T H E B I G Q U E S T I O N
When I tell people that I spent the last year and a half traveling in Europe, their response is almost always, "Wow! That's incredible." Then comes the long pause, followed by the inevitable question...
"How...ummm, I mean, but....how are you...financially making that possible?"
There is hunger and more than a touch of jealousy behind this question, as they wait for me to say that I work for a tech start-up, or that I make tons of money busking on the street, or that my parents have left me independently wealthy--any number of things that would make this sort of life plausible, but consequently out of their reach. No one asks this question who doesn't hunger for travel. We all hunger for travel.
I always fumble for my answer.
I can see visions of grand hotels and fancy dinners or quaint villages with folks in traditional dress passing behind their eyes, whilst memories of the freezing night I slept by a river in Scotland or the time I stayed up til the coffee shops opened, wandering the streets of Barcelona and yelling at the guy who kept following me (when I was too stubborn to shell out the cash for a B&B), float behind mine. I struggle to find my answer. I always do.
"I mean, do you work, or...? How can you travel for so long?"
"Carefully," I'll often answer with a smile...and I mean it.
The truth is, I travel by the grace and kindness of others (and because I am stubborn). The way I choose to travel is not an easy road. In books, we read about the hero or heroine getting caught in a storm and there is a sort of romantic excitement that forms within us; the word 'ADVENTURE' looming in the corners of our mind. We don't actually equate the storm in a book to the soggy, muddy mess we go to work in every winter, nor what it would be like to sleep outside in it. If you want to know what it's like, simply go to your local sidewalk vagrant and ask how he or she feels about the adventure of life on the streets. In the movies, the camera always focuses on the gorgeous stars, their costumes and the roller-coaster emotions of the plot. We never think about the fact that no one has to pee or change their smelly socks...unless you're watching a comedy.
I have had countless requests for tips and advice. I also hope to paint a realistic picture. Know that long-term travel (especially on a budget) is extremely difficult...but I cannot imagine anything more rewarding. I am writing this blog series to help you find your own adventure, whatever that may be, and to offer some hard-earned advice, tips & knowledge which I have acquired through my own follies and fortunes.
SO YOU WANT TO TRAVEL LONG TERM?
I'd like to say there is some magic, hidden website where you can find free teleportation to another continent, 5-star hotels that are always on sale and the best secret restaurants in Paris where you can have the finest 10-course meal of your life for the cost of a single euro.
But it doesn’t exist. (Or, if it's does, I have not stumbled upon it yet--help a girl out)?
If you really want to travel, the question you must ask yourself is not, "How can I travel?" but, 'How am I willing to travel?"
For example, when I tell people I’ve been to Italy, Spain, France, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and Morocco in the last 15 months, their first response--thought or articulated--is something along the lines of, “Oh, wow! The hotels! The food you must be eating! The sites you must be seeing! I’m so jealous!”
In reality I don’t stay in hotels, ever. (Well, there was that ONE time). I rarely go out to eat at a nice restaurant. I see famous sites only if they are free or if it’s off-season and the prices are low.
Otherwise, I simply go without.
When I travel, I travel to research and collect folk music or folk dances. I travel to experience the many ways real people live their lives every day. That is not for everyone. So, if you want to travel for any length of time, it is of paramount importance that first you understand why you are traveling and (more importantly) know what you are willing to put up with.
A friend once broke it down for me like this...
"There are really only THREE types of traveler: The Tourist, the Backpacker/Student, and the Vagabond/Constant Traveler." In my experience, these categories don't reflect the individual's background or identity so much as what comfort level they are willing to travel at, and the definition may surprise you. For example, it took me a while to realize that I fit somewhere between the Constant Traveler & the Backpacker/Student. Why? Because I know plenty of constant travelers who have been vagabonding for years & years. To do this, many of them have no issue sleeping on the streets or dumpster diving to save an incredible amount of money. I won't. I travel long-term, but I do wish to taste local delicacies on occasion and I refuse to dig them out of a garbage can. I have, however, been known to show up in a city with nowhere to stay, fully aware that I may be illegally camping out in a cow pasture that night to save a few bucks. Know who you are & what you are really looking for.
Think you know already? You might be surprised. Today we will take a closer look at "The Tourist," and what really defines this category, as well as a few tips for moving beyond the 'normal' Tourist traps.
1.) THE TOURIST
n. a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.
WHO AM I?
If, when you think of traveling, you think of eating mostly finely prepared meals at restaurants, staying in a safe, comfortable, guaranteed room and visiting the 100 most-famous sites the world has to offer, (I mean actually walking inside them as opposed to just staring at the outer architecture & buying a postcard from the gift shop), you likely fall under the category of The Tourist.
