Most of us travel so that we can see the world, get out of our “box” and explore another culture, or corner of the world. If we wanted everything to stay the same, we would just stay home! It boggles my mind when I see travelers who spend their entire time abroad trying to recreate home and, essentially, avoiding the local interactions they claim to want.
There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with staying at the Hilton, eating at McDonalds or shopping at the Dispensar Familiar (a box store that is owned by Walmart but is masquerading behind a “local” label) but don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re having a local experience, or contributing to the local economy when profits are funneled into big corporations “back home.” There are some simple ways to have a more “authentic” experience wherever you happen to be traveling and to make sure your dollar goes further within the local economy as well. Here are three of mine; perhaps you have some of your own to add:
1. Stay local
Sure, you might book that first night by the airport with your travel miles card, but after that, stay at a family run hotel or guesthouse. Go one step further, and stay somewhere not recommended in the guidebook. Those places are getting a big bump by virtue of their write up in Lonely Planet, but there are likely several other very good places run by families who have generations invested in a particular place that will stretch your buck and add depth to your journey. We’ve found, across the board, that these sorts of places yield “insider” information and recommendations if not personal invitations to explore with new found friends, the proprietors. You’ll also find a very interesting subset of traveler frequenting these places, they’re the people you want to meet, I promise you.
2. Eat where there’s no english menu
That is to say, eat where the local folks are eating. In Merida, Mexico, this might mean walking deep into the mercado, flipping over a five gallon pail and bellying up to the tile bar with the roadwork crew to eat the plata del dia. No need to know what you’re ordering, they only serve on thing per day. I guarantee your money isn’t padding the pocket of the big red clown with preternaturally large feet.
3. Hire a local
It’s possible that the slick looking “Green Travel” agency on the strip in Champasak is genuinely locally owned and operated, but I’m not betting my money on it, based on their advertising. If you have the time and the patience, track down a guy with a boat and book your own ride down the Mekong to the next town. I promise you’re paying extra through the agencies, and that money is probably not being invested the way you wish it was. Look for opportunities to hire local people to teach you things. Hire the Mayan woman who comes knocking to teach you to use a back-strap loom. Hire your cyclo driver in Hue, Vietnam to take you on his motorcycle out into the hills, he’ll bring two of his friends if you have as many people as we do, and it will be a cross-cultural party!
4. Send out your laundry
Okay, here’s a fourth, I couldn’t stop at three: Send out your laundry, and not through your hotel. The laundries that have hotel contracts are doing well, making lots of money. Take a walk, look for the hole in the wall that looks like it’s run by a mother-daughter team and give them your business.
How ‘bout you? What are your best tips for making sure your dollar stretches within a local economy and is spent to the betterment of the community you’re visiting?
Picture credit: Flickr/ United Nations Photo
When I moved to Asia in 2007, I was still tied under the wheels of the Machine, back home. Everything I was doing, experiencing, and trying to translate into a piece of writing, or any other form of “artistic text”, I did so with the wish that someone, back home, would recognize my efforts and get me that publishing deal I had wished for so much in virtue of my brave choice of moving abroad.
Reality is often different from our dreams. Especially when coming from a culturally under developing nation such as Italy, where trying to be an “artist” is guaranteed to put a very sorry expression across any parental face. Back then, it was with a sense of scorn that I looked at all the rejections, the nos and the maybes, as it dawned on me that, wherever I may have roamed, I was destined to be a total failure.
Still, I put together a blog, I chose the best pieces out of it and edited them for good and self-published an Italian written book on my life as a teacher in small town China. I cannot say it was successful, as it was not. It was just barely ok not to hang the keyboard to the wall, and start playing badminton instead.
It was at that point that I travelled, and travelled, and travelled deeper and wider all across East Asia. When I finally stopped again, as Hank Williams put it “No more darkness, no more night. Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight. Praise the Lord, I saw the light …”
Facing the most sacred Buddha statue in the Lama temple of Beijing, China, I bowed down and I expressed my wish. Maybe I was thinking that through such a foreign surrogate I would have reached my own, white-faced version of God. Well, I was wrong. Those Asian ears were indeed openly listening to my call. Slowly – as good things do not happen overnight -, I found out that I had overlooked what was happening around me. Exactly in the place I was living THEN. Developing countries have plenty of opportunities. Otherwise, they would not be called as such, I guess?
