There’s a lot of griping in travel about a golden age when guidebooks and backpackers didn’t give you the full picture of some middle-of-nowhere off-the-beaten-track town and you got there shimmering with innocence, sleeping on the floor of a poor local’s house, getting fed plates of food unsullied by foreign tastes, possibly being ripped off or wandering cluelessly for a few hours, the town to yourself, not a shred of info or a single other tourist to de-authenticize your experience. Ah, the good old days.
But now, of course, one devastating little word or two on Google opens the Pandora’s Box of travel, and you’re no longer the Only One, no longer pure. You find out not only have so many other people been there, but they’ve written so much about it that before you even set foot on your journey your head is crammed full of expectations and preconceived notions about everything from cafés to the local language to the right bus to take where.
The question is: is this a bad thing? Andy at 501 places does a good job of feeling out the ups and downs of this outpouring of (nearly unavoidable) travel knowledge. On the one hand, it’s nice to know what hotel is an overpriced, falling-down brothel; on the other hand, the meticulous research and googling that reveals every detail about lodging options obviously does away with the unexpected – out of which, arguably, some of the most interesting travel stories and insights emerge.
So on the one hand, sure, I’d like to know how to take the bus in Buenos Aires and how to survive a Chinese banquet; on the other hand, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had on the road have come from total ignorance, and the often slapstick, sometimes poignant efforts to learn and navigate a place from the bottom up.
I remember crossing Borneo by bus – that was the first time I had ever traveled without a Lonely Planet, which in retrospect, is fairly amazing. Four years of living, traveling, and working abroad, and I’d always had a Lonely Planet. Many travelers, including myself, come to take that particular book – or other substitutes – so much for granted that traveling without a guidebook feels like walking around naked, exposed, for a little while.
But in Borneo it was incredibly satisfying – it forced us to get on the ground knowledge everywhere we went, to piece things together on our way, to pay close attention to things we might otherwise have taken for granted. It ultimately took us to a middle of nowhere jungle town, where the only ways out were a forgotten Brunein border post (where we had to battle for hours for a visa for my Mexican husband) or weeks of jungle trekking.
That – meeting the Indonesian mafia, seeing the Brunein officials who cross the border into Sarawak to get wasted on weekends, exploring the strange distorted jungle underbelly of a Borneo that otherwise sells itself as an exotic paradise – was unpredictable and straight-up educational, because we went into it with zero expectations whatsoever.
At the same time, we could’ve very simply have gotten lucky, and we might’ve missed out on all of those experiences by taking one random turnoff. The payoff of maintaining a blank slate of expectations is that every place you reach is felt and absorbed on a different, deeper level since you haven’t been primed for it. The downside of this blank slate is that sometimes it hides places and information that could actually make a trip much richer and fuller.
Maybe your asking around or your luck leads you somewhere remarkable other tourists would or wouldn’t discover; but maybe it leads you randomly here and there, on cow paths that bypass some truly phenomenal places. I suppose it all depends on how you like to travel, how much time you have, how you balance out the experience of the journey with the need to find and see something in particular.
What do you think, readers? I’d love to hear with the Matador community has to say about this. Do you feel the Internet has enriched your travel experiences or somehow simplified them? Do you travel with guidebooks? How much research do you do? Please share your comments below.