Tag Archives: Backpacking

Travelling: You’re Doing it Wrong

I wrote most of this post while we were in South America but never put the finishing touches on it and published it. I came back to it today because it still resonates with me, and I thought it was worth posting. Enjoy! 

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The title of this post is something that I find myself thinking every once in a while. I try to push the thought away as quickly as it appears, but there are times when I just can’t help myself. Before you think that I’m constantly judging others for their choices, I’ll clarify that I’m talking about the way that I think about my own travel. With so many different places to go and things to do, and an even bigger variety of ways to do them, it’s hard not to second guess myself and feel like we’re maybe not doing things in exactly the way they should be done.

When we were in Cusco, I had a brief conversation with another Canadian traveller about our plans for heading to Machu Picchu. He asked me which trek we’d be doing, and I let him know that we weren’t going to be doing any trek at all. Instead we’d be making our way up there by train and bus. He was completely shocked by this, and said to me “No way. There’s no way you can come to Cusco and not do one of the treks to Machu Picchu”. While I know that hiking through the Sacred Valley would be an amazing experience, for various reasons it just wasn’t going to work for us, and I attempted to explain this to him. At that moment I felt like I needed to justify our choices so that we wouldn’t somehow seem like “lesser travellers”, whatever that means. There was no convincing him, though – we were most definitely doing it wrong.

I’m giving this guy more screen time than the space he really took up in my head. Look me in the eye and I’ll tell you without hesitation that his attitude was ridiculous, and that no one should make those kinds of judgements about their fellow travellers, or fellow human beings for that matter. But the hardest voice to silence is the one in my own head. Zevi and I have realized that we just aren’t “museum people”. They honestly aren’t a lot of fun for us and we rarely feel like we’ve gotten our money’s worth when we go. We’d rather spend our cash eating at a great restaurant or seeing a cool show or doing some kind of outdoor activity. Even with that knowlege, it’s hard not to feel like we’re doing it wrong when we talk to people who rave about Bogota’s Botero gallery, which we skipped, or Arequipa’s Museum of Andean Sanctuaries, which we gave a pass to as well. Are we missing some sort of key experience if we don’t check these things off our list? In my heart I know that we’re not, and we’re doing our trip in exactly the way that works for us, and that’s the only thing that matters. That doesn’t mean I don’t have moments of irrational self-doubt where I question the choices we’re making, though.

I’ve realized that the worst thing we can do is take someone’s else version of “doing it right” and try to apply it to our own trip. We love hearing about things that other people have loved along the way, but the fact that our newfound friends tell us that we just have to go somewhere, seriously does not mean that we do. We’ve made the choice to skip Iguazu Falls. It’s a real shame that we won’t be able to make it there, because everyone we talk to tells us it’s a showstopper, but it just isn’t going to fit within our budget and our itinerary. With a month in Argentina, many would be shocked that we won’t be making the trip there, but that’s just the way things are going to work out. And that’s ok.

In Puerto Maldonado we met a couple who decided to skip Machu Picchu altogether. For a second, I found myself feeling incredulous – how could they miss out on what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something so iconic? I quickly stopped myself when I realized that I was thinking about their journey in the same way as that guy in Cusco was thinking about ours. As strange as it might seem to me, the choice they made was the right one for them, and it’s not my place to declare that their somewhat unorthodox decision is the wrong one. As with most things in life, it’s best to just worry about what we’re doing and appreciate that everyone is doing what they’re doing for their own reasons. I’m going to keep on spending hours in farmers markets and leave the must-see museums for everyone else. When that doubting voice in my head starts to creep in, I’ll take another bite of ceviche and remember that as long as we’re being true to ourselves, there’s no reason for regrets.

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Ten Things You Should Know Before Going to Argentina

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We spent a month in Argentina, and I still have so much more to say about most of the places we visited there (how am I ever going to get to Chile??). I would highly recommend visiting this beautiful country, and I hope that all of you get a chance to experience it! Before you go, here are a few things that you should know.

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The Dreaded Sunday

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You’re fresh off the airplane, ready to explore a new city. As your taxi winds through the one way streets and shop-lined thoroughfares, you notice that most stores have their shutters pulled. Maybe this is just a quiet part of town, you think to yourself.

You check in to your hotel or hostel or apartment and drop off your mammoth bag. This routine is nothing new. The leaving and arriving and rediscovering has been played out so many times over your trip that you’ve lost count. That’s not to say you’re sick of it, it’s just a part of the game that is long distance and long duration travelling. You actually relish the chance to walk out your door to a sight that you’ve never seen before. Yes, you’ve read the TripAdvisor reviews and the Lonely Planet tips and heard about THE BEST cafe in town from your newest, and now former, best hostel friend, but discovering a city is so personal that you don’t know what you’ll think of it until you get out there yourself. As tempted as you are to maybe just stay in the comfort of your room, the one place where you don’t have to attempt to navigate a foreign language and wave off sticker sellers and tour hawkers, for a few more minutes, you know it’s time. It’s time to get out there and find out what the city has to offer. It’s time to discover your version of the latest stop on your travels.

As you walk out the hostel door, you’re confused. All of the reviews on HostelWorld said that this place was in the heart of the tourist district, that there were a ton of things to do just steps from your door, and that THIS was the place to be if you really wanted to have a good time in your temporary hometown. So why is there no one walking the street? The main square is so deserted that you could probably hear a two peso coin drop. The snack sellers and vegetable vendors have left their stalls deserted. The only restaurants open have ten page long menus and are clearly only geared towards the desperate tourist. It turns out that that’s you right now, and suddenly you figure out why. It’s Sunday.

