No. I must not. Now, with the bottom line of this article all spoiled at the starting line, I can merely offer you the why behind the no.
One would think that travel is as far removed from obligation as it gets – all want, no must. In fact, it’s supposed to be an escape route from all the musts of everyday life. Unfortunately, that route easily becomes a generic trajectory just like any other route through norms and routines. Whether it’s Wednesday at your workplace or at your dream destination, there’s probably something you “must” do or at least it feels like it, if you let it.
For starters, there are the must-dos and must-sees of the Lonely Planets and whatnot travel guides and blogs, which casually contradict their very mission of promoting indie travel by suggesting vigorously where you must go and what you must do there. And don’t forget the don’ts either! They are trip advisors for people who hate Trip Advisor, but still want a trip advisor. In the end, everyone sends you off to your sightseeing spree with the same stringent checklist; and while the sameness of it takes the element of discovery out of travel, the fact that you have a checklist to begin with is the very end of your escape from obligation, plans and routines.
But, wearing a consumerist longing underneath a thin skin covered with society’s fingerprints, the traveler’s flesh is weak in resisting the temptation. So (s)he throws some beaches and mountains into the cart, a little bit of hiking here and there, a bunch of UNESCO World Heritage sites, tops it up with some charming colonial towns and dashes to the next aisle. Travel quickly and be quick to brag about the items crossed off the list, is the credo. The breadth and depth of immersion and individual experience doesn’t fit into such airtight and waterproof schedules.
"Not before the Lonely Planet tells everyone that we’ve reached the next noteworthily stimulating spot does the gang look up, as tough tourist destinations were isolated islands of beauty within a sea of bleh insignificance."
I’m on a bus, music in my ear, watching the riveting movie of ever new landscapes and roadside villages flying by. Then my eyes wander to the people around me and I see oblivion: Hangover Hank with his neon-colored “drink triple, see double, act single” tank top is drooling all over Sarah’s North Face hiking combo; Elephant-Pants Eleisha is whatsapping Jennifer back home about how she’s not looking at the country outside the window; Birkenstock Bernd and Rastafarian Ralph are reading their guidebooks while the discoveries between the lines are passing them by unconsidered; and there’s me, the condescending crank scribbling down these lines.
Not before the Lonely Planet tells everyone that we’ve reached the next noteworthily stimulating spot does the gang look up, as tough tourist destinations were isolated islands of beauty within a sea of bleh insignificance. Finally, having hit the next vantage point, we can yank out our selfie sticks and turn our backs on the acclaimed landscape.
Popayan / Colombia You might have seen the Grand Canyon; but have you seen this green canyon somewhere along the bus ride between Popayan and Pasto in Colombia?
Once you get to the not so lonely places, it's time to check in at a hostel brimming with rad backpackers and get the beer pong started. Tell me again – how is that any different from the all-inclusive vacation we are so above?
Upon arrival, fellow travelers, hostel staff, and gringo agencies chime in with the guidebook choir and point their quick fingers to all the other musts you must not miss before you can even say “Dondey eystá el bañow por favorey?”
Next thing you know, you’re in for the same backpacker spiel you endured the day before at the same hostel in a different color:
“How’s it goin’ mate? What’s your name?”
“Yeah, good man. I’m Yournewmate. What about yourself?”
“I’m Randomdude. Whereabouts you from?”
“A European country. You?”
“A European country, awesome!! I’m from Portland, Oregon or Australia.”
“Sweet! For how long have you been traveling?”
“For a very cool amount of time dude and you?”
“An even cooler amount of time!”
“Sick dude! You just arrived?”
“Yeah, that’s why we’re having this conversation.”
“Rad! Dude, you have to check out this gnarly waterfall-beach-cave-mountain-snorkeling-sunset-place. I have no other but three words for it, but trust me – it’s amazing, awesome and sweet in equal measure.”
“You mean like every other place?”
“Yeah, exactly like every other place!! You MUST check it out.”
Must I really though? No. Will I? Maybe. What I can’t do, is let Randomdude’s guidebook knowledge defy the tiny bit of purpose behind my setting out and being here – mild explorations of a fully charted world. Following mass-travel advice kills the whole adventure crew: wanderlust, Fernweh, curiosity, freedom, and joy of discovery.
And what’s a must anyway? Or else what? A must to which means? To universal backpacker happiness? Aren’t most of us out here, strapped into our backpacks, to declare guerrilla war on bleak societal regimes with Mondays? Every child is more of a rebel when Mom allots musts.
