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Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel

Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel

travel-philosophy

We all travel with expectations that may or may not be met when our imagination of a place meets the reality of actually being there. Traveling in Pakistan one week and Brunei the next, for example, I found my expectations upended.

Before going to both places, I expected that Karachi (Pakistan) would be a fairly rough place. The plan was to lie low for a couple of days, visit the market and mosque, maybe talk with a few people – nothing major. I do get tired fairly often while traveling, especially when I’m going between continents and to hot climates my body isn’t used to.

I figured I would “tough it out” in Pakistan and be rewarded with a few days in Brunei, a sleepy, oil-rich sultanate. Brunei was to be my last real stop on this trip before heading back to the States via Singapore and Tokyo.

If you expect to learn that my imagination did not match up to reality, you’re right: I greatly enjoyed my time in Karachi and found it quite relaxing (in an odd way), and I struggled with my weekend stay in Brunei.

Here’s why:

Getting to Pakistan was quite an adventure, mostly because I was unable to obtain a visa in advance, and they do not (usually) offer any visas upon arrival. That one was a real drama for a while, but after it was resolved, everything was smooth sailing. I could afford to eat whatever I wanted there, public transport was easy and cheap, I had good wi-fi access, and importantly, I felt completely safe for the whole visit.

After I went to Pakistan, I took off for Brunei, a small Islamic sultanate located on Borneo in Southeast Asia. Here’s a map, since not everyone knows where that is:

Map of Brunei in Borneo (Southeast Asia)

Part of the reason that Westerners don’t know much about Brunei is because it’s a small country. Another part of the reason is because, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot to do there for the average visitor.

During my weekend there, I naturally went walking, and naturally spent a morning at the local coffee shop. Picking up the local newspaper, this was the main story:

Imams Urge Decent Behavior: “Social ills and negative elements like intoxicating drinks, wearing indecent clothing, smoking and so on which are against the religion and culture [and] can be shielded by a knowledge of the religion,” imams said Friday.

A few other short headlines:

  • Prize Presentation for 10-Pin Bowling Competition
  • Police Recruits to Uphold Discipline
  • Racers All Set for Brunei Go-Kart Challenge
  • Fun Quizzes and Poetry Recitals to Be Held at Convention Center

(I thought some of those could probably come straight from The Onion… but this was actually a real newspaper. It gives you an accurate reflection of how sleepy Brunei is.)

The coffee shop featured a free magazine rack, but when I looked more closely, I discovered a McCall’s magazine from October 1999. Seriously, 1999 – nine years ago. I don’t always expect the latest Economist, but nine years is a long time in the life of a magazine.

Because of the country’s vast oil wealth, Brunei is also pretty expensive. I quickly discovered I couldn’t afford much of anything, including food anywhere other than the coffee shop. By contrast, in Pakistan I could pay for breakfast – or any meal I wanted – in the nice hotel.

Before we go any further, I should provide the Obligatory Disclaimer: I’m not saying Brunei’s a bad place; I’m just saying that other than the entertaining newspapers, it didn’t really have anything that was appealing to me. If you live there or have visited and have a different impression, that’s great.

Your Mileage May Vary

None of my friends travel the way I do – and almost none of them travel the same way as anyone else. We all have different styles of travel, different things we enjoy, and different goals for our trips.

I’m pretty open-minded about all of this. There’s just one thing I don’t like to hear:

“You’re doing it wrong.”

That one bothers me. My view is that as long as your actions don’t hurt someone else (the basic “do no harm” principle), then it is up to you to figure out what you enjoy and appreciate about travel.

If someone tells you, “You’re doing it wrong,” you don’t have to listen to them. Maybe they’re doing it wrong, or more likely, they have not yet learned that people can do things differently without being wrong.

For example:

The people at Indie Travel Podcast are all about, well, independent travel. Their audience is mostly students (U.S., Canada, and U.K. primarily) and younger, adventure travel types.

I also read First Class Flyer every month to learn about strategies for upgrades and premium flights. Matt, the publisher, has a completely different audience than your average casual traveler.

There are people on FlyerTalk who fly all over the world and never leave the airport – they just enjoy flying. I like flying too, but not that much – I do like to get out and about for a while before getting on another plane.

These are just a few ends of the spectrum — if you think about it, you can probably think of lots of other ways to travel.

What Is Culture?

For a while, I felt guilty if I went to a new place and didn’t “experience local culture” according to the way some people think you should.

