What do travelers hold true long before they set out on a trip?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Interested in the way people think about travel? Explore inner travel, read up on persistent travel myths and debate the nature of “real travel.”