It is easy to get off the beaten path when traveling: you just walk out of any city on earth and you’re there. It’s easy to leave the tourists with backpacks behind: just go to places you’ve never heard of before. Don’t want to go to the same destination as everyone else? Get off bus. Want to experience a country in the raw? Hop on a bicycle and go, get a boat and paddle, jump in the river and swim. Getting off the backpacker/ tourist circuit should not be a challenge, you just need to take your head out of the ass of the Lonely Planet and you’re there. It’s simple.
It confuses me when I listen to backpackers whine about how difficult it is to get away from each other, it confuses me when I read an article about how contemporary world travel is an experience for the jaded, it sticks in my craw when it’s proclaimed that the age of exploration is dead. It’s amusing the justifications that modern travelers come up to mask the fact that they’re simply scared, physically flaccid, and uncreative. 99% of the planet does not regularly see travelers, and there is truly no need to dwell and pout in the 1% fringe if you don’t want to. You don’t have to stay with the crowds, nothing is holding you back, you are not locked up in your bungalow forced to eat crepes and banana pancakes all day — nothing says that you can’t set out in any direction you please and go exactly where you like.
Off the beaten track is dirty, it’s inconvenient, it’s hot, cold, tiresome, the toilets are full of shit and don’t flush, the pissers reek, the people puke on the buses, your driver is drunk, nothing works, the teenagers have eyes like jackals, the people look at you like you have a merry go round attached to your head, you can’t understand what anyone is saying. I would say that I don’t know why anyone would want to travel like this, but I know the rewards are often worth it. The challenge of traveling outside of the tourism infrastructure is stimulating, the people are often interested in you, it’s easier to make friends, you can observe life a little rawer, find things you’d never expect to find, look out on truly other worldly landscapes, experience the human drama a little closer, and come away with the feeling as if you got a real taste of a place on the map.
It is possible to travel where few other travelers go but it often isn’t as glamorous as taking a rafting trip on the back of an orca whale to penguin island where you can bungee jump into the heart of some ancient ruins. Now that is something to write home about. Saying that you’ve watch a 300 year old neighborhood get demolished perhaps pales in comparison?
And this is my point: it’s easy to get off the beaten path, but few people truly want to. And this is OK. There is no pressing need to get off the beaten path. It’s not something that you need to do. It’s not a requisite of world travel. It’s OK to sit around in backpacker bars drinking beer and trying to mate — there is no shame in being a tourist.
All too often travel is shown as a larger than life experience of going off and exploring foreign lands with the wind blowing through your hair, of finding friendly villages who will teach you their ancient wisdom, of exchanging your culture (which you’ve been lead to believe is tainted, materialistic, and inauthentic) for one that is deeper, wiser, and more in tune with the tidings of the holy, but the reality is not like this. Travel is mutually marketed as adventure and as recreation. These two aspects of the occupation are often mutually exclusive, and trying to live out them both often results in neither blooming to fruition. So many are chasing delusions around the world and coming up empty. It’s OK to accept places, people, and yourself for what they are.
It’s a real shock though when you realize that your authentic travel adventure just makes you another nameless, faceless, white dude on the assembly line of the tourism:
Shipped em in, assemble with the proper experiences, photos, souvenirs, and shipped em out.
The phantasmal notions of travel that so many leave home with are quickly replaced with the knowledge that they are a commodity upon arrival. The tourist is the commodity, not the destination. Many become jaded when they discover that the slow boat upriver is actually just a slower moving tourist boat, some refuse to return the hello of a fellow traveler who stomped on their unique intercultural experience by existing in their proximity, and others just drink a lot of beer and hang out with their friends as though they were back at home. Modern travel.
But the escape from this is easy: start walking in any direction.
Travel is nothing if not a pursuit of the world as it is. It is a search for “isness” rather than an effort to vindicate expectation. It has always been like this. If you don’t have a passion for the subtleties of the world as it is, in flux, in constant motion as people, cultures, ideas, and events ebb and flow together then you simply don’t possess the passion for discovery. The world is culturally, infrastructurally, and physically changing now at a faster rate than it perhaps ever had before. How can the age of discovery be over when places are completely reinventing themselves in the span of a decade? The age of finding the great monuments is perhaps kaput, all the major rivers have been charted from source to mouth, we can boot up Google Earth and find out what’s on the other side of the mountain, but the deep purpose behind exploration is still there: discovery is the pursuit of knowledge, the search for what’s out there. The world has been mapped and charted, now it’s time to do something with it. The age of discovery is always just beginning.
