What happens when the education you receive on the road starts to make you question the lessons you learned before you left?
History is one of those subjects that never fails to look a whole lot different once I’m in a different country. Despite the tragedies that occurred in the region during my lifetime, I don’t remember learning much about Central America. I knew the region officially spoke Spanish. I knew that much of our fruit was shipped in from various countries in the area. I heard whispers about those fruit companies but I was too nervous to admit ignorance so, I never really understood what the whispers meant. In my textbook, there was a paragraph about Reagan’s “failed policies” in the region. I memorized the words, regurgitated them on tests and never really understood what was behind the big hulking bush everyone seemed to be beating around. I am embarrassed to say that I never even really put two and two together as a kid to realize that the ancient Mayan civilization that conjured up mysteries in my head were from Central America.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. Was I?
As an adult, I learned more about American policy in Central America and was confused as to why I had never learned about it in school. I formed conspiracy theories on a government hiding facts from the masses to hide their awful mistakes and stay in power. When I finally touched Central American soil, I realized that the reality of why I had never learned about things like the genocide in Guatemala and the Contras in Nicaragua was far more devastating. A very quick exploration into the reality of what was left behind in these areas makes it clear that the people affected were simply not considered people. They were enemies; the other; a symbol of a greater monster the US thought it was fighting. The people who lost limbs, dignity, and lives were nothing more than obstacles to be removed in the pursuit of certain international goals. The truth stung as it became clear. It made me question a lot about the “education” I received. You can’t put that in a 9th grade history book.
Similarly, I was thrown completely off guard when I visited Kolkata for the first time and found that Mother Theresa was not as revered in the region as she was claimed to be. Christian or not, every kid in the US knows who Mother Theresa was and knows that everything she did was saintly. Right? Apparently, not so much. Refusing to give medicines or medical care to the poor and ill, rough treatment of wards, babies whose wrists were tied to their sides, physical punishment for infants in her care, and a complete separation of any child with a known disability were not my idea of what this “saint on earth” had been doing. I currently hold a more balanced, if complex, understanding of Mother Theresa, the human, and her work. At the time, however, I found it unsettling and frustrating that no one wanted to talk about the complexities of being a human being who is seen as a walking icon of perfection, help, and love. It seems humans have a hard time worshiping their heroes if they show signs of being human. That is a conversation I could have really learned something from as a young person.
Yes, history has a way of looking a little less absolute once you are standing on different soil, surrounded by different vantage points. Similarly, science, medicine, human rights, and art are all areas of study where I have found myself thrown off kilter once I left the confines of the US borders.
At some point, I started wondering- does everyone question their schooling, just a little, when they travel to new countries? Does everyone see gaps, inconsistancies, or lies in the textbooks they remember?
It seems the answer is, yes.
I have met travelers who were embarrassed to admit that they truly thought Indians worshipped cows in the street before the went to India themselves; travelers who thought antibiotics were where it was at for every medical professional in the world before discovering ancient holistic practices on their journeys; travelers who couldn’t believe the difference in opinions over how to speak English “correctly”; travelers angry at language teachers who had promised them they were fluent based on textbook quizzes and state exams drafted by non-native speakers; travelers who cried when they visited memorials to genocide victims they never knew about. It seems that everyone I have met along the way has had at least one moment of questioning the education they received before they left their home countries.
And how could they not? Every educational system must ultimately pick and choose what to share with students. Even if, in an ideal world, the very human hand that guides the education of the masses had every desire to share as much information as possible with students, choices would still need to be made. The amount of knowledge available to any human being on earth today is staggering. One only need consider the constant flow of information that is available, literally at our fingertips, to become aware of just how much one person could take in in a lifetime. At some point, a conflict, hero, or medical option will get left out of the textbooks.
And this is precisely why travel is so incredibly important.
Those moments of confusion over the lessons learned before, the ones that no longer jive with your current world experience, are incredibly valuable. More valuable than most people realize. Understanding that educational systems are limited, that making one educational choice means not making another, that the facts we learn are filtered long before they get to us, is the first step to understanding what an education truly is. That understanding opens the door wide to an entire world of learning and, hopefully, keeps us aware that education is never really “complete”.
Questioning those lessons that came before is usually a struggle. There is confusion, then wonder, then possibly anger or frustration, and then once again… wonder. Wonder that the world is actually that complex, that ‘bad guys” and “good guys” don’t exist simplistically, that between the black and white pages of a textbook is whole lot of gray, that there really is that much to learn.
In my experience, travel is the catalyst for an insatiable thirst to know. That knowing takes time but, thankfully, so does travel.
