Rediscovering Travel — Seth Kugel
Chapter 1 Rediscovering Travel
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One of my most ironclad rules of travel is this: The number of visitors a place receives is inversely related to how nice locals are to those visitors.
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People who inhabit the still-plentiful tourist-free swaths of the planet tend not only to be just nicer, but more curious. They say a bear in the wild is just as scared of you as you are of it. I say people in places where outsiders rarely go are just as curious about visitors as visitors are about them. The question is not why the distillery workers invited me—a camera-toting, gibberish-talking stranger—in for a tour, it’s why wouldn’t they? If it were me, I’d be thinking: “What is this odd foreigner doing outside our szeszfó´zde with a camera? Wait till I tell the kids! And by the way, isn’t it about time we took a break?”
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Discovery used to be the lifeblood of travel, at least for those who shunned tour-bus groups and all-inclusive resorts. We used to leave home knowing relatively little about our destination—perhaps with some highlighted guidebook pages denoting major attractions and local tipping etiquette, a list of tips culled from well-traveled friends, or articles copied and pasted into a Word document. And for the ambitious, a notional feel for the local history or culture gleaned pre-trip from a historical novel.
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But don’t we travel to break our routine? To experience the unexpected? To let the world delight us? If we do, we have a funny way of showing it. We pore over online reviews for weeks, plan days down to the half hour, and then let GPS and the collected wisdom of the unwise lead us blindly. We mean well—no one wants to have a romantic dinner go wrong or to get lost and miss out on a “must-see attraction” or to risk chaos by failing to keep the kids entertained for three minutes. But isn’t that just a digital version of the old-fashioned group tour? Well, almost, except that on the bus tour, you actually get to meet the person whose advice you’re taking. That’s why I believe it is time we rediscover travel, and recognize the value of what an overdocumented world has taken away: the delight of making things happen on your own.
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When I urge you to “rediscover travel” in the coming chapters, it may sometimes sound like I’m nostalgic for a pre-smartphone, pre-TripAdvisor, pre–baggage fee world. But this is not an anti–travel industry or anti-technology screed. So many advances have been essential to and have greatly facilitated our ability to travel the world, and I’ll get into them all. The explosive growth of airlines and sinking cost of fares over the last half-century have given exponentially more people the chance to travel, albeit uncomfortably. Technology used right is as much of a boon to travel as technology used wrong is its bane. Companies harnessing the sharing economy have brought travelers closer to the places they visit by helping them stay in real people’s homes, connecting them to local events, and finding them independent tour guides. Sustainable travel initiatives have helped stem the impact of the travel hordes on our fragile environment and often even more fragile local cultures. And innovative tour operators have allowed us to see far more of the world than would have been possible, or safe, in the past. Still, no matter how many well-meaning cogs there are in the international travel machine, the more you can replace them with the billions of normal people just living their lives out there, the better. They are the unwitting tour guides to our best travel experiences.
Chapter 2. Organic Experiences
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These days, we mostly associate the term organic with food. But to me, a shift toward discovery-based travel would have an obvious parallel with the organic food movement. Both push us away from consumption of processed products provided by an industry that does not always have the best interests of the customer at heart.
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When we take an organized tour that includes a visit to someone’s home, or stay with a family on a homestay, or rent a room through Airbnb, we have come into contact with card-carrying members of the tourism industry who have, to a greater or lesser extent, packaged the world in the way they think we want to see it. The homes may be real, but the activities are transactions—the sellers are exposing their lives for money, like some sort of cultural stripper.