In my experience, the Tourist comes to see the beauty of a place, not to experience reality—again, like seeing a movie...(or falling in love, for that matter). When we go to the movies, we have come with certain expectations; we want to be wowed, moved and to fulfill a story. We don't want to see the camera man or the director or the the cardboard backside of the set, because it ruins the magic. Similarly, the Tourist visits a place to tantalize the senses & escape from the monotony of daily life. At times, we all need this. We, as human beings, crave magic. We need inspiration, hope, wonder and to have perfection made reality, if only for a moment...or ten days. It gives us something to look forward to or back on when we must return to the 'real world.' It allows us a break from ourselves. (Note: See Room With A View).
Most of us are not independently wealthy socialites on holiday. In the beginnings of the 'travel-for-pleasure' movement, this category was forged by a group of people who had very little monetarily to worry about & were bored, seeking 'culture.' We are not them, but we want to travel as though we are...and it has become trendy (understatement) to do so. Everyone does it.
When I used to work at a travel consolidation company, I would hear people say, "Oh yeah, I did Rome; I've done Berlin," as though a city were a one-night-stand. Seeing the 'greatest' cities of the world has become at once necessary and passé. Because of this, it also comes with a price (and I don't just mean a price tag).
The unfortunate part (in my opinion) about being a Tourist is that, while you will have some great experiences and a book-load of selfies to share with your friends back home, you will rarely experience the best food, drinks, sites or true culture a city or country has to offer, (especially on a small budget). This is because these things rarely exist anymore in the 'nicest' parts of town, which are overrun with...well...other tourists.
If you want to save money and get the true flavor of a country, it behooves you to remember that tourism is an industry. That musician playing Parisian street music? He's probably an actor. We don't live in the 1800's (thank goodness for that). Even in the 1800's, random men with accordions didn't simply wander the streets playing quaint French folk tunes, (more's the pity). That 3 course meal you ate? Someone prepared that, just like at a 5-star restaurant at home, except you probably couldn't afford an actual 5-star meal; not in the touristed areas at any rate. While what you are eating may be an 'authentic' dish--or so you think, because Sheryl in accounting read it in a magazine & told you so--I can guarantee it will be a far cry from the 300-year-old recipe people make in their homes. In the center of town, where all the other tourists go, you will almost always get lesser quality for much higher prices. Why? Because you are a tourist, tourism is a business, and quite honestly...most tourists won't know the difference. Does that mean you can't have a brilliant time? Not at all. Does that mean you won't get a taste of another culture? Of course not; you are in a another part of the world, for goodness' sake! Does that mean you shouldn't enjoy the actor playing accordion on the street corner? Not in the slightest. It's damn beautiful music...and that is what you came here for, isn't it? Enchantment. However, if you want to have a more authentic vacation as a tourist (and a cheaper one), you are going to have to think outside the box a little...and you may need to take some risks.
The reason tourists get a bad rap is that we are often trying to confirm a stereotype, not uncover the unknown. Tourists tend to signify ignorance and arrogance to locals. Imagine if your HOME (your own house) was, every year, suddenly overflowing with hundreds of strangers and house guests who were only interested in eating all the best food in the house, taking pictures of your furniture or pets, complaining about how unimpressed they are, then leaving a mess for you to clean up--and they want you to do it with a smile. All the while, they are making ignorant comments about your family and culture (as though they know you better than yourself) and with no interest of even getting your name right, let alone understanding your language or the joys, struggles & subtleties of your people. Sounds terrible, doesn't it? So why do locals put up with us tourists?
One word: Money.
I can almost hear you say, "I wanted advice on how to save money, not a lecture on my behavior!"
Bear with me as I make this point. Know that being aware of what you represent to the outside world means you can potentially change it and open doors to unusual possibilities. By all means, travel for a decadent week or two in style, but don't be a 'normal' Tourist.
Go to places you've never heard of. Don't plan every inch of your vacation. Acknowledge your ignorance (we are all ignorant), and then embrace it! This will allow you to listen and ask questions that can change your life and your perception of the world. Don't travel with any expectations; put more weight into learning something from a stranger than you do in booking the perfect restaurant or B&B listed on Yelp. Your ignorance can mean a chance for a local to share their true culture with you. When you don't try to have the perfect vacation, but the most unusual vacation--you will be constantly in awe at what the world offers you. You will make friendships and memories that last a lifetime...and on the way, yes, you may even save quite a bit money.
1.) Don't make cultural assumptions. Everything you ever believed was true about another culture is not. Or, at least, it is helpful to think this way when you step out into the world.
