Travelling Without a Book, Plan or Clue
Before I left for South America, I researched the many destinations that enthralled me. After a month or so, I had mapped out a fairly solid itinerary which I thought covered a veritable best-of: Andean highs, Amazonian lows, Patagonian plains and the Caribbean coastline.
One thing I learnt in the process of doing my research was that I have little patience for travel guides. Flick to the back pages and have a look at the authors´ biographies – you will usually find people quite a bit older and nerdier than your average backpacker, holding degrees in linguistics or anthropological studies relevant to the country they are writing about. This is all fine and good, but nobody imparted any advice about the things which would constitute the daily realities of backpacker life: handwashing and hanging out your clothing in novel ways around the hostel terrace whilst avoiding the attention of that unwanted snog (or more) from the night before.
Then there were the nightlife recommendations. I don’t wish to sound ageist, but I have little confidence in hearing about “What’s Hip” from a man with a PhD in Spanish Linguistics who is old enough to be my grandfather (I will immediately tune out as soon as I encounter the word hip).
Everyone´s take on a place is subjective, of course, which I believe has more to do with luck than anything else. Despite the many wondrous natural sights that I ended up encountering on my trip, it was the people that I met along the way which made the trip so memorable. It is people who create those personal connections that you feel towards a particular place. Even now, sometime after my backpacking adventure, when I drift off to sleep I am occasionally visited by lovely little vignettes of random encounters that I had forgotten about since the event. I love that.
Some of the best times I had were in places not usually regarded highly by other travellers – and sometimes for good reason. They may have been fairly unremarkable locations with outwardly little to offer passing travellers. Here, away from the throng, I was more able to connect with local folk and discover their take on a place (political, social and – who could forget – where to find a hip party) – not just that of a fellow outsider, whose understanding of a place was likely to be as superficial as mine, and with whom I would end up having the same conversation with as I’ve had 100 times before (“Where are you from?”, “How long are you travelling for?”, etc). Other places that I have visited, which were replete with natural, historical and cultural attractions (take Cusco in Peru, as an example), have been completely overrun by tourists, making them feel like tacky shitholes.
I spent many hours wandering in an aimless manner, probably missing many museums and galleries without knowing it. There were days when I didn´t accomplish much in tourist terms. These were some of my best days. I am a strong advocate for aimless wandering. You will absorb more of the everyday culture of a place, feel more like part of the fabric and, as an added bonus, save money. Sure, there were times when I got lost, bored, or wandered into an area that I shouldn´t have, but these things made the whole experience feel a little bit more real than feeling the pressure to tick off unmissable sights on a pre-planned itinerary. (This mode of vague travelling probably suits longer trips, say two months or more). I came to accept and even enjoy these frustrations, because when you do stumble across a cool place, it´s all that much sweeter because you found it and you’re not made to feeling like a travelling salesman by being among the million and one others who read about it in the same guide as you did.
For a long time, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I never found the Secret Lake in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. I had a pretty clear map and had planned the whole day around visiting the damn thing. I´m not quite sure what happened – maybe I spent too many hours contemplating life in the crystal-blue waters of Nahuel Huapi, perhaps I got distracted looking at some girls riding past me on their bicycles (or my favourite, the quad bike), or I simply basked in the sweet, sweet glow for too long. Or maybe it was the strong joint Pato gave me. In any case, the Secret Lake probably wouldn’t have been secret enough to satisfy me, anyway. In retrospect, I am glad that I never found it.
Many travellers reacted with mild horror when I confessed that I didn’t travel with a book and wasn’t sure where I would be in two or three days. One girl I met (a fellow Aussie) quoted her Lonely Planet guide like the gospel and was wary to join me for a day of aimless wandering around downtown Medellin, Colombia. She also told me about a place called Salvador in Brazil. She gave me the impression that every two seconds, someone would approach you with their bloody stump of a leg wrapped up in a plastic bag and holding a machete. Maybe this was her experience, but it certainly wasn’t mine. I tried to tell her that the limbless people are in Bogotá, but her LP didn´t say so, so I didn´t bother pushing the point. Eventually I hid behind the fat ass of one of the sculptured people in Plaza Botero and lost her.
What was I supposed to be talking about…? Oh yes, travelling without a plan. One of the major downsides of travelling in this way is the cost. For example, booking a flight on a whim to say Los Angeles and then deciding you´d be better off catching a boat down the Amazon into Brazil is expensive. I suppose it can also get tiring, since you´re never sure where you´ll be in three or four days, so once you´ve arrived at your new destination, you might have a day or so to decide where you´ll go next. The flipside is – over time – you get used to not thinking very far into the future and start to concentrate more on the present (and I believe, enjoy it more), free from the knowledge that you have to be in a particular place in one week’s time for a tour you booked three months before.
Although I ended up visiting most of the countries I planned, I saw perhaps only 60% of the sights intended, and my original loop of South America ended up resembling a malformed llama foetus, like the ones you find in the witches’ markets in La Paz, Bolivia.
But I believe the benefits of spontaneous travel far outweigh the costs. Not having a plan really makes you feel that you could go just about anywhere, that the world is your oyster as much as money and energy and your own delirious wanderlust will limit you. The thrill of making it up as you go along is palpable, the surprises you experience during your journey are extra rewarding and the sense of freedom you feel is intoxicating and exhilarating. More than anything, I believe it makes you feel a little more like a traveller and not just a tourist.