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Let’s take food—such a basic element of travel for so many of us. It can be tempting to plan out all meals in advance with a list of restaurants compiled from articles and rankings and (sigh) Anthony Bourdain episodes and narrowed down by user reviews and availability of reservations. You all but guarantee a steady flow of predictably above-par meals. But read enough raves about any particular restaurant and you’re much more likely to be disappointed if the meal was just “very good.” You were expecting to bite into a lamb shank and see God. Instead, consider the opposite strategy: You arrive in your destination with no list at all, ask fellow travelers and locals for advice, browse the menus posted in restaurant windows or simply peer through those windows to see whether a place looks fun. Some meals would be duds. But the successes would be all the better for having come across them on your own. I’d argue that the very same dish tastes better if you have no idea what to expect. Sky-high expectations can make even a fine dinner disappoint, whereas an utter lack of expectations makes the same dishes a sublime surprise.
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“Language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure vehicle, and it can seldom arrange descriptive words in a way that they will not inflate the facts,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator, which recounts his 1895 tour of the British Empire. He was speaking about his experience at the Taj Mahal: I had read a great deal too much about it. I saw it in the daytime, I saw it in the moonlight, I saw it near at hand, I saw it from a distance; and I knew all the time, that of its kind it was the wonder of the world, with no competitor now and no possible future competitor; and yet, it was not my Taj. My Taj had been built by excitable literary people; it was solidly lodged in my head, and I could not blast it out.2 In other words, he had read too much about it in TripAdvisor’s nineteenth-century predecessor: books. Compare that to his experience at the mosques and tombs in Agra and Delhi on the same visit. By good fortune I had not read much about them, and therefore was able to get a natural and rational focus upon them, with the result that they thrilled, blessed, and exalted me. But if I had previously overheated my imagination by drinking too much pestilential literary hot Scotch, I should have suffered disappointment and sorrow.3
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The Louvre once determined that 80 percent of its seven million annual visitors come principally to see the Mona Lisa. Why? Because its artistic quality so outshines the thirty-eight thousand other pieces on display? Because a passion for Renaissance art is embedded in their DNA? Not a chance—and it’s highly unlikely 5.6 million people all got the same elementary school assignment. It’s because it’s famous. And, as a result, it’s bound to disappoint most who see it, much as the Taj Mahal disappointed Mark Twain. They’ve simply heard or read too many raves. (Darkened by varnish and cracked with age, it would probably disappoint da Vinci himself.)
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In 2018, TripAdvisor lists more than 1,200 “Things to do” in Paris. The current No. 75, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, has more than 5,000 reviews, should you want to spend hours reading the opinions of people you don’t know on whether you should visit a cemetery that was far beyond the scope of Frommer’s guide and miles outside its cocktail-napkin maps. As a result, generations raised on Choose Your Own Adventure books are now letting unscientific Top-10 lists, bloviating TripAdvisor reviews, TV stars, and blogger-marketers choose our adventures for us. Even those who boast of “winging it” often depend on apps to point the way, quite literally, in the case of Google Maps, to the next highly rated stop.
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When I’m preparing for a trip, I make a big list of everything I want to do in each city or region, checking to see whether anything needs to be scheduled ahead of time. But beyond that, I mostly wing it, sitting down each morning to set a loose agenda I hope to abandon in pursuit of the unexpected. I also try to leave a day open for exploring a lesser-known neighborhood or region. When I do, it’s almost always the best day of the trip, maybe because I can truly relax, without feeling any pressure to love the Venus de Milo or Pike Place Market or whatever other tourist attraction people come from far and wide to see.
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Whether globalization is good or bad for human existence is up for debate, but there’s no way it’s good for travelers. In part, that’s because our willpower weakens when we’re on unfamiliar ground. We know we shouldn’t eat a hamburger in Rome, yet after an exhausting day lost in the streets and bored in a museum, a sign that promises McDonald’s, 5 minuti, and even has an arrow to point you in the right direction, can be very tempting.