“We were leaving not just a place but a consciousness — one in which the “I” was different for the Asmat than for me. It was group, tribe, family, tied together in ways difficult to grasp. For me, as an American, “I” is the biggest, most important unit. For us, freedom is everything. The right to do as we please, unbound by clan or village or parents — to move two thousand miles at will, to make a call home or send an email or say hi via Skype. We can reinvent ourselves, changes churches or religions, divorce, remarry, decide to celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa or both. But these men in Otsanjep are bound to each other. To their village and its surrounding jungle, to the river and the sea. Most people will never see anything else, know anything else. I kept wondering if I was as guilty as Michael [Rockefeller], also filled with a Western conceit that I could just walk into a place and not only get it but also dominate it. Could I make the Asmat spill their secrets? Would they ever? Should they?”
–Carl Hoffman, Savage Harvest (2014)
Quote: Wherever you go, go with all your heart. – Confucius
When I’m in the States, sitting on my parents’ couch in the normalcy of the world in which I grew up and my mind begins to wander, it wanders to a moment when my shoes were caked in dust and the Kenyan heat beat on my shoulders. A young Masai boy hung by our side as we leaned against our RAV 4, which sat awkwardly off-kilter in the ditch at the imbalance of a busted tire. The sun worked its way toward the horizon as our only ticking deadline.
On paper, that travel-story was about failure. The Toyota RAV 4, our 4WD vehicle of choice for our self-drive safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve had been a struggle. The pot-holes on the return journey to Nairobi had gotten the best of us not once, but twice, first taking out our tire and then taking out the spare twenty minutes later. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere for 4 hours while half our group hitch-hiked to the nearest town large enough to sell tires.
And when I remember that moment I have to smile to myself. I remember the feeling of half-cynical amusement at the situation we’d found ourselves in and the feeling of adventure in realizing how rugged the Kenyan roads were. All the portions of my attention were awake in that moment, not just for problem-solving, but for soaking in my surroundings. We stood around for hours amusing the curious Masai boy who’d come to see us play with our Go-Pro and pretend to beat-box. The bells of his herd of goats rang softly in the distance.
Honestly, it’s the disasters that stick in my mind when I’m back in the safe and predictable life of “home”. And those memories don’t bring me exasperation or anxiety or relief. They make me smile. They remind me I’ve had the sorts of adventures that become good stories.
Museums and national monuments and even elephants standing on the roadside don’t quite make me feel that same way.
Why is that?
I’m only sifting through my own travel-stories, but here’s why I think the travel disasters are especially worth it and especially valuable.
1. Stories give us confidence in the value of our journey.
When you can come home and make everyone around the table gasp or snicker or shutter at the things you’ve seen, it validates the fact that you did indeed experience something memorable. “Wow, that is really something.” It doesn’t seem to matter what that “something” is. If you’ve experienced something, you’ve learned that much more about the world and yourself. Which leads me to the next point…
2. Unfamiliar, imperfect situations teach us something about ourselves.
Every time I make it through a new stress or imperfection, I’ve learned a bit more about what my limitations AREN’T. And it can be quite addicting learning how many things DON’T limit you that you thought might.
For example when we visited Easter Island we decided to camp. Wind howled and rain whipped the sides of our tent almost every night. (They were excellent tents so we were never cold nor wet.) Even though the conditions weren’t ideal for camping, it was wonderful to teach myself that I do not need ideal conditions to sleep in a tent. (Not to mention I learned what a difference a quality tent makes!)
The disasters often teach us what we can endure, and that is an empowering thing to learn.
3. Unfamiliar, imperfect situations teach us about our destination.
It is amazing how insulated travel can be if you aren’t careful. If you book a tour that shows you all the highlights of a place, you may never know what the real heart and life of that place is. Take for example the alternative route to Machu Picchu. The popular train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu is, no doubt, a fabulous way to see some beautiful scenery.
And it is less havoc and headache, no doubt, than taking a series of collectivos for two days until you reach the waste water treatment plant behind Machu Picchu where you either luck out on hitching a train or trek along the train tracks for two hours before reaching Aguas Calientes.
Both options will show you some part of Peru. But the messier option will show you, in my opinion, a slightly more authentic spectrum. You’ll see the beautiful views from a spot squished between locals in the back-seat of a 25-year old van that smokes when you stop. You’ll see the bus driver hop off the bus at a little shack deep in the Andes, to bring his mother some clothes before taking off again up the winding mountainside.
All of the experiences I’ve referenced in this (rather personal) post were in some way uncomfortable.
And I love it that way. I learned something. I felt something. I saw something.
“When I started traveling professionally, I was surprised and delighted to find that I could still make emotional connections to places. I discovered this for the first time in Portugal, where — after having schlepped around Spain — I met a young Dutch woman who introduced me to a her friend, a colorful poet, who invited me to dinner (this after weeks of solitary meals) and then took me to a dive to hear men singing fado. It was in Lisbon that I discovered the secret of travel writing, which is also the secret of memorable travel: You approximate, as best you can, in the short time allotted you, the life of a local. Once back home and writing, I stumbled upon another secret: The best trips make the best stories. Though I had known this in theory from books like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which are nearly as crammed with friends as they are with learning.”