Use your ignorance as a tool. We are all ignorant in some way--use that as a bridge for a stranger to help teach you something about their culture. Remember that much of the cultural experience lies in a countries people--not just it's monuments & cuisine. Often, when a local sees that you are genuinely interested in their culture, they will open up & share all sorts of things with you which you would never find in a guidebook...many of these things are free. And trust me, they know where to get the best food in town.
2.) Instead of planning every step of your trip, try to leave space for adventure. Most of the best days I had traveling in any country were the days I just decided to go for a long, meandering walk, or I pointed to a random city on a map and attempted to find the strangest way to get there, or hitched to the next closest town & was whisked away on a side adventure. These things often gave me a greater taste of the country & it's people...and rarely did any of them cost more than the price of a sandwich or two and some gas money. Get in your Eiffel Tower, your Roman Cathedrals, the tiny mountain villages that you heard bout on TV, but leave room for the inspired--remember that if you've heard about it, other tourists have too and this means money. Opt for simplicity and adventure. Find a day where you throw out the manual & take to the unbeaten path. Make friends. Go to a coffee shop & ask a local their favorite spot in the region--preferably not in the middle of the tourist districts.
3.) Do yourself a favor: Concentrate on ONE region; ONE country.
DO NOT try to fit in Paris, London, Rome, Athens & Berlin all on one week--you will be exhausted, jet-lagged, spend more money on transportation than anything else--consequently spending more time in a car/train/plane/bus than anywhere else--and in the end, you will see next to nothing. Have an agenda, by all means, but leave time to really take in the place, not just what's listed in your guidebook. You will get more of a countries true flavor and discover small, hidden, magical things when you slow down. You will save money on all the transportation you are not purchasing, which you can apply elsewhere.
4.) Travel to a region (or an entire country) that no one goes to...yet. I loved Barcelona. You know what I loved even more? Girona & Besalu--two small towns in Barcelona Province. They are incredibly touristy as well, but ask how many Americans have heard of Girona or Besalu. Go ahead. Now ask how many people have heard of Barcelona. (Then, just for fun, ask how many Americans had heard of Barcelona before Vicky/Cristina Barcelona came out...it might surprise you. Luckily I got to experience Barcelona before the tourist industry overwhelmed it and infuriated the locals). Most people are afraid to go to countries other tourists don't go to (sometimes with good reason), but let me give you a better example.
Eight years ago, I worked for a travel consolidation company, as I said (used by travel agents to find cheap flights and packages for clients, etc). Most people went to Italy, France or England (the most expensive places). A lesser number of tourists wanted flights to Germany, Spain, Portugal once in a while, with only a tiny handful booking vacations to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and barely any to...Croatia. The echos of fighting were still too fresh in peoples' minds and Croatia was 'Eastern European,' in a 'dangerous' way. It wasn't where you bragged about going when you went to Europe. Though there was fear associated with the unknown, it was mostly safe--you were just as likely to get mugged in Rome as in any town in Croatia at this point, maybe more likely...but we will take dangers of the familiar to dangers of the unknown any day. Consequently, travel there was dirt cheap. Croatia has some of the most spectacular beaches, mountains, wilderness & architecture you will find anywhere in Europe, coupled with a Mediterranean climate, unusual food and interesting people...and yet, they had almost no tourist industry. Word slowly caught on that Croatia was a cool place to go, among intrepid adventurers and those on a budget, but what finally pushed tourism in Croatia to near main-stream high?
Flash forward to today...
Game of Thrones. Some of the locations for the HBO series were shot in Croatia--now, depending on where you go, you will likely pay just as much for a hostel or hotel room in Croatia as you do for Spain or Greece, sometimes more. That is how tourism works, folks. Would that one could go back in time, eh? Learn to embrace the unknown places before it's popular to do so. I guarantee you will save money & have an unparalleled cultural experience.
5.) Lastly, learn to be just a little uncomfortable. Don’t go to Starbucks or the places in the center of town that are familiar and make you feel safe--they aren't (pickpockets know where the tourists go). Visit the small neighborhoods that aren’t as pretty, but have far more actual cultural heritage still in them. Don't try to have the perfect vacation, but decide that you will have a joyous experience in the unknown. If you travel like this—mindfully, respectfully & with no preconceived expectations of what you will see or hear or experience, you will be surprised how quickly doors open for you & what magic you may find, even greater than the movies.
*Next week we will focus on the Backpacker or Student-Traveler. This is the traveler that seeks the more rugged, unusual path (or, conversely, comes to a city to party), who is not afraid to rough it a bit--traveling on a smaller budget, perhaps for a month or two--but who is still going home after a set amount of time.
Magic & adventure to all of you, at home or abroad.