I remember when I went to Tunisia in the late spring. Thanks to a friend’s help, I was able to spend a whole weekend with a host family. One of the highlights, believe it or not, was going to the grocery store on Sunday morning with them.

Some people might feel it is more important to visit the historical sites of Tunisia (there are many) rather than hang out at the grocery store, and they usually use the culture word to make their case. I enjoyed seeing a few of the sites, but I enjoyed my time with my host family even more.

To people who wonder about this, I ask, “What do you think people who live in Tunisia do all the time?” Well, among other things, they go to the grocery store. They watch TV. They live their lives.

Creating a philosophy of travel that works for you goes back to the two questions I wrote about a while back –

  • What do you really want?
  • What can you give?

Your individual answers to these questions can affect what you enjoy about travel, and if you spend some time on it, you can develop your own travel philosophy that is unique to you.

A Little of Everything

As for me, I kind of like to do it all. I’ve flown in Virgin Atlantic’s amazing Upper Class cabin and stayed in countless $10-a-night hostels. Using my Starwood points, sometimes I’ve been fortunate to stay in great hotels that otherwise cost hundreds of dollars a night… and then I check out after a day or two to move across town to a cheap guesthouse. I know most people would probably stay more at one end or another, but for me, I’m comfortable with both.

When I went down to El Salvador on the first part of my trip this week, I enjoyed the ironic fact that the taxi from the airport ($25) cost more than my room at the Hotel Happy House ($23). And by the way, there wasn’t a whole lot happening at the Hotel Happy House, but it had a nice vibe. If you head that direction, it’s not a bad place to stay for a couple of days.

Oh, and earlier this week, I slept on the floor of the Dallas airport. At least I tried to sleep for a few hours in between landing close to midnight and boarding the next flight at 5:30 a.m. It was pretty much as you’d expect – not a great experience, but it’s over now. No big deal.

The point is, I like mixing it up. That’s my style.

I stay in most places longer than the average jet-setter, but shorter than the average backpacker. Over the past few months, I’ve made some adjustments in my preferred travel style to allow me to visit more countries, especially the difficult ones like Iraq, Mongolia, and Pakistan.

I think of this as more of a lifestyle design issue – the goal of visiting every country is really important to me, so I’ve chosen to focus on it and occasionally push myself harder than I’d otherwise prefer.

Now I’m off to the Middle East and Persian Gulf again. I’ll be in Cairo most of next week, and I just realized that Ramadan is currently being observed. I’ve been in the region several times, but never during Ramadan… so I’m excited to experience it firsthand.

But anyway, that’s me…

The point is, I am resistant to people who try to put an agenda on the way other people live their lives, including their own preferences or styles of travel.

And really, life is short, right? Rather than do it someone else’s way, isn’t it better to figure out what matters to you and then pursue that goal?

What do you think — and how do you like to travel?

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23 Comments

  • Tara says:

    I travel more in the USA than abroad (not by preference, but by circumstance) and I have a few rules for myself:
    1. No chain restaurants
    2. Find the busiest diner-like place and eat there
    3. Visit the local farmer’s market or craft show.
    4. Walk around “downtown” for at least a few hours

    That’s about it and I see now they mostly revolve around food, which, to me IS culture. Everything else is entertainment :)

  • Craig says:

    Hi there,

    Thanks for mentioning the Indie Travel Podcast. Thinking about different travel styles, last night I found out a friend was earning 3x what it takes us (my wife and I) to travel each year. That’s insane for someone at 26!

    I think people are often scared of the price of travel, but doing it indie is almost always cheaper than group tours…and doesn’t have to mean dirt and hassle.

    Cheers Chris!

  • Donna says:

    Hi Chris,

    I discovered your blog a few months ago and have enjoyed it immensely. I wanted to chime in here because I always love your travel posts, and find your travel philosophy very inspiring.

    I like to travel much the same way that you do–I splurge on nicer hotels when I can afford to (or when I’m too travel weary to stay in another hostel…), but generally I do prefer a “budget” travel style, not just for financial reasons, but because it’s much more exciting and memorable. Most expensive tourism infrastructure is designed to provide all the comforts of “home,” but isn’t the point of travel to experience something that you can’t at home?

    Happy travels!
    Donna @ BootsnAll.com

  • Audrey says:

    I especially liked your discussion on “what is culture?” Usually, my most insightful experiences happen on the way to the “cultural sights” listed in the guide book – whether it’s an interaction on public transport or getting lost walking there. When my husband and I arrive in a new town, we normally check out the food markets first. Other travelers think we’re a bit crazy, but this is our way of connecting with real people and seeing the intersection of food and culture.

