No, I’m not talking about the style of clothes you wear whilst travelling – whether you favour Berghaus or North Face, or how many pairs of hippy trousers you own. What I’m talking about is how you choose to travel – are you someone who believes in truly getting to know a city or country? Someone who believes in looking beyond the tourist trail and craves a more authentic experience? Someone who wants to feel a place rather than merely see it? Or does remaining in the same city or country for too long bore you? Are you constantly plotting and dreaming about the next adventure, the next stamp on your passport?
Or maybe it’s not that black or white.
I find myself often pondering this question, and asking it of myself. Yes, available time does dictate your travel style to a certain extent, but it’s more to do with how you choose to use that time. Money is also a governing factor, but if you were to give two travellers in the same location the same amount of money, they may both choose to use that money in very different ways.
I must admit that I am often guilty of trying to cram as much as possible into the time I have whilst travelling, whether that be simply a ‘holiday’ for a definitive amount of time, or an extended trip between jobs. I have a thirst for new experiences – new sights, new sounds, new flavours. However, there’s also a strange sense of guilt when I’m not on the go. I constantly feel that there’s something I should be doing, somewhere I should be going, some time I should be spending more constructively. I’m the same at home. I find it very difficult to simply sit down and watch a film or a television programme, becoming so easily distracted by that Photography or Journalism course I’m studying, the Spanish I’m learning, the blog I’m writing, or the next trip away I’m planning. Odd as it may sound to some, these are the things I do to relax.
Similarly, I don’t feel relaxed when I’m travelling if I’m not doing something to stimulate my mind or one of my senses. Even during 6 months around south-east Asia, I barely stopped anywhere for longer than 3 or 4 days. Bearing that in mind, you’d probably think I’d have managed to visit more than 4 countries in 6 months. I didn’t. But I did visit more villages, towns and cities in those countries than the average traveller does. After all, England is much more than London or Manchester. Undeniably a visit to England is essentially incomplete without seeing London, but there are so many more pieces to the jigsaw.
A jigsaw is exactly as I see cities and countries. You can’t go to Khao San road and think you’ve seen Bangkok; you can’t go to Istanbul and think you’ve seen Turkey. The more pieces of the jigsaw you collect along the way, the better your understanding of the big picture.
Yes okay, travelling within a city or a country does cost money, but there are cheaper and more expensive ways of doing it. Walking around a city costs nothing, and it’s a fantastic way of getting to know a place – not merely getting your bearings but also learning about the history, the economy, the people, the culture, and the food. You get to be a voyeur, as well as having the opportunity to interact with the locals if you choose to. If (or when!) you get lost, people’s kindness and hospitality can surprise and delight you.
So what’s my travel style? I like to scrimp on accommodation and food – I choose to stay in hostels, and for the most part I’m happy to stay in a dorm room so long as it’s secure and I have a comfy bed, access to a shower and somewhere to charge my phone and the batteries for my camera. I’m not a big eater at the best of times and hot climates do tend to suppress my appetite but I’ll always favour street food – or sitting on a tiny plastic stool at an intimate little local eatery – over dining at a restaurant, or ordering from a café that’s dominated by tourists. I walk a lot and use public transport as much as I can, which usually means that I use it up to the point that language barriers prevent me from doing so.
I will spend on entrance fees to local attractions if I deem them to be a worthwhile investment, and I will research those that don’t charge for entry. I will also spend on organised treks or tours to locations it would otherwise be logistical tricky to get to in the time I have available. There are also of course those activities that you simply cannot do independently. I took a 3-day trek around Mae Sariang in northern Thailand, which happened as a result of a random meeting with a Canadian traveller in a village devoid of other Westerners, and his prior and equally random conversation with a friend of the gentleman who ran a small-scale tour company in the village. That was worth stretching the budget for and was one of my favourite adventures during my 6-month trip.
Sometimes I wonder whether I should find a place I like and plant some short term roots there for a while…teach English somewhere in Spain or south America, which would also afford me some time to develop my Spanish, or join a volunteer project where your food and digs are included in return for your input into the project. Maybe it’s time to try an alternative travel style…