Chapter 3. Why We Travel
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But travel for the sake of travel was not even really a thing until the twentieth century. A few Ancient Greeks went to see Egypt; Romans with means would head to the coasts until their road system and economy faded with the empire. In the mid-1600s, moneyed Englishmen started taking what would be dubbed the Grand Tour of Europe, visiting the great cultural sites of Western civilization and hobnobbing with local aristocrats (as well as good amounts of what-happens-on-the-continent-stays-on-the-continent drinking, gambling, and what was then known as whoring). When Thomas Cook and others established the modern travel industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, a growing number of people from across social classes took to trains and steamships of their own volition, but it was still a tiny minority of humanity.
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The way leisure travel developed over time is curious, and, like the history of everything else, influences us more than we realize. It’s not an innate human desire, like eating or sex or keeping warm in the winter—or having sex to keep warm in the winter when there’s nothing to eat. It’s not even an ancient construct evidenced across human societies, like art or cuisine or religion or sport or coming-of-age rituals. Instead, it’s an almost entirely modern—largely but not entirely Western—concept that emerged only when the conditions were right.
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For me, and perhaps for others, the constant itch to go somewhere comes in part from the frustration that our worldview is largely shaped by the thin sliver of Earth we inhabit for most of the year—geographically, professionally, socioeconomically—and the knowledge that so many other slivers exist that we could never see. In this sense, travel is an imperfect substitute for what many of us dream of doing: to live somewhere radically different, to inhabit an entirely separate patch of this planet long enough to know it intimately. Long enough to learn not just how to order espresso but also to practice a new language, make friends, figure out supermarkets, navigate new kinds of bureaucracy, and grow accustomed to regular power outages. Long enough to realize that our abstract generalizations of entire peoples—such as “incredibly friendly” or “so rude”—exist only in the Jamaicas and Parises of our glossily simplistic imaginations.
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We travel at least in small part to shape what people think of us. Everybody gets a kick out of announcing where they’re off to and regaling friends with stories upon their return. Not you? Yeah, right—imagine how different your next trip would be if you were forced to undertake it in secret. You tell no family, friends, or coworkers where you’re going. You post nothing on social media while you’re gone, send no texts or emails or postcards to anyone. You bring back no gifts, nor do you tell a single story about your adventures—for the rest of your life. Part of our reasoning is the widespread notion that being well traveled is an essential part of being a complete person. Look-at-me travel is deeply embedded in (at least Western) society. “A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see,” is an oft-quoted line from James Boswell’s 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, echoing one motivation of the Grand Tourists.3 Many people—and plenty of Italian tourism boosters—stop quoting there. But Boswell goes on: The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great empires of the world: the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman. All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.
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No one has described the tyranny of the must-see better than writer Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel,
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Visiting every country in the world over a period of, say, five years, is a waste of time, not to mention carbon emissions. Someone who spent that same time living a year each in Spain, Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico, and Japan has my respect. They’ve actually seen the world. Luckily, the every-country-on-Earth club is small. But when we ask someone, “How many countries have you been to?” or boast of our own numbers, we fall into the same trap. Imagine doing that with mountains. Someone asks two friends how many they’ve climbed. The first lists twenty-three that have gently sloping trails to pleasant views at the top. The second answers, “Oh, just one, Everest.”
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Journalists have described similar increases in the price of quinoa in the Andes. Companies that produce and export such superfoods pretty much all claim to do so sustainably and to support local farmers. Their claims certainly have more validity than Christian explorers’ efforts to save “savage souls,” but even the best-intentioned of entrepreneurs are not perfect, and their efforts often have unexpected consequences.
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In a 1625 collection of essays, English statesman Francis Bacon—who had traveled through Europe in his youth, well before the Grand Tour took off—recognized the importance of breaking out of one’s bubble. In “Of Travel,” he gives advice to a figurative traveler that still serves us today. I will translate four particularly relevant passages into contemporary terminology.10
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And let his travel appear rather in his discourse, than his apparel or gesture; and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories; and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners, for those of foreign parts; but only prick in some flowers, of that he hath learned abroad, into the customs of his own country. Don’t come back to work wearing saris or anoraks or native charms or crowing about the “new you.” Rather, make the “old you” better by integrating the best of the cultures you have experienced into your life. And don’t drone on about your adventures.