    After being on the road for eighteen months, traveling on a budget is a necessity. However, I agree with Donna and Craig – independent budget travel makes things more challenging, in a good way. I wouldn’t trade it.

    We expect to start traveling in the Middle East at the start of next year. I look forward to hearing your impressions.

  • Laurie says:

    Hi Chris,

    I, too, really enjoy your website and find it to be very inspiring. I especially enjoy your travel posts as they remind me that I need to strive to make international travel an integral part of my life.

    To that end, I am planning a trip to somewhere in Central America over Thanksgiving and would love to hear a bit more about your time in El Salvador. The Lonely Planet website has a travel advisory related to crime. As a female traveling alone, I was just wondering if you noticed anything odd while there.

    Thanks!

  • moom says:

    The sultan’s palace in Brunei is spectacular – but maybe it’s not possible to actually see it. Apart from that there is rain forest… I have a friend who lives there. She’s Hindu, her husband works at the university. So it’s not a terribly extreme Islamic place either.

  • Heather says:

    I like middle-class to budget options for accommodation. My husband and I usually stay in B&Bs when we are in Europe (they’re too expensive for us in the US) or small hotels/motels. I’m not a big fan of hostels – as a rather shy person, the experience of being in a new place, meeting people, seeing things, is enough for me, and I get overwhelmed if I don’t have private time and relaxation at night.

    As for “culture” I think it depends on whether you’re seeing the country in the past or in the present. Your own mindset I mean, not physically. :-) I like both seeing the history and seeing the present-day lives of people. It’s no use pretending you aren’t a tourist, because without a plain reason for being there, you are, but on the other hand, don’t just talk to other tourists. Get out on your own. Look around you. Rent a car and drive around, or hang out on public transit. Go, as you say, to the grocery store.

    You’re in Egypt right now, and I don’t know if you’re going to Luxor, but that is a strange place. The super-rich tourists staying at the expensive hotels and going on tours to the Valley of the Kings, etc, but not just walking around the town (which is dramatically poorer than the tourist area). And not respecting the Egyptian people that lived there. No wonder people hate tourists. It’s that scene that I try to avoid in any way I can.

  • Graham says:

    One way I try to experience a place is to try and do things that I might do if I lived there. This includes seemingly mundane things like grocery shopping (yes, a cultural experience!), driving in peak hour traffic while listening to local radio stations, and walking in parks where people exercise and walk their dogs. Also staying in accommodation out in the suburbs, where most residents live.

    What is ordinary at home can feel feel more exotic when in a strange place, and it gives a better glimpse of “how the locals live” than only going to places where mostly visitors go.

    When in New Zealand a few years ago I visited Wellington, the capital. I stayed in a small hostel in a quiet coastal suburb about 20km out of the city, and commuted into the city each day to explore “the sights”.

    While I enjoyed the recommended tourist venues, some of my best memories are of the commute home on the train – the people-watching (of those going home from work), the views from the train as it followed the coast, the trips to the grocery shop, and meeting people out for their evening walks. It was still only a small glimpse into the life of Wellington residents, but a better insight than I would have got by staying in a city hotel.

  • Benny Lewis says:

    Hey Chris! I totally agree that a morning in a grocery store can be a much better insight into the culture than what may turn out to be a packaged tour of historical sights.

    Heather raises a great point; it’s important to accept that you are tourist when you are doing these kinds of things, but focus on getting to know those from the country itself. My goal in travelling includes language immersion so I can really get to know the locals, and not just those with degrees in English… I try to feel at home (and always stay in a place I rent through local ads, not agencies), and try to blend in as much as possible while remember where I’m actually from. A family dinner and going out to bars etc. with the locals is really important for me.
    Like Graham above, I agree that it’s right that the daily routine of people really gives you a proper glimpse into their culture, a million times more than an audio guide in museums etc. ever will.

  • Erica says:

    I love learning about new cultures. Summer of 2007 I spent two weeks on a study-abroad trip in Paris with a group from my university. The group stayed in a 3 star hotel. I found a home to rent a room in. I’m 52 yrs old, so no young backpacker, but I love becoming a part of wherever I am. For 20 euros a night (including breakfast, and about 1/3 of what the hotel cost), I slept on my host’s daughter’s bunk bed while she was away. My host and his girlfriend even took me to the country to visit her mother on my free weekend . What an opportunity and experience! That was the highlight of my entire trip.

