it shouldn’t be about bragging rights: why going outside tourist routes is important to Educational Travel

31 Oct

Going to non-touristy places isn’t a backpacker achievement: Its a necessary part of knowing a country.

There’s a lot of cliche, overused phrases and terms in modern travel writing that can be used to describe places: “authentic” , “exotic”, and “mix of modernity and tradition” are a few examples. It gets old fast. But by far, probably the most common and celebrated is “off-the-beaten-track”.

Somehow, westerners are seen as brave and accomplished for visiting places that many tourists don’t visit. The assumption is that going off the beaten track is a great thing because the less-touristy places are not “contaminated” by the influences of western tourists.. To some extent, this can be true. But it’s not just that Western Culture takes over these heavily-touristed locales. It doesn’t just refer to the McDonalds outside Florence’s train station, nor does it only refer to the fact that there are more KFCs in Beijing than in Manhattan. These are obvious examples of western influence, but they aren’t the only examples.

Many souvenir shops and businesses in touristy places, including ones that are locally owned, try to make money by selling packaged souvenirs, food, or activities that reflect the way the locale is portrayed in American media. Many American tourists to Germany know that Cuckoo clocks are a famous item from Germany, and so, German stores in heavily touristed areas tend to sell them. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s a great way for local businesses to make money and support their communities.

But from the perspective of a traveler looking to understand a culture, this only gives a tourist-oriented impression of what the country’s culture is, that wouldn’t be too different from its pavilion at Disney’s Epcot theme park (if it has one). To understand a culture, it is important to go off-the-beaten-track. And it’s not just about seeing rural areas. Some of the the biggest cities in some countries are not heavily touristed. Now, I’m not suggesting that you spend all of your time in the US in Columbus, Ohio. But if you’re on a road trip and you want to stop over for a night, don’t feel like its a waste of time to check out places like that. Even in these places, you can find downtown enclaves with some degree of local charm.

When it’s used to describe populated places, the term “off-the-beaten-track” is not a good term to use. When we say this, we’re suggesting that only the actions of tourists can influence this populated “beaten track”.

That being said, there is still often more value in going to touristy places. After all, they often have better sights and are more geared for tourists. If you don’t go to non-touristy places, it’s not a crime. But, please, don’t act like you know much about the country. And if you do, don’t act like its an achievement. It’s really just about getting the education travel should provide. People treat it as a bragging right. It’s not. Plenty of people live and work everyday in the places you describe as “off-the-beaten-track”.

10s kids, part 1: Predictions for the younger generation in America’s future

3 Oct

So this isn’t strictly travel related. But I like to ponder this sort of thing. I wonder, in 30 years, what my generation will talk about when it comes to “back then”. So, in a series of three posts, I’m going to give my thoughts on what I think will be remembered as unique to my coming-of-age decade, and why people will miss each of these things. In this first post, I’m going to roll the dice and make some predictions as to what will happen in the future. Here are several trends that i think will occur in the next 20 years. As always, predictions are difficult, and there will be a good chance I will be completely wrong.

Ethnic enclaves won’t be as common in US cities, and new immigrants will assimilate

There are signs that this is occurring. Immigrants, especially ones from Asia, are moving to suburbs more than ever. Rent is becoming higher and higher in city centers, and many suburbs have great public schools. I think that this trend will continue, as immigrants, as a whole, tend to be financially successful and entrepreneurial (despite what Donald Trump wants you to think). The ethnic enclaves of New York City and other dense areas that have formed over the past 30 years will still exist. But it will largely be a tourist novelty, as more and more gentrification occurs in the inner cities.

Young people will live in smaller spaces, but many won’t mind as long as they have their digital technology

The rents in America have skyrocketed for the past 10 years, so more and more of young Americans’ income is being spent on rent. At the same time, many young people are content with less possessions. With an iphone, one has access to a lot more information than people in the past. The once classically American dream of “2 cars and a green lawn” will become “2 digital devices and a downtown condo”.

Access to experiences will become more valued than personal possessions

The experiences of youth are everywhere on social media. Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat feature a cocktail of photos, stories, selfies, and albums that capture the youth experience. I think this trend will continue, because there will be less disposable income for items, and so people would rather focus on experiences. One thing I believe is a common misconception is that people post about experiences to brag. As a young person, I believe it’s not about that at all. It’s about distinguishing oneself in a way that doesn’t involve material possessions.