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Gary goes on to point out that although we delight in restaurants in our own countries that serve non-Western cuisine, we are appalled when we see McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks all over developing countries we visit on vacation. It is a huge mistake—an utter misunderstanding of authenticity—to pretend we are visiting a civilization that has had no contact with our own world. Instead of looking for authenticity in isolation, we must understand that our world’s fascinating interconnectedness is the ultimate authenticity, and that its absence is an equally intriguing exception.
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Of the words we use to describe why we travel, off the beaten path is a stale cliché, authenticity a dicey concept. But nothing is more galling to me than the faux gem: “Are you a traveler or a tourist?” You have almost certainly heard this question, although it’s possible you’ve only seen it emblazoned on the image of a backpacker trekking through the Rockies on your most annoying friend’s social media feed. Or as the subject of a banal quiz on HuffPost or Matador Network or LifeBuzz. It is barely a question at all, but rather a tool for shallow self-affirmation, as much an attempt to simplify an entangled, multilayered concept as its binary brethren, “Am I a good person?” and “Am I a racist?”
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The very existence of photographs—the idea that you could see startlingly realistic images of faraway sites rather than depending on drawings and words—was profound. It allowed people to see places as they really were, rather than in artists’ interpretations or their own fantasies. It also changed the way people react to places and continues to change them to this day. Twentieth-century American author Walker Percy noted in his essay “The Loss of the Creature” that the way we see the Grand Canyon is utterly different from how García López de Cárdenas and his party saw it when they were the first Europeans to reach there in the sixteenth century. In the twentieth century, instead of confronting the canyon itself, an imaginary visitor encounters “the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.”21 And what does he do? Instead of even attempting to take in the Grand Canyon as it is, he “waives his right of seeing and knowing” and instead pulls out his camera, attempting to re-create the Grand Canyon as he already knows it: as a postcard.
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Even though many of us strive for postcard quality in our photography, “Your picture looks nothing like a postcard” is actually the ultimate compliment. It means you’ve used your camera as a tool for seeing things differently.
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Of course, there are two far more prosaic reasons we take pictures as we travel. If “Name a reason you take pictures when you travel” were a Family Feud question, the number one answer would undoubtedly be: for the memories. For pulling out years later when your kids have grown up or when you’re nostalgic for the days when your back could handle a fifty-pound pack. The second reason we really take pictures on trips probably wouldn’t make the survey: showing off.
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Kahneman’s main takeaway is that the experiencing deserves more attention than we give it. Two weeks at the beach is no better than one? That’s insane. He notes that the best trip he ever took was to Antarctica, even though it did little for his remembering self, claiming to have thought about it for maybe twenty-five minutes total since he got back. I agree we need to focus less on planning the trips we want to have taken and more on those we want to be taking. Implementing this policy worldwide would reduce trips to see the Mona Lisa by half.
Chapter 4. Technology and Travel
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The fundamental problem with user reviews is that those reading them don’t know the tastes, the standards, or the sincerity of those writing them. Do we trust the wisdom of humanity in general? Or, if instead of trusting individuals you turn to overall scores and rankings, are you so average that you believe the aggregate of thousands of human opinions will match your own? Consider my favorite Italian restaurant in Manhattan, one originally recommended to me by several food-writer friends: the reasonably priced Porsena, situated on a cozy East Village side street. It has an average rating of 4.0 on Google. Meanwhile, a standard Subway on soulless West 29th Street gets a 4.1. And it’s not just Google. On TripAdvisor, the McDonald’s in Terminal 1 of the Dubai International Airport ranks in the top 10 percent of the city’s 8,500 restaurants.
