I used to hate whirlwind tourists and avoid any famous site like a high schooler avoids homework. After three months of hardcore Tourist Trail backpacking around Asia, however, I’ve grown to see the fabulosity in every type of travel.
Let’s look at some of these varied ways to see the world on a budget, in order from least “touristy” to most “touristy”…
(In the background, please enjoy scenes from Luang Prabang, Laos!)
The Many Different Ways to See a Place:
1. Live somewhere for years and years and years, getting a deeper understanding each month and peeling away layer after layer.
Example: I lived in Boston my whole life, going to college just one hour away, and ultimately teaching for 6 years in schools just a few miles from the ones I attended as a child. It was a weekly joy to unearth a new facet of my beloved city: maybe a new neighborhood, or a new cafe, or a new ethnic community, or a new bridge or alley, or a new friend… That said, however, after 28 years of getting way deep into one place, I began to feel a bit like I was spinning my wheels. I began to wonder what else is out there.
Pros:There are ENDLESS layers to uncover in any place, anywhere! And let’s face it: in general, depth is more honored than breadth.
Cons: After several years in one place, one may become rather stuck in a rut– er, routine– rarely straying from what has become comfortable or usual. The layers may stop being peeled back, and one may forget that there are other ways to live and to look at life.
2. Go to a new place for a month or so, but stay FAR off the tourist trail– usually through a homestay and volunteer work. The ultimate example of this is the two-year Peace Corps program, but there are volunteer opportunities of any length of time to be found aplenty on the internet or through contacts. Though you have to pay for some opportunities, many offer scholarships if you ask for them, and some even pay stipends.
Example: For several weeks my dear friend (and fellow Boston teacher) and I volunteered to teach at a school in Peru, which we found through Craigslist. “Why the heck did you spend four weeks in Chimbote, Peru?!” anyone who knows the country will ask. “That’s a fish factory town, and smells, well… fishy! Tourists rarely go there, you weirdo.” The truth was, however, that because of the fantastic family we were living with, my friend and I had more fun in Chimbote than we would have had in Machu Pichu– which we never made it to in all our time in Peru.
Pros: In the end, people are worth more than any photo you snap of a famous monument, right? Therefore, really getting to know local folks in a new place through living and working with them for an extended period of time is an experience not to be missed. You feel like you belong and are contributing, because you are working long hours. Since you are pushed so far out of your comfort zone (being far from people who look like you and were raised like you), you will likely have profound epiphanies about life.
Cons: Though you likely will have your share of revelry and dancing, volunteering in the middle of nowhere is usually tamer than the carefree bacchanalia that is backpacker world. It can be tiring teaching or farming or engineering hours and hours each day, and it can wear a bit on one to be away from chocolate or easy English. Moreover, it is a little lame that we spent two months in Peru without seeing its most famous tourist attraction– but I still have no regrets about our wonderful Chimbote summer!
3. Take a course in another place.
Example: In Latin America I’ve taken Spanish courses, an amazing and intensive TEFL certification course, and a smattering of short dance lessons (none of which improved my abysmal salsa skills much). For many Americans, the most common way to study abroad is to take one’s Junior year of university at another country’s partner college. (CHS alums– I can’t wait to see where you’ll go!)
Pros: Most courses are offered in areas that have a nice mix of locals and foreigners, and thus this is an excellent way to ease into traveling. Because you have frequent lessons, you feel like you belong, you have a purpose to each day, and you have an instant community of friends with your classmates. You will likely take weekend trips to nearby attractions, thus getting a feel for the whole country, while still having a comfy base to store your belongings. If you are trying to learn a language, HANDS DOWN the best way to do it is to take a course in a country that speaks it. You will be shocked at how rapid your progress is.
Cons: Courses can be hard work! Thought I attended a fancy elite college, one of the hardest courses I took was the four-week intensive TEFL training in Costa Rica, for which I pumped out a long, researched paper nearly every day, in addition to doing student teaching. That said, that course was among the best classes I’ve ever taken.
Further, if you have already traveled a bit and know how to do it well, it may be frustrating to be tied down in a classroom when you’d rather be out on the beach. On top of this, classes abroad can be expensive.
4. Rock out the Hardcore Cliched Tourist Circuit!
Example: I am traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos with a pack of Western tourists doing almost exactly the same thing. We are staying in fun, cheap hostels and seeing every tourist attraction possible. We are eating like kings, dancing like fools, and swimming like dolphins. We have absolute freedom with our days and weeks, and with absolute freedom comes euphoria!
Because of the language barrier, we stick a lot to our Western selves, but we deeply enjoy what we see, eat, and do. Many others have taken this same trip before, and many others will take it again… and with good reason!
Pros: Backpacking is ridiculously fun. It is far easier, cheaper, and more enjoyable than you can imagine, and the people you meet and sights you see will stay with you forever. If you are ever unhappy or bored, just move on to the next place! You will learn tons about yourself and about the world we live in. In so many ways, backpacking is paradise.
Cons: Because you are moving from place to place and thus not working, you do have to watch your money supply and expenses. With the absolute freedom, some people freak out and aren’t quite sure how to spend their days. You may get exhausted, feel directionless, or worry that you are not contributing anything to society. Because you are so deep in the worn tourist trail, you often miss out on really connecting with locals or getting to know a place in depth, and you may make snap judgments that are ignorant and wrong.
5. Every Combination In Between
Perhaps the best combination for you is to spend one month studying in a country, followed by one month of backpacking. Or maybe you would like to try seven months of working in a country, alternating with one month of backpacking. Maybe you want to stay at home earning money except for a few weeks each year where you volunteer abroad. The combinations are endless.
The long and short of it is that there are so very many ways to explore our world. Whichever makes you and the people around you happiest is the best bet for you at any point in time!