Young people will rediscover the great outdoors

Right now, national parks are visited by mainly older white people. But I think that will change.  It’s less easy to predict, but I do believe it will happen in the next 30 years or so. I think that, as young people are strapped for money which would be spent at hotels, camping and the great outdoors will become a more affordable and viable vacation option in many parts of the US. I also think that people will want an occasional escape from technology.

There will be a backlash against the current system of capitalism, but social democracy won’t come to America anytime soon

Bernie Sanders’ crowds have shown that people aren’t into the current system. I think that in the next few decades, the left will make some major victories in rolling back the neoliberal corporate capitalism that has taken over in the past 30 years. That being said, I don’t think we’ll see a return to 1950s level taxes and unions anytime soon. For one thing, technology will mean that many low wage workers’ jobs will be replaced. There is also a growing libertarian streak in “progressive” youth. Many millennials support Bernie Sanders, but his crowds still are dwarfed by the number of people at sports games. Old fashioned left-wing labor culture won’t make a comeback. Instead, there will be unions for self-employed people and higher skilled workers, and a focus on retraining low-wage workers whose jobs are lost to robots.

Young white males will start a backlash against political correctness

I see it now at college. Speaking from experience, white liberals in my generation were fine when teachers didn’t want to say the word “nigger” while reading aloud a chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . But the conversation has now ventured into talk of cultural appropriation, micro-aggressions and trigger warnings. Even if the fears of an attack on of free speech aren’t valid, young white people will revolt against the political correctness culture. Some will take it too far and revert to old-fashioned racism, but many will simply say shocking things as a way to stand up for free speech. I think there will be more events like “everybody draw Muhammad day” simply to stand up for free speech. The “Social Justice Warriors” of Tumblr have become portrayed as representative of the left-wing, feminist, anti racist crowd, and the effects of this backlash will be felt by them first and foremost.

Meeting new friends and dates online will become normal, not the “weird” thing

As people spend more and more time behind screens, it won’t be long before the stigma around online dating fades. Its starting to happen with Tinder hook-ups but it will also happen with meetups arranged online. There’s evidence that more and more young adults in America are struggling to make friends in person, and inevitably, they will want easier access to human connection.

Driverless cars will be a thing

Driverless cars will become part of our everyday lives, and I think it will be much faster than many researchers think. For the first year, many people will fear riding in them, but once the fear vanishes, they will grow in popularity drastically. There will be a few note-worthy accidents that may set things back a little, but ultimately, with the lack of major investment in public transport in America, people will start to use super-affordable driverless taxi services a lot, and be less likely to own their own cars.

There will be an acceptance movement for introverts

No, it won’t be a bunch of entitled Fedora-wearing neckbeards saying “girls don’t choose the nice guys, simply because nice guys are quiet”. But I think that, as technology grows, and more and more people struggle to make connections in person, introverts become content with themselves despite having few friends. People will start campaigns at schools to teach quieter kids to be happy with who they are, and will become angry about the term “loser” still being used to refer to quiet kids in 2025. Yes, quite a few of America’s worst mass-shootings have been done by introverts, but people will eventually start a backlash against the anti-introvert stigma that has bubbled for so long.

Five Recommendations When Doing Travel Research

18 Sep

There’s a lot of potential advice someone could give to someone doing travel research. “Go to place x, Don’t go to play y!” or “Place x is overrated, place y is better”. As travelers, we often think our opinions are right. We often get a confirmation bias from hearing others who had the same thoughts as we did about a certain place to visit, and this reinforces our travel preferences, even if we realize that many other people we talked to had a completely different opinion. I know I’m not the only traveler who has made this mistake. The important thing is to be aware of it and to apply this awareness to research. Here are five things I think travelers should do when doing travel research, in order to get a variety of points of view and form an educated decision on where to go.

1) Talk to lots of other travelers and the locals, but take EVERY person’s recommendations with a grain of salt

Many new travelers look up to experienced travel writers and get only advice from them, and act as if their preferences are supposed to be the same as those of the more experienced traveler. They understand the basics of travel, but assume that because one tourist says a place isn’t worth visiting, that it won’t be worth visiting for them either. I’ve also talked to a lot of people who think that if they meet one local from their destination who says a major sight is overrated, it’s completely unworthy of visiting. By making this assumption after talking to one local person, the person is falsely and offensively assuming that every local has the same preferences, and also assuming that locals should see a country through the same lens as a traveler.