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Another issue with many generalist review sites is that there’s no obvious way to filter for reviewers’ standards. I’m especially wary when I read reviews of budget accommodations like, say, Motel 6. If a reviewer complains of a mediocre mattress and cranky shower, how am I supposed to know their standards, what they’re measuring against? If written by a couple accustomed to five-star accommodations who had had car trouble and made an unexpected stop, the fact they had nothing worse to say might make this the most luxurious Motel 6 in America. A glowing review of the $1,400-a-night Junior Suite at The Plaza in New York by a frequent Motel 6 customer who just won big on Wheel of Fortune, however, wouldn’t hold much water.
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First, don’t take exact average ratings too seriously. It’s silly to think that a hotel with 4.2 stars will suit you better than a hotel with 4.1 stars. Delve into specific opinions.
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Second, consider that TripAdvisor might not be the best resource for you, personally. One way to do that is to reverse-engineer your way to the site that best suits you. After your next trip, rate the places you stayed and ate and then check them on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Booking, Google, OpenTable, Urbanspoon, Foursquare, and more if you can stand it. Which source best matches your own opinions? That should be your go-to from then on. While you’re at it, check non-crowdsourced sites, such as LonelyPlanet.com or Frommers.com, or even mentions in the New York Times (or the the Guardian or Travel + Leisure), if you can find them. If what one publication wrote about your destination jibes with what you thought, favor it as a resource.
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Next, use the filters. Let me put that differently: USE THE FILTERS, DAMMIT! I love Trip.com’s “Tribes” filter—you can see picks for history lovers, vegetarians, budget travelers, art and design buffs. If a review app allows you to filter out business travelers, you really should—business travelers have totally different criteria.
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If I’m in a hurry and just want a good-enough place to sleep, I’ll go on one of the OTAs. But if I’m looking for a really special place, I’ll look elsewhere. I’ll go to local bed-and-breakfast listing sites; I’ll look at official tourism sites, which often have complete, free listings of all local lodgings; I’ll Google articles about the region. In smaller towns, I’ll often go to TripAdvisor and scroll straight down the list to the bottom, digging for hidden treasures. Then, I’ll look up the place online and call them. Not only does that give you a real sense of the service there, but it could save you some bucks. “I was thinking of booking you through Travelocity,” I’ll say. “Do you have any discount for booking direct?” If they’re smart, they’ll knock 10 percent off, knowing they’ll lose 20 percent or more if I book through an OTA, and we’ll both come out ahead. Weirdly, the opposite can also be true if you show up and try to book on the spot: Sometimes the rate the hotel (or motel or inn) offers you is actually higher than the OTA’s price, and they refuse to budge. On several occasions, I’ve broken out my phone and reserved via OTA while sitting in the lobby of the hotel.
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how are restaurant and hotels affected by often opaque algorithms
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In 1990, we needed a pay phone and a quarter to call home from the hardware store. In 2018, we can live-stream ourselves milking a yak on the Mongolian steppe to our parents and anyone else who cares. Is that bad? Yes. Why? (Those who don’t need to be convinced can skip ahead.) OK, first, friends can comment on your adventures in real time—meaning the quality of your trip is affirmed as much by how people react back home as by what is happening around you. At its most extreme, travelers are not so much taking in the world as churning out a curated photo exhibit or video show. As the host of a video show, believe me, it’s not possible to be fully present on your travels when you’re focused on your audience back home.
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Not having to ask for directions, while an advantage in our daily lives, means we miss an easy way to meet locals while traveling. If you are the kind of person who chats with everyone anyway, this is no loss. But if you are like me and get butterflies every single time you approach a stranger, it’s easy to succumb to your phone instead. Say “Where is Trattoria della Nonna?” to your phone and it will show you exactly how to get there. Say it to an Italian and he might say, “Why would you go all that way when the best pappardelle with wild boar sauce is right around the corner? Tell them Giuseppe sent you!”
