A traveler’s time is gold. We often mistakenly take it as an urge for rushing. How not to lose ourselves in a traveling race and truly learn from our endeavors? Here I’ll share with you what I wish to stick to myself.
Choose one location at a time
I know that feeling. You’ve made it. You’re finally out there. You want to see everything and meet everyone. There’s just one little but… which is that your time is kind of limited (I’m being generous skipping the budget part here, folks). Now you can choose, either way you play it tough and talk yourself into believing how beneficial all the time you spend on the airport, train, bus or you name it can be; or you take it easy and accept to limit the variety of profile pictures you bring back from your trip, get your shit together and plan your time reasonably for once!
Let’s face the truth, visiting a new capital over a weekend is like watching a trailer of a movie (and with few spoilers), so what the heck were you thinking while booking 5 stunning capitals in 3 days?! I’ve been there myself (and repeatedly… short memory takes us to all sort of places), when a couple of years ago I went to south-east Asia for the first time with an illusion of a toddler drawing all over walls and had a great idea (sic!) to travel a loop through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all the way back to Bangkok in 4 weeks. But for real: by train, with trekking, kayaking, boats and all that jazz.
Everything was going smoothly till I realized half way through that there’s absolutely no railway network in Laos and that it’s a somewhat narrow, but very looong country. With lots of mountains. As per consequence, so you get my point, it takes around eight hours to travel about 200km by bus, which in my case included a detailed and repeated review of my pre-ride menu. Am I being too subtle? You can well imagine that it’s totally ruined my tough schedule and got me on a plane.
So stay focused, don’t get distracted by all the city hoppers and chill out. You’ll be probably better off avoiding all this rush and there’s so much more out there to see apart from the monumental airports, picturesque railway stations and scenic bus stops.
Do your homework
Make an effort to read something about your destination which isn’t necessarily a guidebook. It will definitely broaden your outlook and you’ll perceive the place differently; not to mention that you’ll gain a valuable background to start a conversation with a local!
I particularly enjoy reading historical fiction, probably because it doesn’t feel like school. Obviously, it must be taken with a pinch of salt, but these books usually slip down effortlessly and are still a quality read. Biographies and diaries tend to give a good feel of the local reality and its origins, especially if they refer to iconic personalities (like Fidel Castro or Che Guevara for Cuba, or Anne Frank for Holocaust). Reportages are definitely a worthwhile read and often a pretty good intent of grasping a multi-faceted reality (classics like Kapuscinski are a must!) Last but not least, graphic novels recently gain more and more territory among non-fiction literature enriching the history with visual storytelling (remember the movie Persepolis? It’s based on an autobiographical comic book). Below I’ve gathered a few of my favorites, that you might find particularly useful if heading to Barcelona or Berlin:
- Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr – a captivating series of historical thrillers set during German Third Reich, Second World War and Cold War
- Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman – an excellent graphic twist to a tragic Holocaust testimony
- Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski – personal travel journals from Soviet Union
- Cathedral of the Sea – a historical thriller set in medieval Barcelona
- The City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza – a novel depicting Barcelona’s evolution between the Universal Expositions of 1888 and 1929
You’re not much of a reader? Then at least go for a quick online search to check for news, browse some independent blogs for first-hand travel tips and hot spots, and learn a few words in the local language (may truly save you some trouble!) It’s always a good idea to have a glance at the official embassy pages, just in case there might be any alert or in search of practical information (especially visa requirements etc.)
Or would you rather fancy a movie? That’s always an option! Check out my colleague’s top film recommendations to explore Berlin.
Triple local power: Stay with locals, Eat with locals and Drink with locals!
While it might be exhausting at times, there’s probably no better way to dive into the unknown than staying with locals. Be it friends, members of online hospitality communities, woofing, or even Airbnb or small accommodation providers: it is by stepping out of your comfort zone and sharing your space, when you learn and discover. Chain providers give you a security of a known service standard, which is great to disconnect and relax when overwhelmed, but they rarely can offer you a sense of the local spirit.
If you by no means feel comfortable staying at someone’s place, then check out local tips. It’s no secret that cuisine is a step towards understanding a foreign culture, but if we don’t know the right dining spots, it might result as misleading as getting a wrong interpreter while in discussion.
Spottedbylocals.com is a great tool to browse independent tips from engaged residents, who share their favorite spots of all kinds. Otherwise, most of the hospitality communities have online forums where you can inquire for recommendations or message a particular resident to ask them for help in getting around. Though many complain that after the remarkable rise and fall of the Couchsurfing community, this sort of engagement lost its authenticity forever, I think it’d be shame to give up this tool (or its alternatives) without even trying.