For example, I knew a Russian girl in my High School who told me I shouldn’t go to Russia because of its social and economic problems, and that life in the US was better. She was probably right from her own perspective, but because she’d been raised in Russia, she didn’t see Russia through the same lens a backpacker did. For me, it didn’t make it unworthy as a destination though. St Petersburg and Moscow are two of my favorite cities in the world. If I’d only gotten advice from her though, I may have completely been turned off of visiting Russia.

The bottom line is that everyone should get travel advice from a variety of people, both locals and tourists, no matter what the first people they talk to say

2) Use a variety of online and print sources

Online sources, like in the world of writing academic essays, have advantages for travelers. The articles are more easily kept up-to-date, and there are online communities too, which can have a variety of helpful voices about each destination.

But the good old paper book is in no way outdated for a traveler. A paper book cannot run out of battery, or make you stand out as a wealthy person who can afford the latest technology. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides Books are frequently updated in each edition and a great investment for any traveler.

3) Learn the historical context of the sights you visit

The Eiffel Tower is a beautiful sight in of itself, but before it was built, locals didn’t predict it would be appreciated that way. The historical context of any major sight, from Machu Picchu to the Louvre is fascinating to read about if you have the right attitude. There are many places online where you can read about the history of tourist sights, or you can watch art history Youtube videos on Khan Academy.

Another good use of historical context is to make less immediately spectacular sights more interesting. A small old church in the middle of rural England may not be the Roman Forum, but if you read about why it’s there, the history of it, and the influences on its architecture, it can be made to be almost as interesting.

4) Keep up-to-date

Look at the US or UK state department website, especially if you are going to a poor country. Go on forums frequently. Is there a protest going on? stay away from where it is. Is there an election going on? stay away from the country if it has a history of unstable elections. While the state department travel advisory page has a political agenda, and its descriptions of frequent crime in some countries should be taken with a grain of salt, there’s no doubt that it’s an important resource for at traveler.

5) Keep in mind that even small trivial matters can be different in a foreign country

I remember one time when I got on a city bus in Kyoto, Japan, and became very confused as to why people were piling in at the back of the bus and paying at the exit on their way out. I thought it would just be a city bus that was the same as anywhere else, but I didn’t know what was going on. Being unaware of small differences like that in transportation can really make you stand out as a dumb tourist, and make you more of a target. Bottom line is : if you don’t think you need to research little things, you haven’t done enough research!

How white privilege exists in travel

6 Sep

Race, gender, and ethnic issues are a tricky topic. They enflame internet trolls, they are used by politicians to divide people on issues, and they are issues where even well-intentioned privileged people can give the completely wrong impression to less privileged people.

For a white male traveler, privilege is a difficult thing to confront. We like to think that anyone can travel if they want, and that the world is perfectly open to you, as long as you aren’t hung up on how the US media portrays other nations. We write pretentious blog posts that emphasize how there’s a common humanity in all of us (a major pet peeve of mine), without stopping to think about how our way of life is, to some degree, dependent on our privileges.

Because I am a white traveler, I wanted to write some examples of how white privilege manifests itself in travel:

  • I am more likely to come from a family that can afford travel
  • I can walk around in a western or Eastern European city knowing that people are not going to be violent to me simply because of my race
  • I can go to a country where nonwhites are the majority, knowing that I will be a respected, privileged guest who locals are interested in getting to know
  • My passion for travel is not assumed to be “special and unusual” simply due to my race.
  • My way of speech and accent is considered “proper english”, the standard to which nonwhites’ english speaking ability is measured up to.
  • I can go through the US customs and immigration line without being suspected of being a terrorist

There are countless other examples too. But my point is, white male travelers need to realize that they are privileged, and when they see travelers of other races being treated badly, they need to do something about it and speak out, not just post on Facebook about what happened.

The Far East of Europe: Seven things Travelers love about Visiting Ukraine

17 Aug


Ukraine’s not an easy place to travel, but it’s worth it. My last post was about the unique challenges of traveling in one of Europe’s last tourism frontiers. But why visit if it’s a challenging destination? This post explains some of the joys of visiting Ukraine.