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Here’s what I’d suggest for future travelers. Use technology when it keeps you healthy, or safe. Use it when it enhances your experience in ways for which there is no substitute, such as figuring out why the person who “lived in this house, 1834 to 1852,” was worth memorializing on that plaque in front of you. And use it, sparingly, to make the annoying parts of travel less taxing—podcasts for you and tablets for your kids on long flights, for example. Don’t use it if it removes you even slightly from your travel experience and brings you closer to home. And don’t use it if it makes choices for you that you should make yourself or with help from those around you, or reduces potential discoveries by nudging you toward a standard, tried-and-true path.
Chapter 5. Risk and Travel
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About two million people visit Rio every year, and 0.0025 x 2,000,000 = 5,000. A fairer way to present the same numbers would be to adopt a neutral tone and say, “The average foreign tourist to Rio de Janeiro has a one-in-four-hundred chance of falling victim to a crime.” Alas, we’re not very good at processing even accurate, fairly presented numbers. As Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, a behavioral decision theorist at the University of Michigan, explained to me: “Risk is not something you actually experience. You experience outcomes. You don’t experience something being 85 percent good.”
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Underestimating risk in familiar situations and overestimating it when our surroundings are novel and strange is useful in theory, and was in practice as well when our ancestors, say, emigrated from a land where the fauna ranged from kittens to puppies into a territory where cheetahs and wolves roamed free. It’s not irrelevant for travelers: You do need to be more aware in strange places, but likely not as much as you think. What to do about those gut feelings? If you have facts that indicate a place is safer than it feels, it can be helpful to seek out other travelers (perhaps in online forums) for reassurance. In the opposite scenario, when you suspect you aren’t scared enough, try looking for stories of danger to give your gut a chance to catch up with your brain. It’s not hard: A Google search for the country’s name, plus tourist plus killed, should do the trick.
Chapter 6. People and Travel
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There are some people for whom talking to strangers comes without fear and regardless of mood. But for most, it takes an uncomfortable effort to make small talk with random people. Back in the day, when I was a reporter, doing person-on-the-street interviews would make my stomach churn. I’d have to steel myself against the inevitable (and at times nasty) rejections from busy, stressed New Yorkers. It helped to lower expectations beforehand, and tell myself I was lucky if one in five people stopped, and one in five of those said something interesting. When someone brushed me aside or politely declined, I reminded myself, it was not because of me, but because they were late to work, had other things on their mind, or just hated reporters. A similar attitude helps in travel.
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So how do you approach strangers? The best advice I’ve ever heard was: “Smile and ask a question.” It’s simple and brilliant and I wish I remembered who said it so I could credit them here. Thoughtful questions are always preferable, but in reality any dumb question will do, even if you already know the answer or couldn’t care less. “How do I get to the plaza?” “I like your hat, where did you get it?” “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” The responder’s tone and demeanor will indicate whether there is a chat to be had (or whether they speak English), but either way, you’ve lost nothing, and maybe even picked up some information.
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make connections, and when are we fishing for freebies, “exotic” experiences, and self-congratulatory tales to tell the folks back home (or reading our column in the newspaper)? How do we monitor ourselves to make sure our interventions in other people’s lives are ethical or, at the very least, cause no harm?
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All else being equal, it’s easier to connect in places whose people are known to be outgoing, unrushed, and hospitable. By outgoing, I refer to the kind of natural extroversion you might find in the Caribbean and in Italy, for example. By unrushed, I mean, well, the opposite of New Yorkers, who may be happy to give you subway directions but are unlikely to welcome you into their social life without a romantic or financial motive. And by hospitable, I mean a culturally ingrained custom of welcoming strangers warmly.
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Beyond handpicking a destination for the culture and the language, there’s a far, far more effective way to ensure you’ll have people to interact with: Choose a place where you already know someone, or know someone who knows someone and can hook you up. When readers asked how I chose my destinations for Frugal Traveler columns, I freely admitted that it was often because a friend, or a friend of a friend, or a grandmother of a friend of a friend, lived there.