  • Shashikiran says:

    I’ve been traveling either on business or where my fancy takes me, but after reading your post I’m excited about writing down a philosophy for travel. My next travels should be more fun, on account of better direction. Thanks!

  • When I have the opportunity to go places, it’s all about saving money. On a recent trip to Big Sur, California, we camped at various sites along Highway one, although reserved one night at a posh yurt village that cost nearly seven times more than a camping spot! I can do both just like you, but I always rather camp out……

  • kazari says:

    I like to travel slow and deep.
    City hopping leaves me exhausted and emotional, but if i can spend at least a week in one spot I am happy.
    Recently we had a 6 week trip to Europe, and we only paid for 3 nights in a hostel. The rest of the time we stayed with people we knew, except for one week where we hired a holiday house (a renovated stable) near Fontainebleau in France.
    I get a huge kick out of grocery shopping in foreign countries!

  • Yo Camino says:

    You were lucky your taxi driver didn’t try to charge you more in El Salvador, taxi drivers here like to charge a lot, especially tourists. What else did you see from El Salvador? I’d like to read that.

  • jason says:

    Sometimes it’s a temptation to want to see the *real* Mexico(/USA/Whatever). Then I look out the window and say, “Hmm. It all looks real to me.”

    Or you might feel guilty or silly about eating a Burger King. You say, “But I want to eat *real* Mexican(/American/French) food!” But it’s food, we’re in Mexico, and Mexicans eat it all the time. How is it not Mexican food?

  • wayne says:

    One of my interesting little ventures in Arusha, Tanzania was the grocery store, even though there were armed guards at the door. The packaging and food choices are an insight to local culture.That and a local coffee shop were excellent places to people watch. I saw no tourists in either place.

  • Chris says:

    I enjoyed this piece about your travel ideas. I feel the same way. I am working on a few travel goals of my own and it deal with traveling with three young children.

    The important thing is you do what is right for you and do good for others. This is the essential idea to live by regardless of why or how we chose to do things.

    Thanks,

    Chris

  • Karen says:

    I completely agree with what you say about finding your own travel style. Personally, I also like to mix it up, depending on where I am going. I usually calculate and determine how I will spend my time by factoring in what I most want to do/see in a specific place and how much time I will be there. My husband and i are going to Turkey and Albania (and elsewhere in the Balkans) and will be away for a month this August. While I am definitely curious about the daily lives of the people of Istanbul, I would never forgive myself if I didn’t devote much more of our brief stay to seeing historical sites like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. While in Albania, where we will be staying with my husband’s parents, I am extremely interested to see how he lived/grew up before we met and, while we travel around Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo, what the general situation is there. My priorities in the two places are different, but I think I will come home feeling satisfied with my trip as long as I follow my interests.

    I’ve had the opportunity to mix it up in Italy as well — spending a total of about a year there from 2004 – 2006. I stayed with a host family for part of it and with my husband (then fiance) for the rest. I mastered Italian, visited parts of Florence tourists never do, scored free food at the University of Florence cafeteria, made friends, went food shopping with people, went to malls outside the city that tourists never see, basically really lived there, etc., but also took time on my own to travel around and visit important historical sites and play tourist. My time in that beautiful country would have felt incomplete had I missed the Vatican, the Uffizi, the Scrovegni Chapel, San Vitale, san Marco, etc.

  • AJ says:

    Hi! I’m so inspired by your thoughts about travel (ok, philosophy…but I don’t usually use such big words). I’ve just recently started by own travel blog, and you have inspired me even more. Thanks for putting up this AWESOME site!

  • Howard Koor says:

    When traveling I do go to some tourist sites. I want to see the history and be swept up into the romance of the past. But I also love to people watch in the present. Just sit on a bench on the sidewalk and watch people. If you can slow down enough to watch others from another country you will see the everyday in a new way.

  • Howard Koor says:

    I love your philosophy on travel. We just returned from Rome. My first time in Europe. Rome blew me away. We stayed a week. I could have stayed a month. We stayed in a modest hotel in Trestevere. Every morning I would wake up early and wander around taking pictures and sip cappacino at some outdoor cafe. The people watching was great. We did do some tourist things: Sistene Chapel, Saint Peter’s Church. Don’t miss this highlights. It is worth the wait. I could walk around Rome and wander the narrow little streets that have a million secrets. We took the bus and speaking little Italian we got around. Rome is a must see.

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