By Seth Kugel. October 30, 2018.
Floating around in every traveler's brain is a fantasy list of the places he or she dreams of visiting.
But unless you're ridiculously rich, have no responsibilities and plan to live for a millennium, you're going to have to narrow it down, if you want to actually go somewhere.
Articles like "10 Places You Have to Visit in 2019" won't help. Travel is personal, and the "You" the article is written for is a generic traveler ...whose taste is suspiciously similar to the author's.
The way we experience a place has as much to do with what we bring to it as what it offers us. So here are six practical ways to determine which destinations will give you - not "You"- the best odds of a fulfilling, memorable, un-touristy trip.
It's who you know
The best shortcut to an as-close-to-real-life-as-possible experience in a faraway place is having a local contact show you the way. So make a list of relatives, old friends, friends met on prior travels, and friends of friends around the country and the world.
Come up dry? Ask your friends for their lists; heck. I've shamelessly hung out with friends of friends in. Back when I was a public-school teacher, I even hit up relatives of my immigrant students in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and along the Honduran coast.
Sometimes that meant full-on hospitality - an invitation to a family's Korean New Year celebration, a midnight sun party, a month of informal merengue lessons - other times it just meant solid advice on non-touristy restaurants and a number to call in case of an emergency.
"The best shortcut to an as-close-to-real-life-as-possible experience in a faraway place is having a local contact show you the way."
Go where you're interesting
The two most groanworthy clichés in travel are surely "Meet the locals" and "Take the road less traveled." But put them together and you have what I've found to be an almost infallible rule: the fewer visitors a place receives, the more willing locals are to interact with them.
In other words, choose places where the tourists aren't, and there's a pretty good chance the people you meet will be just as curious about you as you are about them. (You're American? What are you doing here? Is it true you all eat nothing but burgers and pizza?)
I once purposefully got off a Yangtze River ferryboat in a town called Badong because it had no discernible tourist attraction. Result: the tourist became the attraction. Storekeepers practiced their English, students stopped me to see if I needed help, and a hotel receptionist drove me to her favorite lamb noodle shop, ordered for me, waited as I ate and drove me back - all while she was on duty.
It's hard to imagine anything like that happening in Hong Kong or London or Cuzco (the backpacker-packed Peruvian city near Machu Picchu). And it's the difference between coming home with a meet-the-locals story that starts "So our Venetian waiter told us..." and the significantly more impressive "Meet my new Moldovan boyfriend."
When they go high, you go low
Traveling in the off-season is great for those who can pull it off. But if you're stuck, consider going to place where high season (for you) is low season (for them). I once spent a December week in northeast Portugal - a popular summer destination, but cold and drizzly enough in winter that, in terms of tourists, I had the place largely to myself.
Locals had time to offer more than directions. In one town, I was invited to an early-morning pig slaughter that would turn into a feast; in another, the guesthouse owner, seeing I was the only guest in the dining room, invited me into the kitchen to eat at a table with his family, right next to the fireplace and strings of just-stuffed alheira sausage drying above.
In the summer, think Southern Hemisphere. August is a fantastic time to go to Rio de Janeiro, when temperatures drop into the 70s (a.k.a. "winter"), and the city is devoid of domestic tourists, since Brazilian kids are back in school after July break.
Which brings me to this point: always check the local holiday schedule. The last thing you need is to arrive in a city just as the locals take off for a long weekend and close their restaurants and shops. And the last thing you need is to visit Sumatra during Ramadan - when restaurants are closed during daylight hours in observance of the fast. (As you can see, I don't always take my own advice. Luckily, hotels on the Indonesian island still served breakfast, and a Chinese restaurant or two stayed open, with blinds drawn so as not to offend.)
Vive la différence
One reason we treasure travel is because it gets us out of our comfort zone. I say, make that literal as well as figurative, by favoring places as different from your daily life as possible.
Live in the city? Hit the French countryside, limiting your Paris fix to a couple of days. Love your leafy hometown? Take in the honking horns of Manhattan (as well as the art museums and award-winning restaurants). Go from hot to cold climates or cold to hot, flat terrain to mountainous or mountainous to flat. The bigger the break, the further you'll feel from the stress - or humdrum - of home.
All within reason, of course: don't feel like you have to do a homestay with a Papuan tribe in the hills above the Baliem Valley in Indonesia to exit your comfort zone. Though if you do, take it from me and bring an inflatable sleeping pad. Trading a mattress for a hard wooden floor is not the kind of difference that will enhance your experience.
"One reason we treasure travel is because it gets us out of our comfort zone."
Now we're talking
All else being equal, choose countries where you speak the language. Sure, it's fun to try to get along in a place where English is uncommon: I'll never forget my afternoon with a Turkish pistachio farmer's family. We struggled to communicate, and then finally, triumphantly, found common ground (though there's only so long you can go on giving thumbs up and thumbs down to international soccer stars).
But the name of the game is connection, and a shared language certainly helps. So if you're taking your first trip to Europe and did pretty well with German in college, choose Berlin over Barcelona. Headed to the Caribbean to escape the cold? Nothing wrong with the Dominican Republic or Martinique, but the people of Barbados are English-speaking and a heck of a lot of fun.
Point of no return?
The world's a big place and you may dream of seeing it all. But don't let that stop you from considering a destination you're guaranteed to love: a place you've loved before.
Banish the idea that there's a list of must-visit places every sophisticated human must get to. When people ask me for advice on India, I say, "Sorry, never been." A TRAVEL WRITER THAT HAS NEVER BEEN TO INDIA?
That's right, and who cares? I've been to Colombia four times and Brazil 40 and haven't seen half there is to see in either country. And though there's nothing like that raw, exciting feeling of being somewhere for the first time, there's something equally wonderful about beginning to feel at home in what was once a very foreign place.
"Seth Kugel is a travel writer and author."
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