I've just finished reading an article about backpacking and it got me thinking...
Guidebooks are often referred to as a backpackers 'bible' and i can see why when i think about all those people wandering around with their 'lonely planet' or equivilent glued to their fingers! What i want to know is why!
I'l be the first to admit that those people who religiously follow the 'book' annoy the hell out of me..and perhaps if im really honest i feel slightly superior to them because of it! But when i think back the first time i went travelling wasnt i just like them? Yep!
a) why are backpackers so reliant on that little book? Is it a safety net? Is it just practical that we need something to help us along in an alien place?
b) are all those annoying people who defer constantly to their guidebooks all first time travellers learning the ropes? Does it make them less of a backpacker??
Whew crikey that was a bit of an essay! Sorry!
What does anyone think?
A Very interesting question indeed...
I have been travelling twice. The first time I went off with my friends, completely disorganised,and without any sort of guidebook. The second time I went a couple of years later with my girlfriend (far more organised than me) guidebook in hand.
How did the experiences differ? The first trip we found all our information by asking people around us. That meant we had 3 types of people to ask. Fellow travellers, Locals, or people running trips/ excursions. The problems here are obvious ones. By asking fellow traveller where to go we often found that this info was simply lifted from their own guidebooks, meaning we were only one step away from following the book itself like we were trying to avoid! The problem with asking the locals or 'tour operators' is that they tended to have their own alterior motives ("come and see the gem factory!") We spent half our time trying to have a unique and genuine experience, and trying to avoid getting ripped off.
The second trip (guidebook in hand) was a far smoother ride. We had a much better idea of where we wanted to go and what to see. We avoided the scams that were a fond memory from the first trip. And I still believe we had some incredible and unique experiences.
Anyway back to the question: I think the main difference between my trips was that the first trip involved a lot more of a social aspect. Because I had no idea what I was doing, I spent most of my time asking people 'where to go', 'what to see' etc.
In my humble opinion, I believe that it all depends on how you want to define your trip. Travelling is such a subjective experience (almost a modern day right of passage) that I don't think it's really fair to tell someone "they aren't travelling" just because they refer to a guidebook for inspiration.
I'll be honest, I didn't feel superior to anyone when I was lost in Jakarta without a guidebook! First person I saw holding one became my new best friend! I don't think ownership of a book protects you from the cockroaches, dehydration, heat, excitement and wonder of a trip. It just helps you along the way.
Hmm it’s an interesting one.
I’ve been travelling 4 times now, for a combined length of about 2 yrs in total so would class myself as a reasonably seasoned backpacker but while I still take a guidebook with me I use it significantly less each time I go away. I agree with you that when you first go backpacking a guidebook acts as kind of a safety net (which you need having never done anything like it before). Its more than that though, I think you need a guidebook to help you become a backpacker (well perhaps not everybody does but from my experience anyway) to help you understand the backpacker way of life/culture. It encourages you to go to places where you can find other backpackers and learn from them/ follow their lead, tells you what sort of places to visit/stay and act when there. As I said I still take my guidebook (L.P normally) with me but use it less now as I feel more comfortable being a backpacker..know what I want to do and am happy to find out for myself how to do it as I trust my judgement more…experience is the key I think. And as for those backpackers using guidebooks a lot, I don’t think it makes them less of a backpacker..just maybe a backpacker in the making?
let me ask you this...how else are you meant to find out about things?
printing stuff from the internet? travel agents? word of mouth from the locals? isnt it all the same? except one is much more better than others.
are you telling me you seriously just walk into a country and walk around? how else do you get your knowledge? too often knowledge from locals can be baseless because sometimes they are unsure themselves...a travel guide book can be almost factual...
you will be the one that misses out on the main attractions, sites, things to do and see...
how else do you know about the great china wall? you didnt just wake up one morning and find out about it yourself...you saw a program on it, read up on it - perhaps a travel guide book.
its there to educate us, perhaps teach us and warn us...
but when i was in budapest with my parents we found an amazing israeli resteraunt!!! great food, service for cheap! if we had never had the book we have never found it and ended up in eating up in some shit place...
plus some people like myself dont have time to be walking about forever trying to find stuff when we just want to go to the stuff..
i imagine one who doesnt have any kind of documentation with them on what to see and do is probably a person who isnt interested in anything except drinking and eating but not interesting in beautiful scenary or history etc...
ive met people like you before who look at map of a country in the country that they just landed in...they see a city...and they just say lets go here, why? because the same sounds cool! needless to say the realise the journey actually take 16 hours on bus and there is nothing there! what a sucker!
its all about planning!!! and been prepared......a bit like a war, why do people plan, why not just go in and attack?.....and see what happens...
though i dont go by line and line, word for word by it but it does help me if i am planning to travel somewhere in what else i can see...eg i am in south africa next month, i go to a city called pretoria, i know nothing about it, im only going there to see friends, of course my friends will show me about, but what would i do if i dont have a guide? or a guide book?
id like to see you walk around johannesburg at night and see what happens.
[ Edit: Edited on Feb 7, 2007, at 4:07 AM by Mr Gecko ]
Hi Mr Gecko, thanks for your reply..its really interesting to hear different perspectives and i totally see where your coming from..
Just wondered what you mean when you say 'forget the lonely planet ones' ?
i removed that comment...was harping / thinking about something else and when i glanced at my post, i knew that didnt make sense...lonley planet is meant to be very good...i have one for australia and thailand and all my friends tell me its great and that other fellow travellers swap books with each other on countrys one is going to visit and one who has visited...
having said that in europe i have never bought a travel guide book, mainly because the citys are much smaller and its so easy to find things and get around...
