No. I must not. Now, with the bottom line of this article all spoiled at the starting line, and the cliffhanging question unraveled in the subheading, I can merely offer you the “why” behind the “no”.
Musts seem to outnumber wants in these days, even when traveling, or, worse still, especially when traveling.
Most importantly, there are the must-dos and must-sees of the Lonely Planets and whatnots travel guides or blogs, which contradict their very mission of promoting indie travel by suggesting vigorously where you must go and what you must do there. Don’t forget the don’ts either! The way they advise trips unveils them as hardly more independent than trip advisor. They give you a checklist at hand and send you off to your sightseeing spree.
And, wearing a consumerist longing underneath a society-washed skin, the traveler’s flesh is weak in resisting the temptation. So he throws some beaches and mountains into the cart, a little bit of hiking, a bunch of UNESCO World Heritage sites, tops it up with some charming colonial towns and dashes to the next aisle. He travels quickly and is quick to brag about the items crossed off a list, which is too long to leave space for individual experience and immersion.
Not before the Lonely Planet tells everyone that the next noteworthily stimulating spot is reached, does the gang look up, as tough tourist destinations were isolated islands of beauty, sprinkling an otherwise ugly nature.
I’m on a bus, music in my ear, watching the mesmerizing movie of ever new landscapes and roadside villages flying by. Then my eyes wander over the people around me and I see oblivion: there’s hangover guy with his neon-colored “drink triple, see double, act single” tank top, drooling all over Sarah’s North Face hiking combo; elephant pants Erica is whatsapping Jennifer back home about how she’s not looking at the country outside the window; Birkenstock Bernd and Rastafarian curd are reading their guide books, 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 the next noteworthily stimulating spot is reached, does the gang look up, as tough tourist destinations were isolated islands of beauty, sprinkling an otherwise ugly nature. 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 full of rad backpackers and get the beer pong started. Tell me again – how is that any different from the all inclusive vacation we so fiercely loath?
Upon arrival, gringo agencies, hostel staff and fellow travelers will sing alongside the guidebook choir and point you to all other musts of the respective country or continent before you can even say “I’m just looking for a bathroom”.
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, not too bad. I’m Yournewmate. What about yourself?”
“I’m Randomdude. Whereabouts you from?”
“A European country and you?”
“A European country, awesome!! I’m from Portland, Oregon or Australia”
“Sweet! For how long have you been traveling?”
“A coolishly long time, you?”
“An even coolisherly long time!”
“Awesome! You just arrived?”
“Yeah, that’s why we’re having this conversation and my pack is still on my back.”
“Awesome! Dude, you have to check out this 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 will not do, is let Randomdude’s guidebook knowledge defy the raw purpose of my setting out and being here – exploration. Following mass-advice without second thought is the sheepish way of life, but doing so whilst traveling is worse yet; it kills the whole adventure crew – curiosity, wanderlust, freedom, spontaneity, flexibility, uncertainty, mystery 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 society 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 in the slightest? I don’t even know you.
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 truly depraved. 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 flirt with some local culture and hop off the gringo wagon, let me be the very last one to hold you back. I certainly experienced most of my most memorable moments far from what most label "destination-worthy." An alleged indie traveler, who skips every guidebook site in silent protest, might miss out on some marveling; 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.
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 individual experience, surprising detours and undiscovered beauty
More than one way of traveling is legit, so you might want to find your own path out there. After all, every trip is unique. Yet, 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, little substance.
There is nothing wrong with having fun (as long as it doesn't lead to excessive, ethically precarious and destructive tourism); but if you limit yourself to "adventure travel," you will inevitably reduce your journey to a generic experience that evolves foremost around yourself, when the most intriguing part of being abroad is immersing yourself into the local normalities that happen all around you. That's where travel teaches its rawest lessons about life and the world it takes place in.
If you crave a more unique and authentic trip, my best advice would be no advice. I’d shorten the 10-reasons-why-list a bit 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. Take a blank mind canvas and paint first horizons on it.
I’m not saying you should never read a guide book. 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 individual experience, surprising detours and undiscovered beauty.
You may indeed 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 never have been there. If doing your own thing has more appeal to you in a given moment, ignore the gringo jabbering, 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, surrounded by your own folks. I’m not talking anything. Every evangelist of so called "indie travel" will be quick to accompany your steps off the trotted trail and to hold your hand along the way. It's paradoxical. They write oxymoron all over the term that they coined themselves – how can travel be "indie," if advice ushers it from the beaten path to the not so beaten one, which is, however, still a laid out path?
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. It is to be seen, however, solely as an inspiration to hum your own melody out there and by no means a suggestion to trace its steps. In that story long-term immersion, often paired with volunteering with grassroots nonprofits, has defined a journey that became a nomadic lifestyle. But there are many modes of travel on the opposite side of jammed highways.
If you’re traveling across the seas, it’s fair for me 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 for you on how to pack your backpack. I’m confident you’ll figure out by yourself how to jam your stuff in there. Do I really need to point out that a lighter pack is less of a load to carry? Time and an aching back will unmask the 5 superfluous kilograms you brought.
As for destinations: for me it turned out that the place itself matters less than the experience you indulge (or suffer through) there, which is shaped largely by chance and the people you encounter. You might prefer mountains over beaches or a Latin American country over its Asian counterpart. But, surrounded by the right people, doing something memorable, even a place little to your liking could become an unforeseen momentary paradise.
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. He had a great time there, and you might too, or you mightn’t. Randomedude is confusing the untamable enthusiasm for his favorite ice cream with a universal gusto that doesn’t exist. It’d be hard to narrow my favorites down to one. But, if I had to, big gun to my head, I’d say Ecuador; to be precise an indigenous village no one has ever heard of. Being there was a pivotal era for me, yet very possibly Salasaka wouldn’t mean anything to you, if you were to go.
In the past I have written articles for the tourism industry, often magazines that promote mass all-inclusive travel and describe exclusively the pink bubble tourists want to hover in. I did take people under a wing that kept them from authentic exploration, but I have given up that job for good; so, in an attempt to liberate myself, let me elaborate the quintessence of the above mentioned bottom line from “no” (I must not) to: just figure the road out for yourself and don’t take every piece of advice as the ultimate signpost to a fulfilling journey. Not even mine.
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