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How NOT to Do a Round-the-World Journey

Once upon a time my wife got a batch of free magazine subscriptions in some promotion and we ended up with Travel Holiday. It was an especially awful travel magazine, one where you couldn’t tell where the ads stopped and the stories started. One big blur of luxury hotels and natives catering the rich traveler’s every whim. Apparently even the wealthy found little to like about it as it went out of business earlier this year.

In some kind of marketing list transfer deal, we then ended up with Conde Nast Traveler for free. The articles are a tad better and you can usually tell which ones are paid ads, but it’s still the same attitude of short pampered vacations with the bare minimum of local culture to make you remember you’re not at home.

Every once in a while, however, you see some article that gets out of that pattern, so I had tentative high hopes when I saw something in this month’s issue about a 65,000 mile round-the-world journey by one of the magazine’s writers. What it turned out to be though, was a lesson on how NOT to do an around-the-world trip.

The writer wasn’t content to actually spend some time in places and see what made them tick. Instead he had to turn it into something fit for reality TV, turn it into a challenge, a race, an endurance test. (Not surprising for an American, unfortunately–everything becomes a competition here.) How long did he spend using this $5,300 batch of tickets through 46 cities on six continents? Less than two months. The longest he spent in one place was four days. In one city he spent a total of 17 hours. He proudly lists the average hours of sleep per night at 4.5 and the number of cups of coffee at 249. When the writer says, “All too often, I could be found running breathless for my next flight,” I felt myself saying out loud, “No s*&#!”

This is an extreme example of course, and probably one that only someone going on someone else’s dime would attempt. But this mentality is not uncommon for those planning their first journey around the world. Many of them want to “do it all,” as if this will be their only trip away from home their entire life. They want to tick off the boxes, take the snapshot, and move on. As a result, their impressions of a place are shallow, all the locals they meet are ones trying to sell them something, and they spend half their journey on planes, buses, trains, and ferries. If it takes you over four hours just to book your flights, as it did with this writer, then you’re trying to do way too much. If you’ve only got 48 hours in Egypt and you’re spending some of them on line booking a hotel for your next stop in London, your itinerary is way too stuffed.

On our third time circling the globe, we suffered a particularly hellish ferry ride out to the Togian Islands off Sulawesi in Indonesia. The overstuffed boat left after midnight (hours late) and hit rough seas, forcing nearly everyone into a state of regurgitation. Then the sun came up on our boat, sitting on the equator, and we all baked until arriving at our destination a couple of hours before sunset. When we finally threw our packs down in our bungalow, we vowed not to leave for at least a week. A Canadian couple came over with us on the same ferry. They had already breezed through South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand and were frantically trying to cram in the rest of Asia before their RTW ticket expired. They ended up staying three nights on this blissful (and blissfully cheap) tropical island, then bid everyone goodbye. They had places to go, sites to pose in front of, things to check off their list. They only had a year to see the world and by god, they were going to see it all. “This is the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place!” they explained cheerfully.

When we asked them earlier what they thought of particular places they’d been, they’d talk about monuments, their guesthouse, what the buses were like, or that perfect slice of chocolate cake they’d gotten at some cafe. They hadn’t had the time to delve any deeper. Like a glossy travel magazine article that doesn’t look much different than a brochure, their stories didn’t have any meat.

If you decide to travel around the world for a few months, a year, even two years, don’t try to do it all. Spend some time getting to know a place and it’s people. Relax. Ride a bike away from the sites. Take walks without a map. See more than the inside of transportation vehicles and guesthouses. Meet locals who don’t make money off of tourists. Remember, it’s not a competition and there’s no winner. Nobody back home will care if you’ve been to 24 countries instead of 12. Really see and feel the 12 and you’ll be much more fulfilled. Unless you die a young tragic death, you will travel again. Travel is much like the snack foods you can’t stop eating–you won’t be happy with just one trip. Save some things for the next one…

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Wednesday 28th of October 2009

nice sharing of great advice on RTW travel