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Travel Philosophy Musings

I enjoy adventure travel. And by adventure, I don't mean paying someone US$200/day to prepare my lunches, supply and carry my gear, and hold my hand as I bungee jump/mountain bike/skydive/scuba dive. To me, adventure travel is arriving in a village late at night with no idea where I'm staying or even if there is a hotel. It's trying to catch a local bus when I don't speak the language. It's being invited into someone's home for an amazing meal when I'm lost and hungry. It's never knowing what tomorrow will bring.

To say that I don't plan my trips is a gross understatement. While I enjoy visiting popular destinations such as Paris, France, Machu Picchu, Perú, and Borobodur, Indonesia, my greatest experiences inevitably occur in the giant blank spaces on the tourist maps; Kishuará, Perú, Ocosingo, Mexico, Kon Tum, Vietnam. I've found that the more you hear about a particular destination, the less likely it is that it will reflect the culture of the country it's in. If you're looking to see what Mexico is about, go to Malinalco, not Acapulco.

I also have a bad habit of visiting places that people tell me to not go. I've been to Vietnam at a time when most Americans still see it as a taboo country, Kashmir, India when tensions with Pakistan were brewing, Indonesia when riots made headlines around the world, Colombia, during the recent guerrilla warfare, and Perú during the riots during Fujimori's reelection. Each time, I have been pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the people have been. Western media is very good about blowing things way out of proportion.

The main reason I like to get off the beaten track is that it allows me to become a human again; instead of being looked at as a walking paycheck, I am a curiosity, quite often a freak, but usually a welcomed guest. I get to talk to people about their lives, about my life, all the while as equals.

Now some would counter that by going off the beaten track, you are simply "destroying" another area by bringing in tourism. Like cutting a new trail where many others exist, you are treading on untrampled soil, being the very one to start the erosion. I agree that going to less traveled areas can change them; I call this the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Travel" - it is impossible to experience what a place is truly like, because the very process of visiting it changes it, even if only in a small, subtle way. I believe, however, that learning from other cultures, both for the visitor and the host, is a positive thing. I just make sure I follow a few rules:

  1. Remember that I am the visitor - While I hold my own values and principles, I need to recognize that I am in a different culture with different values, and I need to respect them. There are some exceptions, however, especially when it comes to the environment. For example, no matter how foreign it may seem, I will never just chuck my garbage out the window or into a river (which, unfortunately, everyone in Latin America seems to do.)

  2. Always think in the local currency - Nothing annoys me more than travelers who look at a price, and say, "Oh, it's only a few dollars, who cares." Viewing financial matters in one's own currency is not only arrogant, it creates the very environment that I strive so hard to avoid - one where tourists are seen solely as a source of income. I believe in paying a fair price, even if it is a negligible amount of money to me.

  3. Don't expect Western conveniences - I set my living standards based on the standards of where I am visiting. If a local toilet means nothing more than a hole dug in the ground, then that's what I'll use - I won't pay for a luxury hotel just to meet Western standards of cleanliness and convenience.

  4. Avoid special treatment - I try to avoid being treated differently from everyone else. I take local transportation, stay in local accomodations, eat local food. Being treated like an equal involves being an equal. (The only exception I can think of that I make to this rule is when my personal health is at stake; I was thankful to be treated right away in Kashmir when my eye was so infected that it was almost dripping out of the socket.)

  5. Try to speak the local language - While this is not an easy task on a world tour through dozens of countries with dozens of languages, even learning a few simple greetings and phrases can go a long way to showing locals that you are a respectful visitor.

There are as many different travel styles as there are travelers. Some people, once they get to a place they like, stay put for a while; a week here, a couple of weeks there, moving only when they get tired of where they're at. I like to be in near constant motion. I love the process of getting from point A to point B as much as I like being at the destination. I like to travel in "legs," whereby I arrive at one point and travel by land to another, visiting every place in between. This way, while I get to see popular destination spots, I also get to see places where no one plans to visit. As a result, I've been on more trains and buses than I can count.

Bicycling is my favorite mode of travel. It not only is great exercise, but it commands a certain respect from locals that no other mode of travel does. You're a curiosity, but you're also an equal in many ways. People all over the world can identify with biking. There is an instant connection that transcends language and cultural boundaries.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.