I tend to document my travel adventures here, rather than the human drama which is the detail of daily life; paying bills, washing clothes, mentally preparing for and winding down from work, answering and sending ‘serious’ emails. It’s not a value judgement, just evidence of me having my head in the clouds. However people somehow seem to forget that my travel adventures are not actually my daily life. My 9-5 wholly funds my fun (how I budget for travel is for another post).
As free-spirited as I may be, I do not live on the road nor out of my backpack. I simply like being on the road for short periods, and I therefore maximise the potential of every bit of holiday I get. You, dear reader, can do the same should you choose to. There’s a big lie going around which makes people feel like adventures are out of their reach: Going on holiday is not the same as ‘going travelling’. This is simply not true.
Location, Location, Location.
Or simply, there seems to be a weird idea floating about England that ‘holidays’ happen in Europe, while ‘travelling’ happens in South-East Asia and South America (or Africa for the really adventurous). At a glance, this looks like bad, old-fashioned Orientalism. Edward Said has written beautifully about this but I’ll break it down for you where travel is concerned. There’s ‘them’ and ‘us’. ‘Out there’ is foreignness exemplified, exotic, and to be explored. It’s an exciting adventure waiting to happen. ‘Here’ is for a city break, to take in ‘culture’ or stay in nice hotels. I’m being simplistic in the extreme but the idea is crude and simplistic yet extremely popular. I am not debating that people holiday for different purposes, but I’d like to think we can all choose what we want out of our holiday destinations.
I say don’t believe the hype: when you choose your holiday destination, think about changing the location slightly to get a completely different impression from what’s usually offered; I spent 4 days in Malaga, Spain and experienced a large, beautiful city quite unrecognisable to the gazillions of Brits who descend on the coast just 20 mins outside of the city centre every summer. I took a bus from there to Algeciras for a boat into Africa and then travelled through Morocco for 10 days so my stay in Malaga had an altogether different purpose from most visitors, but it’s popularity meant I got a great deal on flights. My accomodation was a fraction of the price as a direct consequence of not staying in the same part as everyone else. This also happened when I stayed in town rather than on the beach on Phuket and other islands in Thailand. Visiting differently + Paying less = more cash for next time.
I don’t admit this often, but I really hate not having hot showers. Call me spoiled, first world, whatever. I’ve done it, but I’ve always hated starting the day with cold water on my skin.As such, I’ve only once in all my travel time come across accommodation without hot water.
Trying something different this summer? Thinking more about your pocket? Staying in a family-run B & B – or a small hostel with a private room might well be up your street. They’re friendlier and usually cheaper than hotels, and can often give top advice (and savings) on exploring the locale because, well, they’re locals. Going with a smaller accomodation provider is an easy way to invest in the destination you’re holidaying in, and I always find it a more pleasant experience as they appreciate your business and going the extra mile is integral to theirs. I swear by hostelworld.com for finding good spots, and I promise they are not paying me to say that. They are just that awesome.
‘Travelling’ does not have to mean extreme discomfort just like going on holiday is not necessarily to sit in the lap of luxury. While sacrificing home comforts really is a small worthwhile price to pay in the short term for an experience which will last a lifetime, accommodation does not have to be uncomfortable or unsafe for that matter, to validate a travel experience. As much as I love my South London home, I don’t take risks when I travel that I wouldn’t take there. And as I’m from the inner city, that’s a lot of risks I’m not taking.
My motto when I travel is ‘Safety First!’ and there is a very simple reason for that: I plan on telling tales of my adventures when I return home safe, sound, and with all the limbs and faculties with which I left. I don’t try and save 50 pennies by taking an unsafe-looking bus when there’s a perfectly safe one. Not everyone who says ‘my friend’ has your best interests at heart wherever you are in the world but each country’s ways of being are different. I never leave home without checking out the FCO’s Know Before You Go bit on their website, but a great way to protect yourself and worry less is to familiarise yourself with life in your holiday destination before you go.