When you don’t have the five day work week and two day weekend rhythm dictating your life, losing track of the days is a regular occurrence. Friday’s no longer your holy grail, and there’s no reason to wait for Saturday night to party when you could just as easily live it up on Tuesday. You don’t fear Monday morning unless it involves trying to dig your truck out of the Argentinian salt flats. Sunday, though… Sunday is the worst day to be a traveller. Yes, there may be an antiques fair here or a market in the park there, but that’s no consolation for the fact that your first eight restaurant choices are closed, and every shop except for a couple of corner stores has its doors barred. If you want to turn the most bustling downtown into a ghost town, just tell everyone it’s Sunday.

You walk back to your apartment and remind yourself that tomorrow is Monday, and tomorrow the streets will come back to life. Tomorrow is a better day to form your first impression of this place. It’s a good thing you’ll still be here tomorrow, because today is Sunday, and the city is asleep.

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Modern History in Cusco

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Most people come to Cusco to see the remnants of history that lie in and around it. If you’re in to that sort of thing, you certainly won’t be disappointed. The city and its surrounding area have enough Inca-age stones to fill a hundred Peru Rail train cars and still have some to spare. If you want a peek into ancient times, the era before the Europeans broke on to the scene and altered the course of the Americas, you’ll find it there.

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That’s not all that Cusco has to offer, though. Despite the hordes of camera-toting tour groups and hiking boot-clad foreigners, or perhaps even because of them, Cusco holds a lot of charm and beauty. The centre of the city is very walkable, and holds more quality restaurants than we came across during all of our time in Colombia combined. Viewpoints offer panoramas of strikingly orange clay tile-roofed buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see. The absence of modern glass and steel structures on the skyline lead you to imagine that you really could be a couple hundred years back in time.

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As Cusqueños get squeezed out of their downtown by high end hotels and yet another tour office, they respond by trying any number of creative money making solutions. Women in traditional clothing sit at every corner selling everything from snacks to cell phone minutes. Llamas on leashes stand with their owners, waiting for their photo opp. Teenagers strum away at guitars on busy pedestrian streets, hoping for some coins to drop in to their case. Girls carry baby goats in costume, trying to entice tourists to pose for a picture. It’ll cost you, of course. Travellers, far more than I’ve seen anywhere else on our trip, are streaming in with full pockets, and these opportunists are hoping that some of the cash will trickle down to them.

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I’m often turned off by places that seem overly tourist oriented, but somehow Cusco managed to keep me in its clutches. Even after five days, I wasn’t tired of walking down its narrow cobblestone streets, some of which are still partially intact from the Inca days, or taking in those orange roofs from above. If you look past the groups of guidebook-studiers and iPad picture takers, it’s pretty easy to get swept away by the mix of colonial-era cathedrals and Inca remnants that you’ll come across at every turn.

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Travelling and Making Connections

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We’ve had plenty of opportunities to meet new people on our trip. Staying in hostels and going on walking tours and taking classes has introduced us to people from around the world, and it’s really neat to be able to share stories with others who are often doing something similar to what we are. They fill us in on what hostels to stay in and what walking tours to go on and what classes to take at our next destinations, and we explain that no, Colombia is not actually a dangerous places filled with drugs and crime, and tell them about the wonders of La Seranna and Tejo and the Medellin walking tour, among other things. Other travellers have really been our most valuable resource when it comes to finding our way to the best spots on this trip. Hopefully we’ve been able to help some people along the way as well.

At home it’s so easy to stick within our cozy circle of friends, who we love and miss, and rarely do I find myself making what I would consider to be a new friend. Meeting people on the road is drastically different, and friendships can form pretty instantaneously. Since we’re all so far from home, everyone’s thirsty for some kind of connection outside of the person we’ve been travelling with for who knows how long, and that makes us all so much more eager to open ourselves up to new people in a way that we wouldn’t at home. We also have nothing to lose. If it turns out that the guy sitting next to us at breakfast rubs us the wrong way it’s no big deal, because there’s a good chance we’ll never see him again. Travel friendships are like one night stands – they get serious quickly, but they’re over in a blink of an eye. You might exchange some contact info, but chances are you’ll have trouble remembering each other’s names in a few months.

We may not share many interests and might never have connected in our day to day lives, but we do have one thing in common: we love to travel. That’s enough to at least get us talking. Zevi and I often joke about the “traveller conversation” that almost always covers the following topics.

– Nationality
– How long we’re travelling for. Most people at home thought that three months was a long time to be gone, but the majority of the people we’ve talked to are on the road for longer than that.
– What point we’re at on our respective trips, and when we’re going home.
– Where we’re going and where we’ve been.
– Whether or not we quit our jobs, and what we do, or did, for a living.

Sometimes we find that we have more in common and the conversation continues, and sometimes there’s nothing more to talk about and we go our separate ways. At times I find it incredibly exhausting to keep starting from scratch with new people at each new stop. It’s like doing a phone interview with a potential employer every four days – the conversation is superficial and you’re trying not to make a fool of yourself because you’re hoping that maybe they’ll want to talk to you again (we usually avoid talking about salary expectations, though). We keep at it because it’s worth it when you find the right fit and things just click. This certainly doesn’t happen everywhere we go, but we’ve been lucky to meet a few really great people along the way.

I’ve come to realize that for us as humans, connection is everything. We’re always trying to build a bridge, to find that commonality that brings us together and allows us to relate to each other. Sometimes it’s easy to find, and sometimes it just isn’t there, but we’ll try and try again to create those fleeting bonds that travel can foster.

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