–Thomas Swick, A Moving Experience, The Morning News, December 3, 2013
Rome with ancient ruins, delicious pastas, and red wine never fails to disappoint. The eternal city, once the center of the world, still captivates and amazes people from all over the globe. From the gorgeous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the cobblestone alleyways in the old city, travelers can not get enough of Rome.
Compared to the overall prices in Europe, Italy is midrange. In big cities like Rome, Florence, and Milian prices are much higher than in the small medieval towns and quiant countryside villages.
Every time I visit Italy, I budget around $2,000 a month or $65 a day. This covers staying in a hostel, eating out a couple times a week, and going out for drinks with friends.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
I have come to terms that there is no shortage of strange events when living in hostels. Recently, I saw a traveler with a backpack that was bulging, almost ripping at the seams. The pack also had an odd square shape to it.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I approached him and asked why his backpack looked so strange.
He smiled as he unzipped it showing me a massive speaker. Seriously, he packed limited clothes and accessories to carry a giant speaker with him around Europe.
Of course, I asked him why. He smiled as he said, “I can’t travel without being able to play loud music.”
Rome is a city made for walking, and I have a basic routine I follow every day. I wake up late in my hostel dorm, head to a nearby bakery to get some crumbly Italian bread and fresh mozzarella that is so soft it almost melts in your mouth.
I throw it all into my daypack and start walking to whatever site I feel like seeing first. A usual favorite of mine is the Colosseum where I sit on a nearby wall while enjoying the weather and eating breakfast. I spend the rest of the day hopping between shops, cafes, and sites.
Rome is a very personal city for me. It is the first place I traveled solo almost ten years ago, and my experiences in the city have turned me into the traveler I am today. You could say Rome completely changed my life, and I love to reflect on that when I am here.
The locals, history, and culture are things I like very much about Italy. One day I was eating a meal of bread and cheese when a woman and man approached me.
They started asking my opinion on Rome. After chatting awhile, they noticed what I was eating.
“Come on,” they said as they grabbed me and led me to their favorite restaurant. They bought this poor backpacker a meal and gave me a tour around the city for the rest of the day.
Another thing I sincerely love about Rome is the sites. I am a history buff, and so Rome is a mecca to me.
One thing that makes Rome precious is that they built the city around the ruins. Often just walking around a corner, you will stumble upon ancient remains from another age.
One thing I do not appreciate is that Italy does not like my debit cards. Most ATM’s refuse to give me cash which is extremely irritating. While I have credit cards, which work fine, I prefer to have a safety net of cash on me at all times.
If my credit cards ever got stolen, I would be in a world of hurt while in Italy.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Recently, a challenge I have been dealing with is being alone. Rome is a romantic hotspot and everywhere you look, couples are holding hands and softly kissing. It is also the off-season for backpackers, so there are fewer people to meet at hostels.
While I believe Italy still has a lot to teach me, this visit was more about reflection.
I thought a lot about this path of long-term travel, and how happy I am with the choice I made. I also thought a lot about where I want to steer my life in the future. Italy is a rock for me and helps me sort my thoughts and make future plans.
In a few weeks, I am setting sail on a tall ship that will be journeying down the east coast of America and through the Caribbean. I am thrilled and excited as this new adventure is on the horizon.
“There is nothing I love more than traveling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it.”
–Ariel Levy, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2013
As travelers, we often find ourselves talking to friends and strangers alike at parties, at work, wherever, about travel and how to do it right. We evangelize for travel, extolling its opportunities and benefits. We often go on at length about the magic of our favorite places, the addictive high that comes from filling up a passport book, and the thrill of crossing a new border and making new connections. We also find ourselves giving out advice on all matters travel, from where to find the cheapest airline tickets to where to stay and when to go. You know you do this.
But normally it’s one-on-one counseling, spreading the gospel of good travel one conversation at a time. In almost any social situation I would meet many would-be travelers are looking for a better option than shelling out a fortune to join a big-bus corporate tour with an itinerary geared toward hitting the owner’s favorite tourist traps. I was always stuck by people’s desire for useful tips for shaping their own experience and, more importantly, the need for an infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
After thousands of private conversations, I also realized that the most efficient way to share what I knew with those who were interested was to teach.
Next week at a local Seattle-area library I’ll be giving the first of several ninety-minute “Travel Talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
This marks the tenth year I’ve been doing them, having originally started in my hometown of Chicago. I tackle the question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that happens to be my specialty), how to plan it, and what to do when you’re there.