Fiction That Feeds
Call me cheesy/corny or whatever but the more I think about it, the more I believe that my love of discovering ways of thinking, living, and loving which were different to what I learned within my family began at school. Specifically, in the library books in my primary school which were in scripts and languages that I couldn’t understand, but which other girls (and boys) in my class could. I was fascinated. A level French turned the feeling into a formal introduction with a course in French New Wave filmmakers.
From the fiction I read to the plays and films I watch and the restaurants I eat at, there are so many ways to travel without ever buying a plane ticket. If you are planning on going away though, read a novel about regular people living there before you go, try downloading a recipe and cooking a dish, or watching a film about life there. You can do that whether you’re heading to Scotland, Sheffield or Senegal.
CAUTION: a film/book about “someone like you’s” experience “there” is not what I’m recommending. EG You’re going to Morocco, check out On the Edge by Morocco’s Leila Kilani, not Hideous Kinky; you’re trying to see life from a local’s perspective. I highly recommend going for at least two different films or books (or maybe one of each!) so one person’s vision doesn’t become the authority on your destination.
Wherever you’re heading to, try and find a book or film which was made in the last 10 or 20 years whilst also learning about the history; don’t let the discovery of a previously unknown history diminish the lived experiences of the people you’ll meet in the present and vice versa. Try and find a local newspaper or magazine online, or a regional news source so that you have some sort of idea of what might be happening in town while you’re cooing over ‘the sights’.
As a cheeky aside, books I love set in places which aren’t home are: Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis De Bernieres, Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (Nigeria), A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afganistan), History of A Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason (Holland), Zahra’s Paradise by Amir Soltani and Khalil (Iran), Coconut by Kopano Matlwa (South Africa), The Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany (Egypt) or House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende (Chile). I could go on but I’m forcing myself to stop so that I have space to mention a few films too.
Films which taught me something about a place I didn’t know: Caramel by Nadine Labaki (Lebanon), Together by Lukas Moodysson (Sweden), Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Rudy y Cursi by Carlos Cuaron (Mexico), Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako (Mali), Goodbye, Lenin! by Wolfgang Becker (Germany), City of God by Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund (Brazil), Days of Glory by Rachid Bouchareb (France/Algeria), again, forcing self to stop. I am so easily distracted! Well, that and I could talk about great books and films forever.
In the interests of avoiding orientalism, for a book and film about London, for a tourist I’d recommend Small Island by Andrea Levy, and Dirty Pretty Things by Stephen Frears respectively. Both have great drama and strong images/visions of London, perhaps not as you know it. To Sir With Love by ER Braithwaite is both a book and film which breaks my own rule about ‘produced in the last 20 years’…but that’s what rules are for anyway!
Everybody Needs Good Neighbours
The people I grew up around were the first place I learned about difference. From my Asian schoolfriend Safiya I learned that there were loads of Indian people in South Africa; her grandfather’s anti-apartheid activism had forced the family to flee when her dad was young. From my white music teacher I learned songs in languages spoken in Europe and Africa, songs I loved, though I couldn’t speak the language. His white wife was also an apartheid refugee. From my first sleepover at another Asian friend’s house, Simran, I learned that Hitler had nicked the image of the swastika from an ancient Hindu symbol meaning something positive (but I forget what exactly; ‘to be good’ according to wiki).
Hindus are not pleased about this I also learned. Before you start harrassing your foreign co-workers for info however, bear in mind that they are people. Some people like talking, some don’t. Some people are happy to talk to a foreigner about the intricacies of their country and culture, some aren’t. Even if they are happy to talk, bear in mind that they are one person and somebody else may tell a different story of the same place. That doesn’t invalidate what they say, just remember to qualify it. Throughout my life I continued to make friends with cool people, and sometimes they had interesting stories as to how they or their families ended up in South London, or wherever I met them. If you can’t see what value your foreign co-worker/an international student might add to your life aside from insider info on your next holiday destination, you may be better off reading the Lonely Planet.
