Photo Credit: Flickr | Danny Howard
It was taking for some time for our plane to approach and land in Denpasar International Airport. To maximize the use of this time, I pulled out my heavy Bali Lonely Planet guidebook. I was scouting for cool dinner place near where I was booked to stay for my Bali holiday. It was my first solo travel out of the country and this guidebook helped me build my confidence in tackling an unfamiliar territory.
Kuta was a touristy spot so most of the places near me were international brands. I asked the hotel staff that assisted me on where I can order a local cold beer and decent meal for a cheap price. He directed me, out front the hotel, narrow street, old wood door beside place selling Bali t-shirts.
“You wont miss it.” he said, his face beaming with pride.
In my 4 days of stay in Kuta region, I realized I hadn’t consulted my Bali Lonely Planet guidebook and yet here I am sharing my travel experience from my desk back at home. Safe and sound. And yes, scouting for cheap flights for my next trip.
In my many years of backpacking countries with picturesque countryside, I only bought 2, two! Lonely Planet guidebooks. Bali and Spain. Since then I relied on my research and guts. Here’s how I ditched the idea of bringing a travel guidebook for my next trip and decided that its more fun and rewarding!
I made awesome discoveries on my own
Did you know that The Pantheon is directly facing the Jardin du Luxembourg? I didn’t know that too at first, but then I got lost in Paris’s maze of cobbledstone streets and thats where I ended up. In front of The Pantheon. And there was a roundabout that was directly across the street to the gorgeous expansive garden. So I walked toward the garden, bought a bottled water and jambon et fromage in one of the many sweet-smelling boulangerie along the street leading up to the garden. I ate my lunch in one of the hundreds of steel benches around the park.
One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve heard too many times was to go local.
“Get up early and follow the locals. Eat where they eat. Eat where it’s busy.”
So I experienced The Philippines’ best coffee in a small cafeteria tucked in the oldest market in Iloilo, south of the country. I had the most filling apple pie in the streets of Pokhara, Nepal, and for $1! I’ve tried the best of Tokyo’s street food under a skyway, in a narrow alley.
In Nepal, while waiting for a taxi to bring me to Thamel district, another backpacker standing a few feet from me seemed to be waiting on a taxi too. I saw him flagged one but the driver ignored him and sped away. I approached the tall lanky guy and asked if he was waiting a taxi for Thamel too. He said yes and I asked him if we could go together and share the ride. Along the way, we exhanged stories of where we came from, where were going next and which hotel. He was swiss and been to Nepal many times that he already made good friends with many local guides and of course knew Thamel district by heart. He shared with me tips on where to get good breakfast with good Himalayan coffee.
I ate some of the best and cheapest food this way. Often I would meet someone and sometimes share a taxi with another solo traveller and discover how best to experience the city.
And more often than not it was exactly the experience I was searching for.
I honed my traveler’s instinct quicker
Mindanao, a region in south of The Philippines has been categorically placed as not safe for female solo travellers. I tell them that I’m headed to Zamboanga and Cotabato. To that, I usually get this frown where their eyebrows unite into one long hairy line.
I grin back that I’ll be fine and try to come back in one piece. I’m bringing my common sense and packing my thinking cap anyway.
As I travel to more destinations, I’ve found a way to hone my traveller’s instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, I make a U turn. No discussion with self. I turn around and decide to spend a quiet time somewhere else, window shopping, hitting bookshops or hit the local market, load up on food and drinks and return to my hotel.
There’s a lot more to a place than the usual tourist attractions
8 days in Paris did get a little boring. After rounding up Trocadero and the rest of Latin Quarter, I went to Gare du Nord. After some minutes people watching at the second floor coffee shop near the berths, a eureka moment happened. I went down to the ground floor, I looked up the giant screen scouting for short train rides. Lille.
“Un aller-retour pour Lille s’il vous plaît.” I said, in my thick broken french accent.
Not at all prepared for what greeted me. Hordes of colorful balloons at the Lille train station. Outside were people on the streets marching to some festive band.
If you used a guidebook, you would be in Versailles now, walking its expansive grounds, trying to fit the castle in your camera frame.
Not me. I’m here walking along the streets of Lille, amid the festive Grande’ Braderie were everything and anything is laid out on the street for sale. Old or new. Good or bad. Usable or what not.
And no, the festival wasn’t listed in any guidebooks for Paris. I just discovered the festival when I reached the jam-packed train station of Lille. And it was quite a memorable daytrip!
It can be fun to just let go
Sure enough, I got lost. Not just once, but in all my travels. I got lost along Rue de Ecolé looking for Shakespeare & Company bookshop, I got lost in the tiny city of Pokhara, Nepal but managed to book a paragliding adventure in one of the old and small tour agency along the main road.
I cannot recall how many times I missed a train stop or made a wrong turn. But I’ve learned the art of having fun and just letting it go. I always manage to end up in an unknown neighborhood but still making amazing discoveries and chance encounters with another solo traveller or a charismatic local.
There is a mixed feeling of uncertainty and excitement when you get lost in a maze of streets somewhere around the world. But this thrilling combination of being lost and found is always rewarding in the end. So just let it go.
Decoding bus stop maps and learning to say thank you in many languages is always fun.
My travel guides are the people I meet everyday
Songkran spent a whole 30 minutes on the reception desk, sharing his laptop screen with me. His finger pointed to the screen.
“You should go see this in Patan. It is one whole block of boulder. The people carved it to make it a temple.”
For the days that I spent in the capital city of Kathmandu, Songkran, the part-time hotel receptionist and part-time drummer in one of bars in Thamel, was my living, talking guidebook.
The adorable and talented family of musicians that I stayed with in Paris was my travel guide in reaching Sacré Coeur on my first day in the romantic city. A lovely gay couple shared breakfast with me on my first morning in Amsterdam. They helped me rent my bike at Mike’s for that morning.
These are the best way to discover the characteristics of the destination. No way near to how a guidebook presents you a list of places to go to and how to get there. Nothing beats the real face to face interaction with a local or with another like-minded solo traveller. It gives you that feeling of relief that there’s another free-spirited soul to talk to. finally, after being with only your thoughts for hours or even days.
I came across this post, by Matthew Kepnes about how the travel guidebooks are evolving into a travel website plastered with sponsored ads. I share his sentiments actually.
To quote from his article,
“Listings in guidebooks ended up becoming a litany of things to tick off. Going in blind, towns and cities came alive and traveling became a trip into the unknown. More often than not, when I spent long enough somewhere, I would end up passing any major sights anyway and discovered some not-so-popular treasures too.”
So what’s wrong roaming around with a travel guidebook in hand?
It’s a sad picture of a tourist, not a traveller.
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