions by past visitors.
Bunia, in the DRC, has little in the way of guidebook references, but YouTube proved surprisingly rich in relevant video content. There were terribly made documentaries on past incidents in the town, and footage of local groups and scenery. Vimeo, as it turns out, has an entire channel dedicated to humanitarian documentaries, covering some of the broader history of the Eastern DRC in detail. Many of the individuals or NGOs responsible for posting video content on the services left their details on the page, and were more than happy to respond to my followup emails.
2. Google Maps
I swear by Google Maps. If you’re trying to find border crossings between, say, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Google Maps allows you to make an initial search in a matter of minutes. Is there a road between X and Y? Is it a large road? Is it tarred? What is the terrain like? Maps can answer in minutes the sorts of questions you would struggle to find in any single source elsewhere.
As a further plus, if you intend to coordinate your planning with others, Google even allows you to create your own maps to share with colleagues. Together you can highlight routes, add pins for known accommodation or hazards, and compare routes. Even if it isn’t a map you can take with you, being able to plot a journey in outline makes explaining it to your compatriots a great deal easier.
Using Google Maps, my colleagues and I have been able to share primary and alternative plans for where we will travel, stop, and work. We’ve also been able to use Google Alerts (below) and continuously update the map to capture the locations of incidents that might affect our travel plans or make routes unsafe.
3. Google Alerts
Not nearly as widely known or used as it should be, Google Alerts gives you the tools to have Google update you via email (daily, once a week, or as it happens) whenever new results appear on the web for terms you specify. Going to Ouagadougou? Pop it into Google Alerts well ahead of setting off, and keep abreast of developments in the city and surroundings in the days leading up to your departure. If something newsworthy happens, you will hear about it pretty much as fast as possible.
Alerts also searches blog entries, so if there are bloggers based in or writing about the area, you will occasionally see their stuff arriving in your updates too. Blogs can be a great way to get a perspective on life in the places you’re intending to travel to, and contacting the bloggers directly will get you honest answers to your pre-departure questions. Plus, reading the stories of others who have been there before you can be a fantastic way to build excitement before you go.
For my planning, I have alerts set up for ‘Congo’, ‘Ituri’ (the region), and ‘Bunia’ (the main town in the area), which deliver the day’s results every afternoon. Some of it is fluff, of course, but the system has been superb for keeping track of local news as the elections in the country draw ever nearer. It also helped put me in touch with a handful of expats who are actually living and blogging from Bunia. Through them, I’ve been able to ask questions about transport, safety, and local costs that would be much harder to get direct, on-the-ground answers for elsewhere.
4. Discussion trawling
Like the internet-equivalent of the bar where Luke met Han, there are pockets of discussion across cyberspace where people share their stories as they return from areas you might be intending to go. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree is always a good first stop. There are threads running non-stop — even for places as unpopular as Somalia. Questions are frequently answered in a day or two, and often at length.
Then there’s WikiTravel. A version of Wikipedia for travelers, it occasionally produces valuable advice on places you wouldn’t expect. Like Ougadougou. It’s a particularly good resource for information on getting to and from places, and often yields useful leads to other places on the web with more information.
Wikitravel, unfortunately, depends on other people having been to your destination. In the case of Bunia and surrounds, pickings were slim. The LP Thorn Tree, however, proved to be far more helpful for finding local guides and translators, and asking questions about visa rules both as they exist on paper and in the experiences of others crossing to the country from Uganda.
5. Filtering the tweeps
Twitter can be used in a manner similar to Google Alerts. With an application such as TweetDeck, you can set up filters to catch tweets with specific keywords, like the name of your destination. It’s a low-effort way of casting your net to see if any fellow travelers are talking about the area. If you catch an interesting tweet, you can follow up with the author directly.
Twitter searching has been an excellent way of finding topical issues around the area we intend to travel to. It’s also been great for striking up conversations with groups that have an interest or are working in Bunia and towns nearby. With elections due in the DRC a fortnight before our arrival, it’s also been possible to pick up occasional discussions about the effect they might have on the situation on the ground.
6. An RSS cocktail
Yahoo Pipes can be a research godsend. The tool allows you to take RSS news feeds from a range of sources (like blogs and news sites), combine them with other non-RSS feed sources of information (like a search on Flickr for pictures of the place you’d like to visit), and come away with a single, delicious feed to subscribe to.
Every blog that you turn up via Google Alerts or Twitter can be added to the list, and you’ll be able to keep abreast of multiple sources of information via one source. Pipes also lets you filter the resulting output, so you get only those items in the feed that specifically mention your destination or its surrounding areas.
For my upcoming journey, Pipes has been an easy way to follow news sites and dozens of blogs that write about the DRC without having an endless list of RSS feeds, and without having to return day after day to check each blog individually.
These are my tricks for finding information, and they’ve worked surprisingly well so far for digging up details on the tiny town of Bunia. What are your strategies?