27 August 2012

Enough With the Road Less Traveled: Six Ways to Enjoy the Beaten Path On Your Own Terms

Here's a great conversation-killer when you're talking travel: "I like the beaten path."

It's right up there with "I just can't [scratch] get rid of [scratch scratch] these bedbugs" and "For style and function on the road, you really can't beat cargo-pant Zubaz."

But I do like the beaten path. I feel no shame in saying that, even as I brace myself for the ensuing awkward silence.

The thing is--and I'm far from the first to say this, and it's a point I discuss quite a bit in the book--there's a reason people go there, a reason the path is beaten: because there's some cool stuff there. It's just as absurd to avoid a place simply because other people are there (even lots of other people) as it is to go there for the express purpose of following the crowds. And sometimes, yeah, the crowds are too thick, the site not actually all that attractive. Sometimes the tourist-haters are right. But not always. And that's a judgment you really need to make for yourself, on your own terms.

It's not just the "there's cool stuff there" argument that wins me over, though. Because sometimes (hello, Venice) even if a place is beautiful or interesting, the innate touristy-ness of the place--the crowds, the souvenir stands, the fact that you've seen all these sites in movies and friends' postcards--does rather detract from the over all allure.

I also like the beaten path precisely because of the extra effort required to make it feel interesting and new. Even in the midst of crowds, there are some measures you can take to shift the focus.

(And besides which, if you'll forgive one last digression, it's not like the proverbial road less traveled can't lead to its own flavor of misery. I mean, if I learned nothing from the important lessons of all those Hitchcock movies I watched at at far-too-early age, it's that taking one wrong turn will almost always lead to you being either (a) dead or (b) falsely accused of murder and tied up in a sprawling and sinister plot that involves, at minimum, the FBI, organized crime, and a femme fatale whose innate and oh-so-sublime sultriness is rather diminished by that whole fatale part.)
Manneken Pis in Brussels. Discuss.

Anyway. Like so, so many other things in life, travel is what you make of it. And here, based on my own experiences on that well-trod trail, are six ways to enjoy the beaten path on your own terms.

1. People-watch. Just sit on a bench or in a sidewalk cafe and watch the parade of life pass by. I mean, don't be creepy about it--you don't want the friendly local residents to call the cops about the shifty-eyed weirdo, lest you end up needing to reference the "What To Do If You're Tossed In Jail" section of your guidebook. But do just sit and watch. The world's an interesting place. Take it in. To make things more interesting, start keeping tallies of various archetypes: businesspersons traveling in packs; kids on skateboards; art-school hipsters who nonconform in the same way as all their counterparts in every other city on the planet; tourists trying to blend in but failing spectacularly.

2. Chat up the service industry workers. The woman at the gift shop, the server at the gelateria. If they're originally from the place, ask them how it's changed--or just, you know, ask them for their own advice. If they're immigrants--and a ton of service-industry workers are--ask them for their local-but-outsider take on this place. Touristic transactions don't have to be cold and impersonal.

 3. Look for the unfamiliar takes on things that are familiar to you. Because sometimes the sorta-familiar things can seem even more bizarre than the wholly new, because you understand the template but not the end result. Watch a Japanese sitcom, even if you don't speak Japanese, and see if the stock characters and situations hew to your expectations. Listen to the unintelligible trash-talk of Vienna teenagers playing pickup basketball in a park. Go to the local fast-food joint and order the least-familiar item on the menu. Also look around for the remixed versions of the local food or music—the immigrants' take on the traditional local music, or the locals' take on their immigrant neighbors' traditional foods. Look for the caroms of culture, the reinterpretations that create(as I put it in the book) the discreet poetry of the everyday but unexpected.

4. Indulge in the kitsch. Buy a tacky postcard and send it to your best friend. Go to a landmark and take a photo with a ridiculous pose—pretending to wear the Eiffel Tower as a hat, for example. Be silly. No shame. I mean, come on: You're an outsider in an unfamiliar place--that's the stuff of sitcoms right there. Embrace the absurdity of the situation. Have fun with it.

5. Or, be serious. Become a student of history. Nearly every tourist site is famous for a good reason—its innovative design, its astonishing back story. Read every brochure and plaque you can find. Brussels's iconic statue, Manneken Pis, is weird, but he's pretty interesting—and, okay, even weirder still—once you know just how popular he is and why.

6. Get lost. Shut the guidebook, turn off the smartphone, close the map, and wander. Trust in your own instincts and the Goddess Serendipity (and the fact that reality typically does not, in fact, conform to sinister Hitchcock plots). If you see something interesting in the distance or smell an interesting smell, go investigate. Lower your expectations and your understanding of where you are; reintroduce an element of mystery.


  1. I like all this advice but I particularly think #2 is a valuable suggestion. Some of the conversations Doug and I had with bartenders during our trip were hilarious and insightful (and make pretty great parts in the book too).

  2. Service workers, waiters, etc., probably know cheap (ok, inexpensive) places to get good food. And how to get there on foot or by public transportation.


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