Some thirty years my senior, my mum has a sometimes insatiable curiosity. We’ll sit on the bus, hear another language and spend ages listening and trying to work out where the speaker is from. My mum is the champ at this so even if me, my bro and sis are with her, her guess will always be closest when we get eventual confirmation from the speaker(s). This is how we Londoners entertain ourselves on public transport. Learning the local language helps when you go abroad. It gives the impression that you come in the spirit of friendship, to learn about where you are, and people who are accustomed to tourists invading their hometown appreciate it.
What I will add to that oft-repeated mantra is, the trick is to speak to more than most tourists. If you’re in Thailand and can ‘hello, how are you’ in Thai, you’re like everyone else. If you add, ‘My name is x, I’m y years old, where’s the best place to stay in this town?’ You’re in the big leagues. Of course, if you are in France, there’s a lot of English speakers who might throw that out too, so you might have to learn a bit more to impress. This is where context comes in; in Morocco for example, giving a greeting in French might be unimpressive as they get loads of French tourists, but giving the same greeting in Arabic will get you points. Of course, if you are someplace where visitors really are not special, your best bet is to be nice to people. You will be astonished at how many people who work in tourism (not to mention locals who get asked for directions constantly) are grateful for a smile and a bit of common courtesy on the part of a tourist. Like they’re people too. Or something. Talking to people who live where you holiday does not have to be exclusive to the ‘travel’ experience.
Engaging with a locale
After you’ve read a bit about the history/culture/pace of your chosen holiday spot, you might get tempted to find out more from a friendly person who lives there. When asking/hearing about why things are ‘like this’ here, doubt everything you hear whether you’re visiting Dakar, Dubai or Detroit. Every place has shady parts to its history, and history itself is a very busy bunny; memory is imperfect and lots of things happen at the same time, which are sometimes told separately later. So doubt everything you hear about the place you’re visiting, ask questions, and a version of the less-sanitised-for-tourists truth will soon be glimpsed. At least that’s been my experience.
Having a break
Ultimately, your time away or off work/study/life is what you make it. It is your annual leave/vacation time, and you really ought to do whatever makes you happy. But if you’ve decided to do that in someone else’s hometown, I personally think it’s common courtesy to make a little effort to engage with it. Out of a 14 day trip, spending 3 or 4 days out of the lounge chair and away from the resort isn’t that much. If you’ve done a bit of homework, or asked with genuine interest, you might find that what you see or discover is the most memorable part of the trip further down the line.
There is no law that says that ‘travel’ is for white boys under 30 with a backpack, Lonely Planet guidebook, over-developed sense of entitlement, and a terrifying lack of imagination. There is no one way to travel. Nor one type of traveller. Travel is for anybody who ever took an interest in something, or wondered ‘why?’ or saw a name of a place, or a flag which made their eyebrows furrow, if just for a moment. Whether you’ve got 4 kids or none, a mortgage or not, a partner or not.
Whether you’re working on getting all of the above, had them all and lost them all, or had or have some but not others, travel is for people like you. Whether you’re 20 or 40 or 60 or 80, Indian, Ecuadorian, or Australian or Dominican. You can travel with colleagues (seriously, my mum does this annually), family, strangers, friends or alone. You can travel and never leave your current abode, or you can travel by discovering your current abode like a tourist might. Or you can head to somebody else’s.
The beauty of travelling is that the sky really is the limit. Whether you spend a long weekend, or weeks, or months or years discovering somewhere, is really your call. If you’re in the habit of going abroad, being a bit more curious than usual will reap huge rewards. Travelling is a state of mind. Endless patience, a sense of humour and curiosity are a traveller’s best friend in my experience. However not having them is not a reason to not travel. Going on holiday is as much like ‘travelling’ as you make it. My idea of ‘peace and quiet’ may not be identical to yours, nor my idea of ‘fun’ but whether you’re seeking a bit of fun, or a bit of peace and quiet, or both, it may well be that you are as intrepid a traveller as me if that’s what you were hoping to get out of your holiday.
Bref, I hope this post has convinced you that your next holiday can be ‘going travelling’ – making you a traveller – instantly! May it be an awesome time whatever you do.