1: Stunning Architecture

Few countries have more interesting architecture than Ukraine. The architecture of Ukraine is stunning, from the wooden cabins of the Carpathians to the grand palaces of Lviv. Ukrainian Architecture has a long history and varies tremendously from region to region. Some is more Russian influenced, and some of it is more Central European influenced.

2: Beautiful Countryside

Ukraine’s small towns are unspoiled, have few tourists, and in some regions have beautiful surroundings. The Carpathian region is the best example. A trek, bike ride or even bus ride through this region will give you a taste of one of the last truly untouched regions of Europe.

3: It’s Cheap!

In a country where youth hostels are $6 a night in the most touristy city, one can expect Ukraine to be cheap. Many people talk about Eastern Europe being “cheap”, but only in Ukraine and east of it is this perception truly still accurate. Coming from Hungary or Slovakia, your money will go much further. You can easily get by on $30 a day.

4: The Fascinating History

Ukraine’s history is long, and filled with influences from within its own culture and from the surrounding countries. It swung back and forth between being influenced by Central European culture and by Russian culture. Today, the country’s multicultural history is evident in its regional differences.

5: The mosaic of Slavic Cultures

Some neighboring countries, such as Poland, are quite homogenous, but Ukraine is a Slavic mosaic. Every region of Ukraine feels different, thanks to the outside influences of neighboring countries as well as the different landscapes and architectural styles. There’s the Russian-dominated East (don’t visit right now!), the Polish-influenced west, the diverse range of cultures in the Carpathians, the classical Ukrainian centre, and the Tatar and Russian-Influenced Crimea (don’t visit right now either!).

6: The Hearty Food

I’ll admit that cuisine from this world region is not my favorite, but it’s definitely quite filling. The food served is meaty, starchy, and somewhat stodgy, but it’s very cheap. Lviv and other major cities are home to Georgian restaurants, whose cuisines are by far superior to Russian and Ukranian cuisines according to most travelers and foodies.

7: The few other tourists

It’s rare now that a former USSR country lacks tourists. Czech Republic? Packed with tourists. Hungary? Packed with tourists. Poland? Also packed with tourists. But Ukraine, like the Caucasus, is yet to be discovered. You’ll sometimes have the museums all to yourself, and there are still restaurants in the Carpathians which have never seen a foreigner.

The Far East of Europe: Seven Challenges of Visiting Ukraine

2 Aug

I’m traveling in Ukraine right now. It’s the edge of Europe, where Central European culture gives way to Slavic, East Eurasian culture. Ukraine is a rewarding place to visit. The history is fascinating, there are few other tourists, and it is extremely cheap. That being said, it presents challenges to the traveler which simply aren’t a big issue in other parts of Eastern Europe. Here is my advice on dealing with seven major challenges that you’ll face when visiting Ukraine.

1: There are dangerous areas in the east and Crimea (but the west is safe)

Eastern Ukraine has been in the news a lot lately, as has Crimea, with the recent attacks from pro Russian forces. It’s not a safe place to visit at the moment, and travelers should stay away. If you visit a city, be sure to avoid any political protests. Lviv is generally the most touristed city, safe and packed with great sights. The carpathian region is also a safe area.

2: Learning to read cyrillic is not a good help, it’s a vital necessity

You can’t get by in Ukraine without learning the cyrillic alphabet. You simply can’t . Signs and menus, even in touristy places, are usually only in cyrillic. Don’t even think about reading a train timetable without knowing how place names are spelt in cyrillic. It isn’t as hard to learn as you think, so just go ahead and memorize it.

3: The Tap Water is not drinkable, and be careful when grocery shopping

The tap water in Ukraine has a nasty chlorine taste and is not drinkable for people whose bodies aren’t used to it. In addition, be aware that the quality of meat and dairy items in grocery stores should be checked before they are bought.

4: Service is inefficient, slow and rude

It’s a fact of life here, the service in Ukraine is ****. The waiters seem very impatient to take your order (and have little tolerance for broken, limited Ukrainian), and yet they aren’t ever impatient to get your food out to you. Sometimes, when you need something, you can’t help but feel that they trying to avoid eye contact with you. Service is a bit better in the tourist areas, but don’t expect much.

