Should I fly or take the train?
Should I hire a rickshaw or just walk around by myself, rain or shine?
Should I strike up a conversation with my driver or should I watch the scenes go by in silence?
Should I hire a guide to know more about this place or should I wander alone and give free reign to my imagination?
Should I buy something at the market for family or should I yield to my shop-a-phobic lousy-at-bargaining tendencies and just take a lot of random photos?
You know how those of us who travel often have a ummm, travel instinct? For lack of any other word. It’s the feeling that settles in before and during a trip, the driving force behind most of the choices we make. Sometimes it stems from intense research and planning, at others it stems from landing up in a new place with absolutely no idea about it. More often than not, this instinct is something we pay close attention to. And this instinct also shapes different travel styles.
So what is my style?
The travel bug bit when I was a freshly-minted student out of grad school with not many freshly minted notes to spare. It was the sweet spot between knowing the world was waiting and learning about budget travel. I became quite adept at finding good deals to fly, stay and rent-a-car, the three pillars of travel in America. And then I went wild.
Three countries later, I’ve remained an independent traveler at heart who has loosened up mightily on the budget (but still likes her good deals!). There is much debate about how this concept is defined, but to me it broadly means charting my own way through the place I choose to travel and getting a bang for my buck. I get a huge kick out of intense pre-trip research and planning, as well as actual on the ground wandering on my own terms. When my heart (and feet) yearn for a specialized activity (like a trek), I do reach out to the pros; in that I’m quite dependent. Thankfully, I share this style with my partner in life and crime.
So what are the implications of this strange DIY style that I’ve grown into over the years?
By my own classification(!), I’m a weekend traveler, with one or two week-long trips a year. And with my exhaustive go-go-go wishlists, flights and cars are the only way I can get these done. Limited time is one thing, the liberating feeling of being on our own schedule is the other thing. And of course, the DIY thrill of charting our own routes and pit-stops and seeing little maps come alive in front of us feeds the need for independence in us in uncanny ways. In the two years we traveled in India, all except three of our big trips were road-trips where we had complete control of our schedules. Funnily though, I’m a tree-hugger in most other aspects in life, so this issue of trying to have a smaller impact on the environment when I travel is still a conundrum.
When people travel, the great economic wheel turns. Money flows from those who can well afford it to those who can’t. This is not very evident in the west where the biggest and most obvious recipients of visitor dollars are food and shelter providers. My highlight here is Asia, where a whole web of other services feed off the visitors too. Take a tier 2 city like Udaipur or Luang Prabang – hotels, restaurants, drivers, porters, agents (online and on the ground), another level of agents, guides at the main sights, tons of little retailers, and other strange ways that only clever people can think of to mooch off the tourist economy. Sadly, being an introvert when I’m soaking in someplace new, I haven’t been the nicest of people to these folks. Taxi drivers merely suggesting places to see have ticked me off. Sales people approaching us on our houseboat patio have had an earful from me. Guides who thrust themselves in our face at places we just wanted to be left alone have been snapped at. I surprised myself at these times, but I was hesitant to have anything more to do with this great economic wheel than the bare minimum I had to.
I recognize that there needs to be a balance here. I wonder now, is there a travel instinct that can factor impacts like this into an independent, introverted DIY style? And most importantly, can this instinct be learnt?
This post is an overflow from two events in the last six months. Our big fancy resort at Bintan refused to fill up our reusable water bottles (which we carry on every trip), forcing us to buy plastic bottles from the store next door. Ugh. I knocked off an entire star from their review for this. And then, in Luang Prabang, as we playfully ribbed our young driver Tsom Tsai to drive us to his house, he quipped “No no, my house is very small.” Something caught in my heart that day, something that made all my nasty comebacks to people like this over the years snap into perspective. At the end of the day, we all need to help each other. The more I remember that, the more I can make every trip less about me and more about the karma wheel.