Monday, December 5, 2016

A Geezer's Advice To Young Travelers

Back in MY day we.......No, wait. Sorry, I got ahead of myself, which seems easy to do these days.

First, I should assure readers that I really don't expect you to follow the advice I'm about to give -- the best I can hope for is that you will consider the relevance and suitability of some of my observations distilled from 45 years (really, 45?) of international travel. Second, I should clarify that by "young" I don't mean children, but rather anyone old enough to travel on their own (that includes older "young-at-heart" types who haven't done much traveling but now have the time and inclination). Third, I want to pre-apologize to anyone I may offend with observations that seem to criticize the way you choose to travel. But hey, this is my blog, and of course, I'm right...

Okay, if anyone is still reading, here's a bit of background.  My wife and I have been traveling internationally since shortly after we got married. We were youngsters back then, and although neither of us had traveled much out of the country we made a joint decision that this was something we wanted to do very much. We were fortunate during our working years to have careers that allowed us time during the summer months to travel (we were both in education).  We didn't have children and this made it much easier to travel, especially in the early days. The only thing we didn't have was a lot of money, a factor that didn't stop us from traveling but certainly dictated how we did it.

Now a bit of history for context. Our travels began in what will seem to young'ns as the dark ages.  There was no WWW.  The internet existed, but just barely -- it began in 1969.  There were no cell phones. No laptops. In fact, no truly personal computers of any kind until the mid- to late 70's. Travel arrangements were made through somebody called a "Travel Agent" or done on the fly using guidebooks for recommendations or through a local tourist office in each foreign town or city who would help you find accommodations and give you information. Not many people in foreign countries spoke English so it was often necessary to learn a little of the local language so that you could ask for directions, inquire about an available room, find a toilet, avoid liver.  Airplane tickets were actually made of paper and had to be guarded very carefully because without them you couldn't even check in.  If they were lost or stolen replacing them was a time-consuming and onerous process.  Very few merchants accepted credit cards, and there were almost no ATMs. You traveled armed with a bunch of "traveler's checks," which you bought at a U.S. bank before leaving. To change money you had to go to a foreign bank or professional money changer and exchange them for local currency. If you ran out of money --- well, you ran out of money. There was no easy way to get more.
In short, these were the days when travel was truly an adventure. Over the years things have changed remarkably, and today travel is considerably easier.  That's not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, because when something is easy we all have a tendency to take it for granted and lose sight of its beneficial qualities. As you will now see, much of my advice is tempered by this conviction.

Here goes.

I know, you're young and you'll have plenty of time to enjoy traveling later.  Plus, you're vigorous and invincible and will never develop physical ailments or mental impairments that will limit where you go and what you do. Please, please believe me when I tell you from experience that you are woefully ignoring reality -- see the 15 blogs in my Geezerhood series for documentation. In the blink of an eye you will find that your mind is willing but your body no longer seems to be listening to your brain.

In our travels my wife and I distinguish between two kinds of trips: those undertaken for relaxation and rejuvenation (aka slug-imitation sojourns), and those meant to truly explore a destination and to experience its culture, history, geology, art, architecture, etc.  A third type that we haven't done much ourselves but is growing in popularity is "sport" or "adventure travel."  The goal here isn't so much to appreciate culture or history as it is to enjoy the unique geology and geography of a destination while indulging in sports activities like golf, skiing, diving, trekking, or maybe hanging by your fingernails from a cliff. The first type is easy and can be done well into advanced Geezerhood. The second and third can be physically and mentally challenging, particularly in exotic locales where infrastructure requires daily sacrifices in comfort, food is sometimes unfriendly to an American's delicate system (see A Traveler's Tales of Tummy Troubles), and where many of the most magnificent and rewarding sights require considerable physical exertion and stamina. The usual accompaniments to Geezerhood -- bad joints, COPD, mental fuzziness, and issues of balance and flexibility -- can make these kinds of travel increasingly difficult. My wife and I have been trying to visit the most challenging destinations while we still can, and we strongly recommend you consider this "carpe diem" approach also. But no matter what your travel objective is, start now. You will acquire coping skills and a tolerant attitude that will serve you well later.