Now, now, there, there. I’m not saying you mustn’t do with the musts. That’s exactly the point. What I’m saying is, do whatever you want. Swim in the stream, don’t swim in it. Why would I care? I don’t even know you (unless you are Randomdude, in which case we have met many times).
By all means, do zipline across the continent, wild-river-raft with the flow, beer-pong the night away and cave to your next destination. Just don’t shoot cows with rocket launchers in Phnom Penh, if you can avoid it at all – that’s really messed up. Do the Machu Picchus of the world. I’m serious. It’s safe to say that most touristy places are what they are for a reason. If instead, or on top of it, you want to hop off the bandwagon and tumble into some local culture, let me be the very last one to hold you back. I certainly experienced the majority of my most memorable moments miles astray what was labeled "destination-worthy." A pretentious indie traveler who skips every guidebook site in silent protest, might miss out on some sweets; but if you don’t visit the Taj Mahal, because you’re lost somewhere in Agra’s alley twists exploring Indian universes, fear not: you may be experiencing something even more captivating than Mughal architecture.
Machu Picchu / Peru Not without a reason is this a touristy place. Just look at it.
"But if you scrutinize every last chunk of wonder out of a destination before you even arrive, if you plan your every step and vantage point with grim determination, you leave little space for happenstance and surprising detours."
There is more than one way to travel – in fact, there is every way to travel – so you might want to find your own path out there. After all, every trip is unique. That being said, perhaps some are more than others. If you limit yourself to tubing in Laos, Full Moon Parties in Thailand, surf and joints in Mancora, volcano boarding in León, the Inka Trail, the Death Road, a beach in Goa, a night in Rio’s Lapa district, a wine tour in Stellenbosch and a game drive, your trip might be pretty much the same as the next backpacker’s: much fun, granted, but probably little substance.
“Wow, easy there fun police, what’s with these heavy vibes dragging down our Reggae high?” No worries, chill mahn. I’m not here to argue that fun isn’t fun. Have some and sign me up for some too. But if we limit ourselves to "adventure travel" (which is anything but adventurous), we will reduce our journey to a cookie cutter experience that evolves foremost around ourselves, when we could be immersing ourselves in worlds, tripping on psychedelic local normalities.
If you do crave a more unique and authentic trip, my best advice would be no advice. I’d shorten the 10-reasons-why-list and give you 0 reasons to follow my lead. Try. Explore. Let no one shrink your unprecedented leaps of discovery to little baby steps in their footprints. Pull a blank canvas over your mind and paint firsts on it.
Sure, use that guidebook as a cheat sheet now and then. But if you scrutinize every last chunk of wonder out of a destination before you even arrive, if you plan your every step and vantage point with grim determination, you leave little space for happenstance and surprising detours.
Indeed, you may want to check out some of the places Randomdude & Co send you to. But, asking the locals won’t hurt either. They might know a bit more about the place they live in than a backpacker who arrived two days ago or a travel writer who might have done some B- research but never actually been there. If doing your own thing appeals to you, tune out the gringo white noise, wave Google goodbye, and do something different or, better still, something new.
And what could that be? I’m not talking yoga retreats, woofing or working at a hostel bar. I’m not talking anything. Every evangelist of so called "indie travel" will be quick to accompany your steps off the trotted trail while holding your hand tightly. It's paradoxical. How can following be indie? It’s like Berlin hipsters trying so hard to be different that they all end up looking the same.
If you want to hear the story of how I set out for a backpacking trip, missed my junction, and didn't go home for 6 years, I’ll tell you some other time. But how could it be anything but inspiration to hum your own melody out there when that is what I did, how could you trace the steps of that journey when they were so twisted and aimless?
If you’re traveling across the seas, it’s fair to assume that you’re not 6 years old. I don’t need to tell you how to use a local bus. I’ve got no advice on how to pack your backpack. And maybe you’ll come to agree with me that the place matters less than your experience there, which is always shaped by chance, encounters and anything you couldn’t possibly foresee.
That’s why it’s redundant whenever Randomdude says that a certain place is like this and like that, and that you must see it. Your travel buddy had a great time there, and you might too, or you might not.
I used to write for the tourism industry, taking people under a big, fat wing; so, in an attempt to redeem myself, I will leave you with the bottom line I owe you since the beginning of this article: don’t mistake every piece of advice for a signpost pointing to a fulfilling journey. Least of all mine.
you might also like or dislike...