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A couple of weeks on the hostel circuit could score you enough friends to visit for a decade of vacations, especially if you, like me, are willing to choose your destinations at least in part based on who you know living there. Just be sure you’re willing to show equal hospitality when they visit you.
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Everyone knows you should learn a few basic words or phrases of the language in your destination. But a great people-meeting trick is to add a few startlingly advanced words or phrases as well. I have advocated for this ever since my friend Adam was due to speak to a Brazilian audience in São Paulo and asked me to suggest a culturally appropriate opening joke. I suggested he start by apologizing for not speaking much Portuguese. “In fact,” he should say, “I only know three things.” First came Bom dia, the basic hello, as they would expect. But then came jabuticaba (a very seasonal, only-in-Brazil fruit with an indigenous name difficult for foreigners to pronounce). And, after an initial laugh, Crédito ou débito? which is what clerks ask basically every time you pay with a credit or debit card anywhere in Brazil. You hardly need a speaking engagement to make use of this tactic. Imagine meeting a tourist from China who apologizes for not speaking English and says, “The only three things I know how to say are ‘How are you?’ ‘oysters Rockefeller,’ and ‘May I see your driver’s license and registration?’ ” That would certainly charm me.
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It’s also dangerous territory. Such flings—when they are just flings, that is, which they usually are—can be disrespectful or devastating to either side, although more frequently to the local. Because I’ve been single for sizable chunks of the last two decades and usually travel alone, people imagine I lead a wild and crazy woman-in-every-port lifestyle. Not true; if it were, this would be an entirely different and almost certainly better-selling book. In fact, my late nights are usually spent alone in not-very-romantic rooms, poring over plans for the next day, writing the next week’s column about wherever I was the week before, and anthropomorphizing a weak internet connection as I beg it to upload gigabytes of photos and video. I rarely built in time to relax, let alone engineer a well-plotted love story.
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These days, you don’t need to let fate decide who gets in line next to you. Tinder and its ilk (but mostly Tinder) have revolutionized romance on the road, and though I don’t use it, I have heard plenty of success stories. One in particular stands out, both for the ingeniousness of the user and the travel discoveries that ensued. It was told to me by a young Chinese-Canadian woman I befriended when we overlapped in Lisbon. She had recently spent a weekend in Madeira, a tourist-clogged Atlantic archipelago less than two hours’ flying time to the southwest. After a day of using public transportation to explore the towns that ring the volcanic main island, she missed the last bus of the day and found herself stuck in a particularly small village. What would you do? I probably would have tried to find a family willing to rent me a room, and left it at that. How unmillennial of me. She changed her Tinder profile to read: “Stuck in [name of town], can anyone give me a ride?” and swiped right on every reasonably good-looking man with a noninsane profile. Not only did she get a ride, but it turned into an all-night date, barhopping around the island without a tourist to be seen.
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It’s hard to imagine a better lesson on how Cuba worked. And I was amazed when, a few years later, I found the whole system described in a novel called Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban. In the book, through bizarre circumstances and bad luck, an American woman in search of her Cuban dad runs out of money in Havana. She survives by learning the art of cultivating foreign “boyfriends,” much as Miriam had done. What an education. Before that, I thought sex tourism was about tubby, balding European men paying for sex with (often underage) Thai prostitutes. But I had found in the Dominican Republic and again in Cuba that between pure sex for hire and pure romance there is a whole world of gray areas, varyingly shaded by power and fantasy and inequality and dreams and deception. I could have learned this at home, too, where similar shadows abound. But combine the economic inequality between tourists and locals, restricted earning power and independence for women in many developing countries, the accountability-free attitude of people on vacation—and sex and travel can get very complicated.