An additional reason for not procrastinating comes from our personal experience in a number of "currently-exotic-and-out-of-the-way-but-soon-to-be-overrun-with-hoards-of-tourists" places. If you wait too long the character and essential uniqueness of many destinations will be less than it is now, the inevitable result of mass tourism's influence on infrastructure, economy, and local attitudes toward visitors. A variant of this which we have also experienced is that natural disasters, political instability and religious extremism may suddenly make it impossible to visit certain places. For instance, we were in Syria just before the current turmoil there and it was one of the most interesting and enjoyable trips we have ever taken (see, "The Benefits of Dangerous Travel").  Now, however many of the fabulous archeological treasures in Syria and even some of the cities have been destroyed by violent conflict.  We feel fortunate and privileged to have experienced these things before this happened.


There are a lot of places in the world worth exploring.
Life is too short to see them all.
Keep your butt moving if you want to enrich your life as much as you can in the time that you have.


This may seem like a contradiction to what I just said, but it really isn't.  If you approach travel with the idea that you are going to do it often then it isn't necessary to plan a trip to see 30 countries in 2 weeks -- an exhausting, numbing experience that is pretty much a waste of time and money, IMHO. I remember sitting in a European restaurant where I overheard a dinner conversation among some American travelers on a blitzkrieg tour of all of Europe.  One was having trouble recalling a sight the group had visited the day before and had to ask his fellow travelers, "Now, what's the name of that country we were in yesterday?"  How enriching can travel be if you don't know where you've been?

My wife and I have tried to restrict our trips to fairly small geographic areas -- one country or a small region -- and we try to spend as much time as we can there. In our case we have been fortunate that our 9-month teaching contracts allowed us to devote a month or more to each trip. But even for those of you with less time to spend, our advice is to narrow your focus -- you will have a much deeper and more meaningful experience. As you go, pay attention to details that are often missed if you are zipping through on the way to the next thing on the itinerary.  By details I mean architectural features, artistic nuances, small aspects of flora and fauna, and especially details of the way locals are living their lives and interacting with each other and with you.

By the way, when we tell people we are going to spend a month in, say Laos or South Africa or Argentina, many seem amazed that we could stand traveling that long. Not only can we "stand" it, we have sometimes regretted the end of the trip and wish we had more time to spend.  I think this may be the result of our years of experience tolerating the inconveniences of travel, and finding that the inconveniences are a small price to pay for the privilege of enjoying experiences only travel can allow.