I wish more experienced travelers, wherever in the world they happen to hang their rucksack, would occasionally give up a Saturday afternoon to teach these sorts of classes. Not only is there a deep need for the info but there’s plenty of reward in it for the speaker. Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically giving me time and advice for free. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Many of the people who attend these classes have an ideal trip in their minds and have had it for most of their life, but have lacked the skills or confidence to go on their own. And seeing their eyes light up when they realize they can take control of their own travel dreams and plan their own adventure is profoundly rewarding.
Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information of planning a trip on a tight budget, arming curious people with the info and inspiration to broaden their horizons is a good thing for them and for their country. They will likely return from their adventure with not only experiences they will cherish, but a better perspective on their world as well.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you adore, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library or school. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket. Let them learn from your trial-and-error. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the amazing places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a wannabe adventurer to take the trip of their dreams and change their life, and that is time well spent. Go forth and spread the gospel.
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.
Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel – some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.
The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
The travel caricature of Havana, of course, is an elegantly aged vision of cigars and classic cars, son and salsa, communist slogans and café con leche. To actualise this vision, many upscale tourists head for the $120-a-night Hotel Nacional, a classic, mafia-era facility that features $8 mojitos and a lovely terrace looking out over the Malecón and the Straits of Florida. Unfortunately, most Cubans don’t have access to the Hotel Nacional, and – as is the case with luxury hotels in many parts of the world – it tends to create a travel experience based more on the idea of how the city should be than how the city is.
I spent my nights in Cuba just up the street from the Hotel Nacional, shelling out just $15 a night to sleep at a casa particulare homestay in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. I couldn’t see the Malecón from my bedroom, nor could I order room-service rum cocktails, but I did get to take part in the day-to-day home routine of my Cuban hosts. In the mornings I would have coffee with them and practise my Spanish; in the evenings we’d watch the state-run TV station, trying to spot bits of real news through the haze of official propaganda. My host family cheerfully introduced me to various friends and neighbours, and within a few days my little social network had offered me access to underground poetry readings, pickup baseball games, and – on one fateful afternoon – a bagpipe performance at the Asturian Federation in central Havana.
When I befriended those hipster kids and began to learn how to play the gaita (an Asturian bagpipe with a single drone pipe), I discovered a side of Havana that was as authentically (if not stereotypically) a part of Cuba as baseball and rumba. Like the tourists in the Hotel Nacional, I still had plenty of access to son, cigars and salsa – but I also got to see a side of Havana that revealed the complexity of the city and its subcultures.
I’m not saying that you have to hang out with bagpipers if you really want to experience Havana; I’m just noting how spending less money has a way of paying off in original and memorable experiences.
And shoestring travel is not just for long trips. Last summer, I travelled to the Czech Republic with my parents. We could have easily splurged on expensive hotels and guided tours during our time in Prague, but instead we bought a three-day tram-pass and checked into a hostel in the city’s suburban Vinohrady district. Even though my parents are in their 60s, the youthful backpackers staying at the hostel treated them as one of their own, and offered travel advice on topics ranging from tourist destinations to experimental theatre to where one can sample the city’s best absinthe. We ended up spending three days exploring various corners of the city on foot and by public transport. We stumbled across standard sights like Stare Mesto and the Charles bridge, of course, but we also happened upon children’s school-jazz performances and a Czech Corvette-club rally. We admired the art nouveau styling of the Mayor’s Hall, but we also marvelled at the casual art nouveau detailing in suburban post offices and pizza parlours. When we stopped into a random pub and used improvised hand signals to order Plzensky Prazdroj and knedliky, we felt as if we were the very first outsiders to discover the joys of Czech beer and dumplings.
If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
Perhaps my favourite budget destination in the world is Bangkok. The city may be chaotic, traffic-snarled and incomprehensible, but it never fails to amaze me. Over the years I’ve found lodging in countless corners of the city – from the $4 backpacker dives of Khao San Road (which has gentrified a lot since my first visit in 1999) to the posh, five-star environs of the storied Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My favourite place to crash is the Atlanta Hotel, a curious little $15-a-night gem (complete with a courtyard swimming pool and an art-deco lobby) off on Sukhumvit Road. To the untrained eye, Sukhumvit Road could pass for a westernised strip of air-conditioned shopping malls and office buildings, but the area wears its globalisation in a distinctively Thai way. Sure, there are McDonalds and Starbuck franchises for those who choose to dine there, but there are also street vendors serving paad thai, fresh pineapple and grilled scorpion on a stick for pennies a serving.
It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.
This notion of spending less and experiencing more holds true regardless of economic conditions, but in a time of global recession it makes even more urgent sense – not just for holidays, but for life in general.
This story originally published by The Guardian, February 7, 2009
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Quote: “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” — Miriam Beard