Asian publishers are not much different from Western ones, but possibly, they accept submission, and you do not need an agent, or spend too much money on it. It is still a tough process, but at least you will get rejection letters. Sometimes even explaining what is wrong with your stuff. The hard work is still there, the results are, however, greatest in the East. In a single hard working year, I have published more than I ever did in the past 5 or 6, kicked off the road by frustration, rejection, and let me tell it, a great dose of assholism.
My suggestion to all the wannabe writers (and another cite to one of the best movies of all times): when there is no more room in hell, look around wherever you are, and start pitching left and right. Then, your articles and stories will walk the earth.
MARCO FERRARESE explored 50 countries and lives in Penang, Malaysia since 2009. He is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University’s Sunway Campus, Kuala Lumpur, researching the anthropology of punk rock and heavy metal in Southeast Asia. Besides his academic endeavors, he blogs about overland Asian travel and extreme music in Asia at www.monkeyrockworld.com
After I read this article about motorbike travel in Indonesia, I started thinking of my own experiences: I switched the focus from great memories of incredible biking trips around Southeast Asia and India, and I considered my actual situation. I concluded that I could not lead the same comfortable life if it wasn’t for an old rattler of a motorbike I am driving around Penang Island since 2010.
To be honest, when I tell my foreign friends that I use a motorbike to get around town, I am confronted with skeptical stares: ”Oh man. That is dangerous.” And I do not blame them: the vision of rush hour traffic in most Asian cities may discourage the most hardcore city driver from hitting the road, and inspire safer options such as public transport or taxis. However, I think that by committing to learn how to handle the traffic, the long-term traveler can really increase his chances to blend in with the local city hustle.
Before I used the bike, I had to ask my girlfriend for rides, or use the erratic public transportation: this last option would have been ok if the buses showed up at the expected time. And when borrowing her car, parking was always a problem. One of the occasional perks was to get stuck in traffic at 32 Celsius degrees for longer than I had ever wished for.
I needed to get back my freedom of movements and time, and put both of them to greater use than to improve the art of cursing the next approaching driver. I decided to try to do what the locals did: so many of them were zooming past me blocked in traffic, wedging with dexterity among the oppressing lines of cars. It looked like the perfect solution to speed up my days, and possibly have some fun doing it. (more…)
As I have been warmly received by many Couchsurfers in many countries during my past overland trip from Asia to Europe, I decided to re-list myself as “maybe available” on the website. I do not want to start arguing how the site has turned corporate and blah blah blah – and how its alternative, BeWelcome, really looks like it is taking off very slowly -, but I would like to share a few feelings I had after this newly “available” status has made a wreck of my inbox.
I had forgot how , basically, people can be utterly ANNOYING by sending a Couch request. One guy was so creative that he sent me his full 700 word itinerary, day per day, listed hour by hour, asking me to review it and correct it, and, in case, to find a proper allocation for my hosting responsibilities. Another person, more or less asking for information on Penang, tried invariably to push me to host him, saying that his schedule was open to MY availability. And when I answered that I was sorry, I could not, this person answered with something like, “so, tell me when would be the best time to stay at your house.”
What should I reply? I made a point after having hosted many people, and by being hosted and having respected and interacted with many others on different levels: Couchsurfing needs to have a PERSONALIZIED touch of RESPECT. People are not very respectful , apparently, as any Couch request I receive lacks BOTH. At first, I had compiled a neat series of contact and hosting rules on my profile. Invariably, when I realized nobody was reading those rules, and that they just contributed to open the flood of pretentious email communication over my head, I just deleted the rules and got myself out of the hosting chore.
The best request came in a week ago: this couple had apparently traveled on the cheap for a while, found my profile, noted a deep connection with my experiences, and decided they definitely HAD TO meet me. The timing was unfortunately not right, but I still took time to answer their numerous questions, and politely replied telling them to contact me once on the island, so that we may have hung out and I would have found them a very cheap accommodation to stay at.
When they replied, I was amazed by the utter disrespect of my personal situation: the couple in question, again, blatantly asked that ok, THEY NEEDED TO CRASH AT MY HOUSE. When I answered pointing out that my own profile states that I CANNOT host couples as I do not have space, the guy answered with a one line note, saying “ah ok, thanks”. Do you think I have received a phone call, met this people and helped them out? Of course not, because as soon as my couch was not available… they DISAPPEARED. Do you know that a double room in Penang can cost as low as 6$ for two persons per night? I do not want to comment any further.
Another person I met somewhere around the world – and never hosted me, actually – arrived in Penang: not only he was welcomed, sheltered, offered a home cooked dinner, a warm shower, movie time, a clean bed and a lift the next day. No, this was not enough. As I was expecting my partner to get up and prepare breakfast for everyone, he was in a rush to go. And he asked, quite scornfully, where was his damn breakfast. In that case, I politely answered: “In the shop downstairs. Wait or get out.” When it’s enough, it’s enough.
