The “Perfect Traveller” for many of us conjures a picture of a hardcore guy or girl; they’ve braved 40 countries in one pair of underwear, their clothes are stained with the dust from the Mojave to the Sahara, they’ve clearly shunned the razor as an unnecessary 50 gram burden in their pack, and their signature dish is now a secret fish recipe learned directly from the Greenlandic Inuit.
In my travels it has become very clear to me that there is a certain desire by many to be the ‘best’ type of traveller; the most authentic, the most immersed, the most hardcore. Only then will you have really travelled. I think this is baloney. While there are many things that I think you should do or should not do when you travel, travel is a personal experience and it will vary from person to person. If you travel to another place or culture and are so completely absorbed in being nothing but a sponge with no opinions of your own and with no interest in acknowledging or sharing who you are, what you like or where you are from, you are not travelling, you are doing anthropology.
So, with that said, I have listed some of my personal advice on being the Perfect Traveller or the best traveller that you can be (cue warm fuzzy feeling and look for the motivational tapes to come, haha).
1. You can use the flush toilets This could also be titled, It’s Okay to be Comfortable Sometimes (or all of the time if that’s what makes you happy). I was in a queue with a friend at some public toilets in Thailand that had a mixture of squat toilets (trough in the ground and bucket ‘flush’ by hand) and Western style flush toilets. A cubicle became free and the American lady in front of us waived us ahead with a condescending sneer and said, “You can have that one. I prefer to squat.”
Now I am pretty sure of two things; firstly, that this lady was not squatting on her toilet at home (and if hygiene was an issue she could have hovered much more comfortably over an actual toilet) and secondly, that her experience of Thailand was no more ‘authentic’ because she chose to shun Western style toilets in favour of the ‘real thing.’
2. Macca’s for lunch? Food is one of the most exciting parts of travel for me, most exciting part of most days actually, and I get very excited about trying local foods. I think it’s so important to try as much as you can. That said, if you are spending, a month in Malaysia, you don’t need to live on sayur lodeh three meals a day, seven days a week. It’s okay to get something you’re craving, an old favourite, or something that’s just convenient and familiar with even if it’s a dirty ol’ cheeseburger, (or as I discovered at Thailand McDonalds, fries with the disgusting plastic cheese melted over them, so delectably awful, loved it.) Moral of the story, you can have chow mein in Rome and dolmades in Delhi, the world won’t end and it doesn’t make you a terrible traveller.
On the food vein I also recommend that when you find that local deep fried bit of heaven-on-a-stick from a street vendor, the perfect sticky rice, or life changing haloumi; get two, go back for more, have another one. You will lose the holiday chub but you will never be able to find the right recipe or replicate it just the same at home.
3. This is me in front of the thing I never saw… Easy. Take the picture and then put the camera away. Look at the thing, touch the thing, experience the thing. Don’t spend all your time setting up your tripod. Thousands of pictures are great but make sure you see what’s outside of the rectangle of your view finder or display.
Although this seems contrary to the less is more approach… take a picture of the sign post, the display board, etc It takes two seconds and costs you nothing with a digital camera but is infinitely helpful when you are trying to remember the name of that statue, church, river etc for your diary or once you get home.
4. (Day and) Night at the Museum Churches, temples, museums can be beautiful, interesting, informative and provide a great insight into the history or culture of the place you are visiting but chances are that if gothic architecture doesn’t float your boat at home, then you don’t need to see 5000 examples of it as you travel across Europe.
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of doing what you think you should be doing and seeing all the ‘right’ sights and doing all the ‘must do’ things. I think some of the best trips are when you think about what you enjoy or are interested in at home and incorporate them into your trip. I am a super nerdy English history buff and would happily visit every castle from York to Sussex but it’s because it’s what I really love… if you don’t love it, stop at the third, fourth or fifth museum/church/castle and go find some other thing to see, do or explore.
5. Relax- don’t do it. It’s okay for Frankie Goes to Hollywood but doesn’t need to be the mantra for your travels. There seems to be, in some circles, a stigma attached to holidaying versus travel. If your idea of great travel includes lots of fancy restaurants, beach time, and a clean hotel room instead of a 12 bed mixed dorm that’s fine and is perfectly legitimate. That said, if your idea of travel is golfing on an exclusive course that has been built over a formerly world heritage listed natural reserve or spending every holiday in south east Asia with 25 of your closest friends with a bucket of cocktails strapped around your neck for a fortnight straight, I may judge you a little (or a lot).
In a nutshell… Travel as much as you can. See. Explore. Touch. Talk. Listen. Get involved. Do what you love and look after yourself. The world is shrinking, changing, evolving- get out and see it for yourself, form your own opinions and make your own stories.