Chapter 7. Money and Travel
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Safaris are, for many, the ultimate travel fantasy. In a 2017 spread, the British edition of Condé Nast Traveller stoked those dreams by raving about a Kenyan property called Arijiju and asking, “Is This the Most Beautiful Safari Lodge in Africa?” Is it? If you’d like to take your family and find out, packages start at $7,500 a day for up to six people. That’s about $50,000 for a week.
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But then I asked a friend who had lived in Africa whether there was any way at all to reduce costs. “Easy,” he said. Embarrassingly easy, it turns out. Seeing game in a national park like Kruger is for South Africans what camping in Yellowstone is for Americans. Reserve a campsite online, rent a car, pack your tent, and stop at a supermarket for provisions along the way. (If your jaw is strong, consider a box of the slightly sweet, twice-baked biscuits called rusks.)
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There are three main advantages to traveling cheap, even if you can afford better. First is the obvious one: You can do more of it. Turn a two-week summer trip into three, or stash the savings for a winter getaway. (Or get a new sofa or increase your charitable giving, what do I care?) Second, you’ll be less isolated from real life at your destination. If you’ve stayed at the Plaza on Central Park, did you notice the “neighborhood feel” when you emerged onto the street? Of course not, because you were surrounded by tourists and hot-dog vendors and a line at the Apple Store across Fifth Avenue. The more you spend, the more likely you are to be surrounded by other travelers instead of the people it’s really worth being around. And though guides can be great, they add a layer between you and what surrounds you. Being cheap forces you to interact. Finally, frugality leads to discovery. There is surely some overlap on the Venn diagram circles for “people who stay at luxury hotels” and “adventurers who scour the back streets, poke their heads into unmarked storefronts, and hop onto a crowded public tram.” But not much. That’s not necessarily because rich people aren’t daring, it’s because there’s nothing pushing them to get out there and let great things happen. Instead, they’re pulled back into the cocoon of concierge desks and taxis and carefully curated “real-life” experiences.
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By the time I went to Africa, nearly four years into my Frugal Traveler stint, the payoff of spending less and getting more had become almost an inside joke—with myself. I would start each trip feeling nervous about setting out on my own, fearing I’d miss out on some important sights each time I chose a more daring, less-structured, cheaper option even though risk-taking on previous trips had always paid off. On the other hand, the more money I spent, the narrower the blinders became: I often felt I was being led on a mostly straight line down a predesigned route, where even the deviations seemed preplanned. Yet it’s not an absolute rule, and budget travelers often take things too far. When saving money becomes the mission, rather than the means to accomplish that mission, it’s time to loosen the wallet.
Chapter 8. Bad Influences, Good Travelers
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Marketing departments have a much easier way to get the message to travelers: bribery. Most magazines, newspapers, travel bloggers, and online video personalities accept paid trips or media rates from hotels and tour operators, and—surprise, surprise—almost always have a great time with them. The vast majority of today’s travel content is produced this way (or without traveling at all, which is more common than you think), with only a few publications still ponying up for their writers to visit anonymously. (Condé Nast Traveler now accepts some comps; the New York Times is holding out.) Writers and other content creators who accept invitations and freebies predictably defend their independence along these lines: “Even though I accept media rates and take press trips, I don’t guarantee coverage and would never recommend a place that didn’t meet my standards. I give my honest take.” They have to say that, of course, and I don’t doubt many do the best they can. But I think most know it is not—in fact, cannot—be true. It’s simple: When a hotel, resort, restaurant, or airline pays for your trip, they know exactly who you are. Only the most incompetent company would treat you as a regular customer. What are the chances you’ll get the room that looks out on the alley? What are the chances you’ll be in a standard-tier room at all? If you’re part of a press trip, even worse: Your group is coddled the whole way. I know this not from experience but from the preposterously fawning social media posts I’ve seen colleagues post from luxury suites with ocean views, sometimes of their own accord and sometimes, in the case of social media influencers, as a condition of their stay. It is obviously impossible to give a fully independent assessment of such a place. They’ve been bought, you’ve been sold.