This last Couchsurfing exchange particularly left me highly disappointed: so, am I interesting only when you come in and stink my house with the dirty laundry you expect me to do for you? Maybe you even want to hump my leg, for a change?
I just want to conclude by saying that more than once, after I met my initially reluctant hosts and I showed I was a decent, interesting guy, most of them changed their minds and decided to offer me a place to stay, regardless of their initial decision. Hopefully the readers of Vagabonding may find this rant helpful, and will spread the word about a dire need to change the Couchsurfing etiquette, as having traveled 100 countries by hitch-hike or on horseback is not enough to qualify you as better human beings. I think human interactions should still be dominated by politeness, and RESPECT: we may all want to help out and LEARN something from you. Therefore, I say it: screw your aggressive, irresponsible and blatantly selfish Couchsurfing “etiquette”. Get off my couch!!
Travel has very little to do with location. The reality is, that we are all traveling, all the time. Some of us just move around more than others. What we love about “travel” is the newness, the adventure, the heightening of our senses by exploring the unexpected and the freedom from our every day routine. When we’re “home” we’re desensitized by the familiar. We cease to really “see” our surroundings, the beauty of our culture and the adventure all around us.
As anyone who’s been on the road for a long time will tell you, “home” can be found anywhere, as can the excitement of “travel.” It’s all about perception. It happens inside your own head.
Instead of living for the next adventure, or spending the time you’re on it longing for home, strive, this year, to simply be where you are. Open your eyes and your heart, at home and abroad and you’ll find that life is one big trip of epic proportions.
2. Pack Less Stuff
You make that resolution every time you travel, and yet, you’re struggling with baggage at every turn. Forget a roller bag if you’re traveling anywhere outside the first world. What do you really need? Well, “need” is relative, but for us, on a long haul trip: 3 outfits, including the one you’re wearing, the pair of shoes on your feet, a jacket, your journal and a camera. Nada Mas. Put that in a bag and take a two mile walk. How do you feel? Add to it if you must, but make sure you can still comfortably carry it for several miles. I promise you that frustration on the road is in direct proportion to the amount of crap you’re trying to move from place to place.
Freedom is found in minimalism.
3. Quit Comparing
Just quit it. Opt out of the culture of “bigger, better, faster, or slower.” It’s not about who’s been to more places, ticked off the continents faster, has been on the road longer, or speaks more languages. It’s not about the number of flags you’ve collected, or mountains you’ve climbed, literally, or figuratively.
Of course it’s natural to talk about our journeys with other travelers, but we’ve all sat in the hostel common with the blow-hard who’s on about the number of places he’s kite surfed in his ten year career as beach bum and watched the crestfallen face of the girl who’s on her third week of twelve who really thought people would be excited to hear about her journey. Be excited to hear about her journey. Those first days, weeks, heck, from my perspective even years on the road are life changing in a way that we sometimes lose sight of later. If you’re that girl, your journey is no less than his, in fact, it may well be more.
Instead of fulfilling the burning desire to trump everyone in the room with your fantastic travel record, how ‘bout shutting up and listening more?
In my experience, there is much to learn from each person we meet, if we have the humility to submit ourselves to their tutelage.
Christmas this year find us on the edge of the jungle in Borneo. Hiking yesterday I found a pocketful of nutmeg and remembered making a Christmas phone call years ago, with my brother who was here in the Spice Islands while I was “at home” changing diapers. He told me about the orang utan he’d encountered deep up a jungle river and he mailed me a boxful of nutmeg he’d picked off of the forest floor for me. This year I’ll be making that phone call home, and he’s the one ankle deep in babies and diapers.
Josh spent the first five years after university in a 34 foot sailboat, circumnavigating. He was named after Joshua Slocum, so it was his fate. He and I have both chosen unconventional lives, as a direct result of our unconventional upbringing. We were raised to follow our dreams, instead of toe the line. I’m unspeakably grateful for that.
I remember a few short weeks before we leapt off the cliff, quit the high power job, sold our house out from under our four young children and struck out in the world with what we could carry on our bikes and nothing more, talking with him on the phone from his little homestead in the Okisollo channel in BC, where he builds boats and plots adventures. We’d been getting a little push back from people in the conventional world, people who were concerned that we were committing financial suicide, limiting our children’s educational or social potential and who were a bit incredulous that we’d step out of a “perfect life” for something so uncomfortable, so uncertain, as full time travel.
