Dec 07

Michele Koh, a Singaporean who currently studies in London, has an interesting blog called ‘The 11th House’. She wrote a nice article about the best ways to explore a foreign country. I’m happy that she allowed me to re-publish that post here, as it fits thematically with my blog as well.

It’s best to read, when listening to Zamphir’s pan-flute epos ‘The Lonely Shepherd’; which most of you will remember from the movie ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’, although the original version is at least from the 1970’s. Another alternative is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Waiting for the miracle’. Ready? Okay, here we go: ;-)

The Lone WandererEver so often, many of us feel an overpowering and desperate urge to pack our bags, whisk out our passports and fly off to new exotic countries. Our forefathers were nomads, who crossed treacherous seas and hiked through barren desserts often with no clue where their journey would take them. As evolution would have it, the desire to explore different geographical climates and experience new sights and sounds has been etched into our DNA. Along with its’ biological roots, travel has long been linked with magic and providence. Legends of flying carpets in “A Thousand And One Arabian Nights”, and the Greek ship Argonaut, that sailed in search for mystical objects like the Golden Fleece reveal that man’s delight in travel is eternal.

I’m not talking about business travel, family vacations or packaged tours, though elements of intrigue can be present in the aforementioned forms of travel. I speak of taking a journey into the unknown, of deciding to leave the securities of work and relationships behind and venture out because it seems like the only thing left to do.

When you go on a holiday, you become “the foreigner”. You break out of routines, habits and behaviors that you fall slave to in your own country and home. Instead of moving around among your fellow countrymen, you take on the role of the exotic stranger. When your feet land on new soil, and the people around you dress differently and speak in languages and accents that you don’t understand; you tend to experience a certain fear, or anxiety (as if you were an alien who just entered a new planet). The giddiness of the initial disorientation that comes with what I call “no strings” of “agenda-less” travel produces eustress – a mental state of positive psychological tension. This surreal altered state gives you the freedom to jump out of your skin. When I leave everything I know and love behind and take in the peculiarities of different pastures, I feel like a character who has stepped right out of the pages from a novel, and is about to be the author of the next chapter of the book.

When embarking on a vacation, most people opt for guided tours, where the goal is to take in or cram as many of the purported highlights and landmark sites as possible in a day. Tourists who go to Paris, almost always have the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe on their list of “must sees”, likewise, a visit to Italy would not be complete without an excursion to St. Peter’s Square or Venice. For travelers who hop on coach after coach with other non-locals on packaged holidays where comfort and safety is the name of the game, the chosen destination becomes nothing more than an amusement park for wealthy voyeurs. Conducted tours are funny like that…it’s like taking a whole bunch of grown ups from one city, herding them around like school kids and telling them to watch out for pickpockets and beggars as if they had just flown all the way to observe a zoo from behind a cage.

Backpackers make up the next category of travelers. Back in the early 60’s the word “backpacker” conjured up images of hobos, anthropologists, hippies, explorers and dreamers who made their own maps and blended in with the indigenous people at whim. These days, the very mention of the word “backpacker” brings on guffaws and sniggers from those who have been there and done that. Backpacking, like the more commercial brand of tourism, no longer carries the essence of fearless determination that it once implied. These days, backpackers are like the scum of the earth, traveling on meager budgets for as long as they can, hitting every Third World location and sucking the life out of all things antiquated. Sure you can still find “old-world” budget travelers, who are aware of their place in a strange land; but the majority of backpackers are students or menial workers on a long break. The pop status that has been granted to backpacking has created a coterie of restless urbanized youngsters who travel in groups or pairs. They hang around with other tourists and sit around all day swapping stories about London, Israel, Germany and Japan while staying in a guesthouse in Siberia! After staying in a foreign land for a quarter of a year, backpackers gain elite status and congregate like paupers of the expatriate community, they start berating the natives and scoffing at local customs that drew them to their destination in the first place. But pull these rugged looking “backpackies” away from their cronies and what you’ve got is a fish out of water.

So what then, is the most fulfilling way for a young person to truly experience the rewards of traveling?

• Go alone. Leave without the companionship of friends and partners. This is the only way to truly cut all ties with a familiar environment and connect with a new one.

• Forget the guidebooks. It’s good to arm yourself with only the most essential information like climate, weather and living expenses. Don’t overload yourself with too many cultural and historical facts and figures. Books and postcards can create unrealistic expectations.

• Don’t make reservations. Tourism is a massive industry and it’s more thrilling to walk around and peek at all your lodging options the day you arrive before deciding. If everything is booked up, the probability of being offered board by a local family is surprisingly high.

• Don’t make any particular site of interest your ultimate goal. Travel is not a means to and end. If you stress over trying to get to one particular spot, you’ll miss out on the real action.

• Get lost. Travel aimlessly. The most exhilarating thing about being in a strange new place is the ability to feel like a total stranger. Enjoy this weird sense of disorientation while it lasts because before you know it, your mind will become accustom to every street and sound.

• Be afraid…be very afraid. In all the best adventure stories, the hero is always terrified of the fiercesome inhabitants of the land. The city feels like a labyrinth, and the need to seek help overwhelms the intrepid explorer. The hero in the story did not know this was just a case of culture shock. It is at this breaking point, when you suddenly realize how weak, ill equipped and alone you really are in the big bad world that your journey truly begins. Your senses sharpen, you’ll need to muster all your resources and courage and move onward conscientiously.

• The most exciting events occur through adversity. When you realize that all your safety nets are three hundred and sixty five hundred miles away, it’s time to put down the map and IDD card and roam like a lunatic. You’ll find help and friends at the most unexpected places.

• Don’t force yourself to join activities and plan itineraries you don’t really want to engage in. Get comfortable with your surroundings first. Intuition is your best guide.

• Learn a new language. When you have to speak Spanish in order to get a get a cup of coffee or Hindi in order to find a toilet, you will pick it up a lot faster than in a classroom.

• Steer clear of touristy shops. The most interesting gifts are free. Pick up a stone from the Grand Canyon, a shell from the Bahamas or matchboxes from Shanghai. Not only are they more authentic and meaningful, it will also save you some money.

Travel is not about proving how many castles, museums, temples or volcanoes you’ve seen or showing off the number of souvenirs you’ve collected. When you slow down, throw your hands up in the air and wonder, “What the hell am I doing here!” all the real treasures a country has to offer come unfolding before you in due time. I have found myself unplugging dead cockroaches from the sink in a boat in Indonesia, peeing by a bush in the Andalusian mountains after getting kicked out of my hotel at four in the morning and being interrogated by armed Ghurkas in Nepal who mistook me for a journalist. The most wonderful aspect of traveling is the feeling of powerlessness. You never know what to expect. Bad weather, malaria, strange food or hostile natives, but when you overcome these obstacles, you will leave with the best gift ever – memories that are uniquely yours and stories to tell your grandchildren.

copyright 2006, Michele Koh

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written by Chris

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