Off The Beaten Path

Jan 23rd, 2011 Travel Tips
Because the best parts of travel are the places you find yourself
by Greg Garcia

About 15 years ago I jumped on my bicycle and just started pedaling, and pedaling, until 2-years and 20,000 miles later I had circumnavigated the globe.

Along the way I learned a lot of things

2 years is a long time to travel, The world is populated with more good folks than bad, and all the best places are not necessarily in your guidebook.

One of the most memorable travel experiences was biking across the island of Vanua Levu in the South Pacific. Our goal was to reach the town of SavuSavu by nightfall. Unfortunately the dirt road was a little steeper and tougher than we had taken account for, and as the sun dipped over the jungle covered hillscape, we realized SavuSavu was not to be. The encroaching jungle at roadside left little opportunity to set up a tent, and the ink of night was approaching fast. What to do? Right then we came upon a small village. I startled some villagers, who were surprised to see two tourists appear out of the darkness, especially on bicycles. In the failing light, I inquired about perhaps setting up our tent in their village. We apparently needed approval from the aging village chief. Entering his hut, we sat cross legged under an incongruous portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and his first question was, “Do you know Joe from L.A.?” (We did not, and were told that we were only the fourth westerners to visit this village).

Regardless, approval was granted, and as we set up our tent, the village children appeared out of the inky blackness with bowls, of fish, rice and vegetables, cooked in delicious coconut cream to give to us for dinner. We were very grateful, yet no payment for this hospitality was accepted. In short, with little introduction, we were accepted as friends and family, and I treasure this experience to this very day.

For many of us travelers, the primary reason to leave the comforts of home is to encounter new experiences and to discover ways of life different from our own, but it’s easy to fall in with the crowd herding to the big sights – especially when visiting less ‘exotic’ destinations than Vanua Levu. But while we all want to visit marquee travel icons like Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower, or dare I say it, Disney World (the #3 most visited destination in the world!), the most memorable and rewarding travel experiences occur when taking the path less traveled. And even in the best-heeled of destinations there are still ways to get out and explore.

Travel is all about personal discovery, and that’s difficult to attain when following in the footsteps of the well-trodden travelers path. For many, the secret to finding the “trailhead” to the path less traveled is as simple as leaving gaps on your itinerary, where nothing is planned or scheduled. Often times you won’t know or hear about interesting destinations until you are actually on the road, and interacting with the local inhabitants and/or other travelers. By leaving free/unscheduled time, it will give you the freedom to partake of memorable travel opportunities as they arise.

The more you venture out on your own, the more you will notice how one of the pitfalls of popular destinations is that they are also frequented by hucksters, touts, and miscreants. These unscrupulous folks seek the easy prey of tourists and constantly are trying to sell you something or take something from you. One of the benefits of discovering your own special places is getting away from all that and beginning to really explore.

Along the way, I have changed some of my definitions. For example – travel is not just the destination. It’s about people.

Once you’ve found the “trailhead” for the path less traveled, you may need a “guide”. I’m not talking about booking with a local tour company or guide service, but about connecting with the local people. Travelers who make the effort will find that in many cases the locals are equally as interested in learning about you, as you are of them. With a little luck, you may be invited for meals, perhaps with their family, taken on a local tour, or even put up for the night. These are those treasured travel experiences that are the most rewarding and enriching. Also, they’re only available to those who have left some flexibility in their itineraries. This is really what travel is all about.

When you are looking to spend some time with the locals, skip out of town. Just outside of most top-shelf cities are outrigger communities that will have dramatically fewer tourists and more opportunities to visit locally. The essence of a place can often be better absorbed in a town that has not been polished by the tourist board (in other words, is a bit less commercial).

Keep in mind, in out of the way places, local knowledge is best. Not all recommended travel sights are found in guide books. In fact some of my favorite personal travel discoveries were not mentioned in guide books at all. They were revealed to me by one local, who happy I had inquired, showed me the local swimming hole, his favorite “secret” beach, or his cousins excellent seafood restaurant. For perspective, imagine all you know about your hometown:

My own town located a little north of San Francisco, does not even warrant a mention in many of the better known travel guides. Yet it hosts some terrific restaurants, 3 nightclubs where live music is performed 365 days of the year, miles of trails through the world famous California redwoods, and is the birthplace of mountain biking. But if you were visiting my area, and solely depending on a guidebook, you probably would just pass through town and not even stop, missing out on some great opportunities in the process.

And guess what…I have found that it is much the same when you travel abroad. Townspeople and villagers are curious about the outside world, just like you, and will reach out to you to not only showboat their town, but to learn something about you as well. Some of my favorite travel experiences have occurred as a result of the unexpected; getting caught in a small boat in bad weather in the Sulu Sea, and landing in a town we had not planned to visit (it was not mentioned in the guidebook), falling in love with the town and staying 10 wonderful days; in a similar vein, on a trip to northern India, having my outgoing flight from a smallish city, canceled for multiple days due to the vagaries of Himalayan weather. This gave me the opportunity and time to explore this city and to get to know the locals better. I had a wonderful time, in a town I was supposed to be just passing through.

To get the most out of your journey…

Slow down.Engage your surroundings. Remember….you are on vacation.
Leave some flexibility into your itinerary. Allow whole days that are unplanned. The world is waiting for you!
Make an attempt at that foreign language. Talk to people. Often times simply making an attempt at speaking their language is all that is needed to endear you to the locals.
Use guidebooks as a tool, not a crutch.  Take their suggestions, but leave yourself the freedom to make personal discoveries of your own. Frequently your most amazing experiences abroad are not to be found in a guidebook.
Plan for the worst, and hope for the best… and remember, when things go awry, the worst travel experiences abroad, often make the best stories when you return home.

Happy Travels – Greg