5: The language barrier is big and real

People here speak Russian and Ukranian, and not much else. For the most part, only younger people will know more than 2 words of english. It makes sense to, when buying a train ticket, write down the time and number of the train route you want on a piece of paper (with the destination in cyrillic) rather than trying to explain to an impatient train station employee.

6: There is not much of a tourist infrastructure (yet)

Outside of Lviv, there are hardly any hostels. There are a few tour companies that arrange hiking tours of the Carpathian’s, but the signage and mapping of hiking trails in the region is terrible. And a tourist information office that’s actually useful? Good luck finding one. The upside is that few tourists are here, and so it really feels like an old, authentic Eastern European experience. It’s very cheap too.

7: There are scams and thefts

Ukraine may not attract the tourist crowds of Italy or France, but don’t go thinking that there’s no opportunity for scams and thefts. The classic European scams are here. There’s the women asking you to hold their baby, the aggressive fake taxi drivers at airports and train stations, and the pickpockets who try to distract you somehow and take your wallet. Make sure you agree on a price before taking a taxi. If they gesture “just get in, it will be fine”, when you ask about the price, don’t get in!

It’s rare that I post about political and social issues on this blog, but I really feel that I should post this. The climate talks in Paris are approaching in December, and as a traveler, I feel that it is vital that we preserve the beauty of our planet and maintain the beautiful human cultures that depend on it.

So here is my plea:

Are more humans good or evil? Some would argue that humanity is a fundamentally flawed and evil species. Others would argue that humanity is a fundamentally good species, but that human minds can be corrupted, and that the holders of powerful positions over human society are more likely to be corrupted by their power. Others don’t think it’s a possible question to answer. But regardless of any opinion on the issue, I do truly believe that many travelers, when abroad or at home, are continually reminded of the beauty of human culture and interaction that exists across borders.

Humanity is, above all, what it makes itself into. It is the smiles of tourists as they take photos, collecting memories to share with friends back home. It is the kind old man and woman who live, retired, in a cabin in the countryside. Humanity is one and many of the passengers on the bustling, hectic subway system of New York city. Humanity is the college student, hoping to have a successful future career. It is the scientist. It is the engineer. It is the writer. It is the sports player. It is a multifaceted species, a diverse and beautiful thing.

Humanity is also war and suffering. It is genocide. It is poverty. It is misery. It is the destroyed hopes of the citizens of a troubled nation. It is the angry, non-violent protestor who gets brutally attacked by police. It is the troubled outcast, with little or no hope to integrate into society.

To focus on the faults of the human condition is a tempting path, and at times necessary. Certainly, we must dwell on the past to learn for the future. We must build and visit memorials, we must read our history books from the perspectives of the oppressed, not just the powerful. We must understand, collectively, that certain things in history must never be allowed to happen again.

But as the defining narrative of our time period, pessimism is a dangerous tool. The news is depressing, makes you and I feel powerless, people who believe we are only distantly watching the political scene, unable to change what happens in society and the world.

When I think about the threat of climate change, I wonder how future generations will remember our generation. If nothing is done about climate change, people, struggling on a baking planet, will remember today’s people as having believed propaganda about climate change supposedly being fake. But they won’t just remember those who encouraged the denial of the issue. They will remember the bystanders, the ones who sat there watching the news, but not doing anything about it. They will remember that family who believed they cared about the climate, but still brought a new SUV. They will remember those who care about nature, but experience it while on vacation based a big, energy-consuming house at a ski resort. They will remember you and I, saying “well, who cares?”, when a “hipster” tells us not to buy beef from a certain company.

Humanity is not a species that’s worth allowing to have a miserable future. We built the Pyramids, created the works of Shakespeare, sent a man to the moon, and developed a global communication computer network. And our standard of living is arguably higher than previous generations. The middle class has risen outside the western world, and child mortality rates have gone down globally. Violent crime and war, despite what we hear in the news, has statistically declined considerably since the 1950s. Humans been nasty to each other at times, but all in all, we’re in this planet together. We, as people, have a duty to our species’ future.

I want our great grandchildren to be able to have the beautiful experiences that people can have. To be the tourist seeing a foreign country, to able to be the college student who has a good career ahead of them, to enjoy our national parks. to listen to music, to cheer for sports teams, and to enjoy good music and good food. When I have those experiences today, I tell myself, our planet and our species is, without a doubt, worth saving. Please, do what it takes. Save our planet.