Categorized | Travel

Transcending Tourism

Posted on 18 September 2008

I’m on a bus to Pokhara, Nepal, a tortuous nine-hour drive from Katmandu, and the seat in front of me is leaning backward at a broken angle, the 300-pound Tibetan women with patchouli-oiled hair occupying it is therefore sitting literally in my lap, and the college student from Darjeeling is sitting next to me, talking about tea production and trying to rub his thigh against mine, and I’m swooning with motion sickness every time we come swinging around the side of the mountain on these crazy hairpin turns telling myself we’re not going to crash, and all the while we’re passing busses warped into metal sculptures, testaments to earlier episodes of reckless driving. It doesn’t feel as if it can get any uglier.

The family with the chickens starts throwing up, one by one. My mind begins composing bilious poetry. I find myself ruminating on how often one encounters vomit when one travels. The frequency is high. And so goes travel: parts of it you love, and parts of it you survive so that you can brag about it to your friends. Only seasoned travelers know the excitement of beginning sentences with “only in Bangkok do the women really know what to do with a lit cigarette.”

There’s an old saying that goes: the difference between travel and tourism is that travelers go places to learn new things and tourists travel to confirm what they already know. I find such tourism kind of appalling. There is a way to travel as a tourist, and a way to travel as a traveler.

Like much of Western civilization, most of what travel entails is actually reducible to a single basic trinity:

1) Flexibility

2) Planning

3) Budgeting

Because flexibility and planning seem to be at opposite ends of the preparatory steps spectrum, I would add that another thing crucial to stylin’ budget travel is the ability to strike a balance between what may appear to be contradictory behaviors. Plan, but don’t overplan. Take risks, but don’t be foolish. This means you should stray from the beaten tourist track. Just don’t smuggle grass along its borders. Know where you’re going, roughly, and have a backup plan. But always be willing to take deviations from what you’d originally planned. You’ll come across festivals you didn’t know about, monsoons arriving earlier than expected, a hostel owner closing for the winter, museums closing for construction. So, allow room in your schedules for deviations.

Whether or not you’re college-aged, you’re reading this because you’re traveling on a student-sized budget. So find students and explore their resources. Where’s their newspaper or daily, and what does it recommend for food, events, lodging, etc.? Haunt student hangouts, and if you’re shy, step outside yourself: try and learn some of the language – deals open up to you when you step inside the culture by learning even a little of the native language. Plus, you are far less likely to be taken for a ride (in the negative sense) once you speak the language a bit.

Be friendly, outgoing; you’ll be sincere, if not pithy and charming; strike up conversations. Flirt. This, I assure you, is one of the most valuable techniques known to either gender for digging up not only information, but also scads of free or discounted services, within reason. Do not do this in regions where you are already being hassled by the opposite sex. Flirt safely. Besides getting me past the Beirut border guards without having to pay visa fees (don’t ask), this has in the past scored me everything from hot showers (I do bathe from time to time) to free falafel and offers of marriage. That said, be wary of getting something for nothing. Especially in haggling situations, where, ultimately, what you pay for is what you get. Also, it is simply not worth it to get married for free lodgings for the night. Hold out for breakfast included.

You are now equipped: go forth and be cheap.

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