The following is a guest post by Justin Samuel Martin of Off The Path Travel and the band Automata.
I do not know you, but I am writing this under the assumption that you travel or intend to do so at some point in your lifetime. I also have taken the liberty to presume that you or someone you know uses or will use guidebooks while abroad. Though it is plausible – likely, in fact – that our personal trajectories are wholly dissimilar, I was hoping that you might allow me to persuade you into doing something somewhat out of the ordinary. I would like you to burn your travel guidebook.
I know that you just spent $19.95 on it. Burn it. I know that your friend used the same volume on their trip last year and had the time of their life. Burn it. I know you like how the glossy cover sticks to the palm of your hand as if to say, “You’ve made the right choice. We’re doing this. It’s just you and me now.” Burn it.
These days, travel guidebooks are nearly as ubiquitous in hostels as bibles are in American motel rooms, which is to say that everyone you meet seems to be lugging around a four pound, nine-hundred page tome of nebulous possibilities. Each one of those people has glanced at the same suggested itineraries, the same lists of sights and the same supposed best accommodations; and that is the problem. With the same material at a large percentage of the traveling population’s disposal, it is no small wonder that it is common to see travelers eating at the same restaurants and talking about going to the same places utilizing the same routes.
Of course, there are sights everyone makes their way to because they’re integral to understanding the location you’re visiting. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, once you’ve appeased your sense of obligation and knocked the litany of can’t-misses out, I think you should take a chance. Travel is about adventure. Above all else, it is about exploration. It should be empowering and transformative. As I see it, guidebooks make it all too simple to trade in the satisfaction of finding your own way – of relying on yourself – for a sense of comfort that stems from the idea that somebody has legitimized your itinerary with their stamp of approval.
I’ve traveled in over twenty-five countries and of almost every single one I’ve heard someone declare it was “too touristy” for them. Not just the big cities; the whole country. I can say with the utmost certainty that if you burn your guidebook and take it upon yourself to explore whatever country, city or town you visit next, you will never utter those words.
If I might offer a few suggestions to get you started:
- Talk to locals and ask where they grew up, then take a bus there.
- That “sleepy town with not much going on” the guidebook almost completely disregards may very well be the highlight of your trip. Go there. If you already burned your book, buy a bus ticket to a town you haven’t heard of.
- Buy a map, rent a motorbike, put on a daypack and drive with no destination in mind. Stop somewhere that catches your eye and stay the night there if you want.
- When you see a hole-in-the-wall packed with locals at lunchtime, go in and order whatever everyone is having. If they don’t speak your language, just point at someone else’s meal, nod enthusiastically and smile.
Guidebooks are convenient. Travel – like love or art or reading – is not something one partakes in out of practicality. Guidebooks exist, in part, to mollify your fears of the unknown. I offer that uncertainty makes travel compelling, that a dose of unpredictability can be exciting and that the best way to find out what your thresholds are is to test them.
I know your parents would just feel better knowing you had it with you. Burn it. I know that for some ineffable reason, its cracked spine makes you think of your childhood pet. Burn it. I know its flitting pages remind you of the way your first love’s lips trembled when the heat went out in the apartment you shared two winters ago. Burn it.
Burn your guidebook.
Justin Samuel Martin
I am a Chicago native that feels most like myself when I am immersed in something creative. I am a co-owner of Off The Path Travel and a founding member of the band Automata. I have a predilection for overland travel using local transportation. I want to go everywhere and eat everything.