The Amazon is still 80% unexplored — the same goes for the Ituri, the deserts of Australia, the Sahara, the Himalaya, the steppes of Central Asia . . . The sentiment that their is nothing left to discover is a cop out.
Modern travel is not only a hunt for the spetacular, it’s also an opening up to the normal. It’s a search for the random mundane as well as the completely epic. The modern traveler can make a Taj Mahal out of a gas station. The world is still out there, always spinning, always changing. When I hear a backpacker say that it’s not possible to get off the beaten path I speak up and say, “No, it’s not possible for YOU to get off the beaten path.” Getting off the beaten path means postponing the hunt for entertainment and stepping into the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, risking boredom, and expending the energy to find out what is going on below the surface of a place and people at a particular point in time. This is often means going places that don’t have any tourist attractions, the places that lie between guidebook listings, just to see what’s there — the places where every day, normal life is taking place.
The travelers who delight in this kind of travel are rare. I’ve met only a handful in all my travels. What is remarkable is that they travel in exactly the same way: they just walk around looking at things, at people, talking to strangers, not making any plans, unrestrained by opening or closing times, directions, or destinations. The joy of travel is always right in front of them: right there in the street of just about any place on this earth. When one street scape becomes predictable they move on down the road to the next and on and on through the world.
“Allow yourself to be surprised,” one of my university instructors in India once beratted a student who copped an attitude about being taken to a tourist market as part of an educational trip. Although I was not the one these words were directed at, I got the message. I came out of the experience with a good story and was set a new path.
I use to put the blinders up in tourist destinations, towards middle class culture, towards the effects of globalization. I was looking for a romance of the world that existed more in my head than below my feet. My first years of travel were not very fruitful: I was chasing windmills around the planet.
Allow yourself to be surprised.
These words are still with me today. They mean: don’t take the world at face value, look through, beneath, and around what is directly in front of you — there is always a story there.
It’s difficult to admit that you don’t know something, but being able to hone a perpetual state of not knowing is the key to removing the blinders that would otherwise prevent you from truly seeing what is right in front of your face. The traveler should be a roaming idiot, bouncing through the world without a clue, absorbing everything as indiscriminately as possible — not the worldly know it all. “Education serves to make people stupid,” my friend Steve Mendoza use to say. He was right: those who know often sacrifice the ability to learn.
It is incredibly common all through the world for people to think they know all about other parts of the world — they have TVs and movies, news reports, books, and some even have university teachers — but this build up of facts and figures often just increases their layers of ignorance. Information without experience is like a one legged man in an ass kicking contest: it just falls flat.
It is an art to see things that don’t fit into your worldview and to be able to adapt and reorganize your perspective accordingly. This is called learning.
Once you know that the door of your cage is open it’s much easier to remain inside. Many of the long term travelers that I’ve had the privilege to get to know truly don’t give a shit if they’re on or off the beaten path. They know they can leave the cages of tourism as they please, and this seems to make them more comfortable within them. There is no dichotomy here, no struggle to gain something more than they have, no conflict: they drink beer, talk to their countrymen, and see the sights when in tourist towns and they talk to locals and learn what they can when out in the sticks. There is only one path.
I think of Sam Bove who built his own boat and rode down the Mekong and then had a blast partying with backpackers in some notorious tourist town, MRP who hitchhiked across the Sahara, snuck into East Timor, rode a horse into narco territory in Colombia but still seems able to enjoy a good backpacker haunt, Andy Graham who would go out in the middle of nowhere and then go and chill out on Khao San for a couple of months. These are travelers who seem to make the most of the territory that lies beneath their feet. They go off the beaten path, take travel to the extreme, and then return back again for a little R&R — there is no conflict, it’s all the same world, the same game throughout.
I enjoy tourist destinations, backpacker haunts, no name towns, wild countrysides, mountains, rainforests, and open roads in continuous succession as I travel. I avoid nothing, I want to experience all aspects of this planet and to ponder how it all comes together. Knowing how to enjoy all types of places is one of the most important skills a traveler can have.
For those who really thirst for frontiers they’re everywhere; for those who want to discover places that their brethren know nothing about it, it’s easy; for travelers who crave adventure, there is no inertia to fight against: just walk out of any city on earth and keep going. The traveler does not need to walk across the Artic to find adventure and mystery, it’s everywhere.
But to find happiness and fulfillment no matter where you are in the world, well, that’s a little more difficult.