“We’re just getting a little hate mail, and it’s making me wonder… is this going to turn out to be a big mistake? I mean, it’s different with four kids, isn’t it?”
Josh chuckled, in his quiet way, and replied:
“And these people sending hate mail, what, exactly have they done? Do they have any experience with this kind of thing?”
I had to admit that they did not. None of them had done anything out of the status quo.
“See, to my mind, that’s exactly where you want to be. When 90% of the people who haven’t done anything think you’re nuts, that’s just about right. It’s when the 10% of people who have done what you want to start raising red flags, then you might want to listen.”
I laughed with him and breathed a sigh of relief; of course he was exactly right.
Over the years, I’ve repeated that bit of wisdom to many other folks on the cusp of something huge and frightening and life changing. It’s proven itself true in our own lives, time and again. If you want to live a passion driven life and your passions are taking you outside of the status quo, don’t look to the folks living conventional lives for the encouragement or experience you need. You’ll need to surround yourself with other dreamers of big dreams, and you’ll need to create a community of folks who are living in the world you’re trying to create as a sounding board and sanity check.
“But you’re just going to leave!”
Although I hated to admit it, who said that was right. At the time I’d been seasonally migrating as a guide for four years. And had no intention to confine my adventurous spirit in domestic American life, then—if ever. The catch though was he was not American; Swedish born to immigrated Polish parents. And unless we got married, physically being together was a matter of juggling countless visas. I was willing to explore the challenges of the relationship. He proposed, and I accepted. However, the seemingly prince-charming-fairy-tale was soured after five months, in one evening by his jealousy. (I’d been out socializing–drinking and playing cards with colleagues after a conference—and being that my fiancé and I were nine time zones apart, I missed talking to him on the phone for a whole day.) When I told him why, he got irate. The plot got thicker; but, long-story-short things didn’t work out with us.
My traveling continued, and continues still…But for several years after that break-up I abstained from dating or intimate relationships.
How do us late “Generation X” travelers bridge tradition and progressive thought?
I grew up with a passion for horses, not wanting to get married, or have children. My passion for horses keeps getting stronger. I was intrigued with the idea of marriage a few years back, and now have warmed up to fostering or adopting a child down the road. So where does that adult understanding leave me?
My current boyfriend and I are in an open relationship. We are committed to one another, but are non-monogamous and can have relationships with other partners. This doesn’t mean I can be traveling half-a-world-away, get drunk, and wake up naked next to some stranger; then afterwards confess to my boyfriend that it “didn’t mean anything” the morning after. Rather, as a couple, we consent to our partners other relations—be it flirting, dating, sexual contact, or intercourse. Everything, all our feelings are in full disclosure. We talk about everything!
There’s a Polish proverb that says, “Love enters a man through his eyes, women though her ears.” So shouldn’t it be every womens’ dream to have a guy that will actually talk to her?
So I began this post with a very traditional phenomena of girl-meets-foreign-boy-and-falls-in-love fantasy. And while I don’t doubt that could happen, it didn’t eventually work out for me. In the end, my original prince charming and I lacked one true thing…an open line and space of communication. But the guy who was always there happened to be my best friend.
At the root of most relationships, communication is lacking. Distance shouldn’t matter. In the end, every human is seeking a connection. It could be simply a friendly conversation; an exchange of directions; or one’s life story that just needed to be expressed.
My point is that communication should, and can be, the heart of travel when it comes to any form of relationship. Within in a few moments, or several hours of stories, you can make a friend.
What are you willing to give?
Personally, I’ve known my current boyfriend for more than a decade. He knows everything; all my travel stories, personal/health issues and fears. Perhaps that makes an open relationship plausible. We agree. We work. We love each other unconditionally.
And yes, I realize, both within my country (of the USA) and copious amounts of others it presents a multitude of controversy…
But because we as a whole, at vagablogging, share this progressive space…how do you feel about open relationships? Or in general…the way communication happens between fellow humans that you meet along your travels…
Lonely Planet guidebooks have inevitably become the kind of extra weight I rarely want to put in my backpack anymore. Why? Because they lead a traveler to the same ol’ tired paths everybody else is going to: a kind of one way ticket for jaded travel entertainment made up of bars, guesthouses and a bunch of other Western –albeit of course interesting! – travelers..
And I was in fact quite pleased when I discovered this article , as it appears that Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet founder, and I, share a similar vision. We get excited by the marginal travel zones, and we like to travel down and low, keeping a clear philosophy: talk to the local people you meet on the way.