[ Edit: Edited on Feb 7, 2007, at 4:13 AM by Mr Gecko ]
Travelfair i think your being a bit harsh..of course you can 'learn' to be a backpacker without a guidebook..thats just merely the way you learnt because you had one with you on your first trip and used it as that safety net were all referring to! If you hadn't of taken it with you you would have been fine! Sorry no offence intended.
As for me, i do understand why people take and rely on a guidebook (it is a daunting experience first leaving home and arriving someplace totally foreign) but for me I’m not so keen on following the guidebook recommended track. How can you be off the beaten track when you guidebook is sending every tom dick and harry along that same track? I know like Mr Gecko said it helps you find some of the best places but I don’t agree that you wouldn’t necessarily find them by yourself (I guess it might take that bit longer but then isn’t taking your time to experience it properly what being a backpacker is all about?). Also you have to consider the fact that just because the guidebook recommend it as the best place to go it isn’t necessarily that-what about all those wonderful places that aren’t included? Of course trusting the guidebook to independently inform you is another matter (who knows what backhanders go on out there?)!
All I can say is that I like to find my own way..obviously I speak to other backpackers along the way who encourage me to visit hostels/restaurants/sites of interest that they may have found in their guidebooks but I find many more wonderful (and far more authentic/untouched) places by chatting to local people.
Finally, i dont think that backpackers who do use guidebooks are any less of a backpacker - were just different (depending on our personal motivations, ethical views, the time we have etc etc)
Better use your guidebook as your bible than vice versa
I use mine mainly for connections if I go some place new, and to do some rough planning at home; since in SA not many transportation companies have reliable websites, it's the best source to find out whether it is actually possible to get from A to B.
Otherwise, I agree with Vicky that following one's guidebook is maybe not stupid, but surely takes the spontaneity out of one's travels. I got criticised for my statement "I you want the highlights, stay at home and watch Discovery Channel", but I feel that it is appropriate to mention it again in the context of the present discussion
First-time travellers out there: WANDER and be wondered
[ Edit: Edited on Feb 7, 2007, at 5:03 AM by bentivogli ]
About asking locals where to eat and what to see. I think you are making a good point about aksing locals, this can lead to finding more interesting places to visit.
I do think though that it depends on the country you are in, and particularly the economic state of the country. I found that if I was in a country where money wasn't a desperate problem for most people, they wanted you to have the best experience of their country possible, and so gave really useful advice of where to go and what to see.
However, in a country where money is the main worry for people I often found if I asked for advice the main outcome would be profit for the person I asked. I'm sure people on this site would have had similar problems in cities where locals work on commision for local businesses to drum up trade. I ended up being on the end of several hard sells from gem shop owners, battik sellers etc etc.
It's all a matter of context, I think if the country you are travelling to is a 'difficult' country to travel. The guidebook can be very useful!
I challenge anyone, who uses this website to ask travel questions, to tell me that they like to find their own way rather than using guidebooks. This is a guide book, written by fellow travellers rather than pro writers. By being part of this forum community we are all guiding each other. Like Mr. Gecko said, it doesn't matter if you are getting info from the internet, travel agent, or a guide book, or backpacker word of mouth - it's all info that helps guide you where to go when you are on the road. If a Lonely Planet is your prefered source of info, then who cares.
I personally have travelled quite a bit in the last few years, and have used a guidebook for every country I've travelled in, including my own. I find it useful getting off a plane to know the cheapest way to get into town, what area of town has a concentration of hotels, and what exactly there is to see in a city or country. I especially find info on scams, dangers, cultural sensitivities and whatnot absolutely invaluable, and I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of people who get in trouble in foreign countries are those who refuse to do their research.
Do I use it as a "bible"? - not at all. I rarely stay at hotels in the guidebooks, but find on the map where many hotels are located, head there and search out my own. Dido with restarants. But it's very useful for giving me some background info on history, historical sights, and an idea of what is of interst.
I also personally find that having a guidebook allows me to get off the beaten track rather than keeps me on it. I often find an obscure place listed in a guidebook that has one interesting temple or something, so I decide to go. When I get there I find there are almost no other travellers because most people don't bother even reading about the random places they've never heard of. It has also on many many occasions helped me get to know the local culture better because the guidebook is a great icebreaker - locals love looking at the pictures of their own country and finding out the places tourists find interesting. The language sections have also been invaluable to me, especially in places like China where I've had whole train converstations by pointing to phrases in the guidebook.
A case of the opposite: Almost every Israeli I've met on the road tells me that they refuse to use a guidebook because that spoils the experience. They go travelling to find their own way, experience the culture, and get away from other Israelis. Anyone who has met Israelis on the road will laugh at that because since they only rely on word of mouth, they end up in the exact same places as each other and form little communities, rarely venturing to other places (no offense intended by this, just an example).
Another great case: I met a Danish couple in India. They were there on a three week trip taking in an insane amount of places. They didn't need a guide book, they had a map and a friend told them of a few intersting places to go. And a direct quote from him, "I've been to Thailand before, so I know how to travel here". Well as you might expect, they found that they had no idea how long it took to get places, spent most of their time wandering around attempting to find trains and hotels, missed half the stuff they planned, and were absolutly exhausted and frustrated by the time I met them. And worse yet, since they took no time to read up on the culture, they walked around India, her wearing tank tops, holding hands, kissing in public, and absolutly offending any local who seen them. They didn't realise there was a difference between Kerela and a beach in Phuket.
Everyone travels different and no one is better than the other. But what I do find is that those who actually read their guidebook and do their research are less offensive (to the locals) travellers, see more, don't get scammed as often, and have a better understanding of the history and culture of a place.