Okay, this is where I may step on some toes. The fact is that there are many ways to travel these days, and they differ markedly in the quality and depth of the experience they provide. I have pretty strong opinions about some of them, as you will see, but my overall advice is that if you are serious about travel for enrichment then you should employ a variety of travel methods not just stick with one.  Here are some thoughts:
  • Group Tours:  I really don't like group tours. Yet despite what I believe are significant shortcomings in this form of travel there have been about a dozen times (even recently) over my 45 years of traveling when this seemed the best approach, usually when the local infrastructure and social conditions would make it extremely difficult, uncomfortable, time-consuming, or perhaps unsafe to do otherwise.  However, I find that it is easy to greatly overestimate the difficulty and danger of non-group travel, so the decision to use a group tour requires careful consideration of why a tour is advisable in this particular instance -- something many travelers prefer not to do.  Indeed, the seeming advantage of tours is that all the planning and decision-making is done for you, and once you arrive everything is taken care of.  But this feature is also a flaw of group tours -- they require very little active involvement, cognitive investment, or problem solving.  This passivity can lead to a somewhat shallow and unmemorable experience of the destination and its culture (remember the case of the oblivious American group tourist I mentioned previously who didn't even know where he had been).  A second shortcoming of group tours in my opinion is another feature that I acknowledge many people find to be positive.  Groups invariably lead to social interaction focused within the group.  For example, I recall traveling in Vietnam with some very interesting and sociable fellow travelers.  One day our bus was going through a picturesque agricultural area where locals were busy planting rice, a fascinating and uniquely characteristic sight.  However, almost nobody on the bus was looking out at the scene because they were engrossed in conversations with each other.  To the extent that "groupiness" distracts travelers from appreciating the noteworthy qualities of the culture they are visiting, it is a negative feature of this form of travel, albeit enjoyable. Finally, while it is certainly true that group tours are efficient and you will see a lot, please consider that a jam-packed itinerary doesn't necessarily mean you will have an in-depth exposure to a culture and its people. The best tour companies try to counteract superficiality by deliberately including interactions with local people -- certainly a laudable effort.  But keep in mind that these encounters are hand-picked and structured by someone else and therefore aren't necessarily representative of what you would experience on your own. I have many other criticisms of group touring, but I'll stop with the advice that you not rely on it exclusively, but instead consider other modes of travel as well.  
  • Cruising: In certain circumstances cruise ships offer an excellent perspective from which to enjoy unique geography and geology, and a good way to visit places difficult to reach by other means (Antarctica, South Pacific, River passages, Greek Islands). They are certainly a convenient, comfortable, and fairly affordable way of traveling, especially for families, solo travelers, and those who are mobility challenged. I'm not convinced, however, that they are a good way to truly come into contact with a culture and its people. Most cruise ports are quite unrepresentative of a country, and a day in port seems unlikely to offer more than a quick superficial introduction. Staying onboard offers cushy accommodations and amenities that are, of course, the same for the entire trip -- a plus for cruise-lovers because they don't have to pack and unpack many times.  For me this is a real detraction, however, because over the years my wife and I have stayed in a wide range of wonderful small inns and hotels, often in extraordinarily picturesque places, that offer quite a bit more character and history than a ship's stateroom. They also afford the opportunity for casual interactions with local people that are missing on a cruise. A final objection is that when thousands of boat people descend on a particular destination, particularly a small one, it can greatly distort the true nature of the place. For example, my wife and I stayed several days on the Greek island of Santorini, having arrived there by regularly scheduled ferry service. This is a lovely place that people who visit by cruise ship usually rave about.  We watched each morning as several large ships would enter the harbor and disgorge thousands of people who then drifted shoulder-to-shoulder through the tiny cliff-side port town, shopping, photographing, and perhaps having lunch before returning in the late afternoon to their boats. As much as the passengers may have enjoyed Santorini, I can assure you it was far more pleasant after they were gone.  The merchants relaxed and were more friendly and less aggressive, the restaurants emptied out and offered spectacular sunset views of the departing ships, and the warm evenings were a delightful time to slowly explore the town.
  • Independent Travel:  This category includes three major variants.  All three have become easier to arrange in recent years thanks to the internet.  The first is the old familiar winging-it-on-your-own-as-you-go style that definitely requires a lot of effort, problem-solving, and a high tolerance for uncertainty.  I'm too old for that kind of travel anymore.  The second is more structured but still allows for flexibility and requires some degree of on-the-fly decision-making and coping with challenges.  In this case you plan an itinerary around your own interests and preferences by studying guidebooks, tour itineraries, and online discussion forums.  You then make your own arrangements online for accommodations, transportation, and even local tours (again, by consulting and vetting various sources of information).  This is by far our preferred mode of travel.  It requires considerable advanced effort, but as I've tried to suggest above, this active involvement in planning a trip makes it more meaningful and memorable.  The third kind of independent travel is increasingly available in recent years and is attractive if you want some degree of choice in making your own itinerary but would rather leave decisions about hotels, activities, transportation, etc. to a professional.  In many parts of the world this is not nearly as pricey as you might expect. Companies that specialize in this kind of travel consult with you online about your interests and preferences, then put together an itinerary for you which you can then modify further. The price depends on the level of accommodations you have chosen, the length of the trip, and the number of included activities. All three of these variations have the advantage of bringing you into maximum contact with local culture while also providing opportunities for appreciating the art, history, architecture, and natural attractions of a destination. 
Ok, that's it.  I have lots of other tips but I'm sure I've outstripped your patience already.  No matter what manner of travel you choose or what combinations you select, I truly hope you find travel as rewarding and enriching as I have. I think that seeing the world first-hand is far superior to experiencing it any other way, and provides a more balanced and complex view of the world than that which is filtered through other people's attitudes and agendas. Above all,  the personal encounters that travel can provide will very likely change you for the better.  And may even give you a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on other people's lives as well....

Happy travels!


Coleen Hanna said...

Good article and I can relate to some of what you have said. As a child-free person myself, I think it's really difficult for parents to do the kind of travel you and I have done, at least while they are young. I feel grateful to have been able to travel and God bless the wonderful folks who mostly stay home and raise the people who will carry on after us.

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