Citing the article, “When it comes to deciding where to go there’s just one qualifier — it’s got to be edgy. The sort of place that isn’t just a challenge to get into, its even risky to be in. Political instability, corrupt police and active volcanoes all add to the thrill.” In 2010 Wheeler already published “Bad Lands”, a book about his travels in countries such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Lybia.
I recently completed an overland Jaunt from Singapore to Milan, having my own fair share of great, untamed adventures: getting local with Central Asian families, hitching most of the Silk Road’s main route, camping outside of trafficked border zones, and also getting maybe too close to a real street mobbing on the Iranian-Turkish border – an experience I recalled on Vagabonding just here -.
And I have to say that, without being a fool, I share Wheeler’s excitement for those places where “you read the press and it seems like a disaster and then you get there and things aren’t so bad,” he said in the article, concluding with “Touch wood.”
For me, approaching a destination that will invariably offer me an almost authentic experience of the place because of the relatively tourist-infrastructure free society is a godsend gift. It may be because I have already visited quite a number of countries – including many that never make the bad , shocking headlines – and I am continuously looking for the best authentic, almost anthropologic experience I can get. What do you think? Are you a Ferrarese/Wheelerian or not? Please comment below.
I came across an interesting article on making the right first impression in Asia. The author goes through a number of countries, from Japan to South Korea, Thailand and India, giving a few suggestions on giving that important, successful first impression, party starter, or whatever you want to call it.
Because indeed, traveling in countries with particular and exclusive cultures as you may find in Asia, you need to do a bit of background work to get started right and enjoy your traveling to the max.
A couple weeks ago I published a similar post on Vagabonding, receiving a number of different angry comments as I colorfully criticized foreign backpackers for their disrespectful behavior upon entering Malaysia, a multicultural, albeit predominantly Muslim nation. I am far from taking up the matter again, but I would like to stress it once more: as a long term resident in several Asian countries, I have to agree with the article’s author. Making a first impression in Asia requires “some grueling firsthand experience”. For example, when I was a language teacher in China, it took me quite a while to understand how to fulfill the stereotypical requirements my employer had about white foreigners… including being tacitly accused of an “insatiable sexual appetite towards anything that moves”!!! Thus, in order to come home with a better travel experience and an increased knowledge of the country, try to make an effort and make some research before you embark on an Asian adventure; for example, once in Thailand, do not mistake their smile for a complacent show of appreciation for your “farangness”. Know your people, and you will have extremely better experiences in their exotic Asian territories. And as biased as it may sound, make true lasting friendships.
If you have traveled or lived in Asia before, what do you think?
Some twenty odd years ago, Ian Mckaye – at the time the angry singer of straight edge punk pioneers Minor Threat – sung “guilty of being white”. The lines of the aggressive chorus blazed into my mind as I stepped at the airport’s immigration line to re-enter Malaysia; a bunch of what seemed young Australians were waiting behind me. They were dressed and attired in the quintessential banana pancake trail non-outfit: singlets, flip-flops, short pants. The picture was stereotypically completed by over exposed tattoos – even the shabbiest ones -, visibly dirty long hair, and the red cheeks which are typical of an in-flight heavy boozing session. They were exchanging idiotic comments on the situation in their slurred, drunken Aussie lingo.
As I tried to forget them and walked to the officer getting my papers in order and surpassing the passport check stations, here I see another white trash queen: she is about 20 years old, trashing her thongs around, wearing the shortest mini hot pants you may imagine in order to expose her tighs, emblazoned with one of those silly female-skull-with-butterfly-wings tats you can get at every cornershop. I instantly turn around to check if the beach is in sight, but the only thing I can score is the luggage carousel, slowly spitting bags out of his noisy esophagus. Luckily, no other passenger around me suffered from the banana pancake syndrome.
It may be the coming of age, or it may be the fact I have been used to travel in Islamic nations where such a behavior would result in an instant flash mob or a brutal gang rape, but I think that by carrying the symptoms of Western casual stupidity and holiday retardedness, these youth are reconfirming to Southeast Asian people that inventing ways to empty their wallets is approved by every God. Mohamed included.
I feel offended by the low profile of such people: Southeast Asia is not a fool’s playground, for chrissakes. If humanity has a decency level which is measured in the ways we act, I candidate the backpacker type as some of the ugliest, gone wrongest experiments. Please people, react and do something. Asia is not your playground, and when your flabby beergut stinks, let me tell you, it really does.