How to Stop Being a Typical Tourist and Be an Explorer!

When I travel, I try to avoid the places where thousands of tourists gather together. As you probably know the sheep-effect usually happens when people choose to see famous monuments, churches, museums or any other type of written-in-the-book attractions. I won’t deny as a small part of the trip it is fun to see the world’s famous places with your own eyes, but spending time in long lines to buy a ticket makes all of us bored and tired long time before we get there.

For that reason many modern day travelers – explorers, including me, choose to visit famous attractions moderately, and explore less known places! Modern travelers also tend to skip the guidance of pre-booked guides. It is much more fun and interesting when you find local people to help you with that matter.

In this article I will try to describe why it is important for 21st century travelers to see and visit places that are rarely mentioned in travel guides and why you should find a “local friend” instead of paying for a boring guided tour.

Are you ready to challenge yourself? Let’s do it!

Going where nobody else goes

Back in 2010 I visited India, and my last destination of the trip was Agra city which is famous for Taj Majal monument palace.

I really enjoyed visiting Taj Majal, but I had a feeling that something was wrong with it. Did I see a ghost? No, but I wish I had. It was worse than that, there were too many foreign tourists in one place! Some people would say “It’s a world famous place, everyone wants to see it!”.  They might be right, but it does not mean that it is such an epic experience to visit it when you almost need to scare people away to be able to take a selfie of yourself for Facebook.

Before arriving to the city of Agra I spent a lot of time in in Varanasi, Srinagar, Dharamshala and Amritsar, but nowhere else I saw this big crowd of foreigners. That day I was wondering why people were so concentrated to this particular attraction. Was there really nothing else to see in Agra?

I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who in the end of the day only knew that Agra is the city where Taj Majal is found. So I went to discover Agra outside the Taj Majal’s walls. In a book of Lonely Planet, there was no proper map so I chose a random direction and started walking. Industrial stores, dirty streets and poverty were the first things that I encountered. I felt completely disappointed of what I saw.

The problem was that I had this mindset that if Taj Majal is so well kept, then the city should look beautiful as well. However, some time later I understood that giving myself a chance to spend a time in surroundings of local society is more valuable experience, than sleeping in five star hotel next to the main attractions you are willing to see. Why? Getting out of touristic area gives us an opportunity to see the city with the eyes of a local. Usually, reality is not as perfect as we imagine beforehand, but it is a good thing. We should know the truth, because Disneyland-mindset makes us only more dumb and ignorant.

Learn and explore

The most common way for people to learn about places they are planning to visit is by reading books/guides or watching documentaries and movies related to that particular place or country. However, in many cases it only explains how and why the main attractions are the best thing in the world, but has little or no educational information about its surroundings. For that reason, you should dare to explore things by yourself, and I mean it!

In many cases the reason why people avoid going outside the touristic zones is because of the fear of getting lost. Well, it is very likely that at some point of your trip you will get lost, but so what? You can always ask someone for a way back home.

There are of course countries/cities where going outside touristic areas might put you in real danger. In that case you should get well informed about locations you are planning to visit. To make it easier for you, here are good websites to do so:

  • The World Factbook provides a good insight about ongoing war or other type of conflicts around the world. Choose the country you are planning to visit and you will get detailed information about it.
  • Foreign Travel Advice is a very similar website, but with more straight-forward information.
  • Travel.gc.ca provides a good map which gives information about the danger in most of the countries around the world. When you launch the website, click on “view map”.
  • For a specific safety question, you could try to use Quora network where it is possible to ask and also answer questions related to any travel topic. I have been using it for a while and have found a lot of useful information about various topics. I do also help people by answering their questions. Feel free to check my profile.
  • Easiest option (worst option) would be by searching on Google “safe places to visit in city/country name”or “dangerous places in city/ country“. What you will soon figure out is that there are thousands of articles related to this topic, but all of them say different things. The article could only be reliable if it mentions the source where the information was gathered.

Finding a local friend

If you don’t like to wander around on your own, there is another option – get some help from a local person. I usually do it by contacting people on Couchsurfing. For those who have never heard of it, it is a website where you can find people who can host you for a short period of time or are willing to meet up for a chat. Let’s say you find a person who has no couch but wants to meet with you. Usually, you would drink a cup of tea, chat for an hour and split up. But what if the person is über friendly and has plenty of free time?

In that case he/she would show you the best places in their city, take you to his/her favorite restaurant and maybe go out with his/her friends or even spend time with his/her family.

Although, it is important to have in mind that people you contact on Couchsurfing are not obligated to be your personal guides nor hosts for a long period of time. Also, before writing a request read their profile to know basic information about that person. For example, some people might be happy to host you, but won’t have much time to hang out with you, but other would get pissed off if you don’t accept their help. There are all types of people, choose wisely.

Other options:

LocalFriend.co is a free of cost service to find a local friend. Choose the city, click on the photo of the person you’d like to meet and at the bottom of the page you can book a meeting. (Platform has been shut down)

Cons: Few cities/people to choose from.

Pros: All locals have detailed description about themselves.

Rent a Local Friend is one more good platform to search for a local friend. The service is not free, but according to the website, their provided “friends” are experts of their city.

Cons: Even though local friends are from all over the world, many major cities and countries are still missing.

Pros: Possibility to search people by their interests and availability.

If you are unlucky or have other reason for not meeting strangers, then there is another good option that many cities around the world offer: Free Walking tour. (Google: free walking tour “city name”).

Yes, it is guided trip, but it is different. It is usually guided by young, enthusiastic people who know a lot about their city. Even though it is free, the guides appreciate if people give them some tips for their free service. In my opinion it is the only guided trip I would ever enjoy to take. Why? Well, there are several reasons for that: I can pay as much as I think it is worth it, I can leave whenever I want and I can meet people who have similar mindset as me. I want to finish this post with the list of things that I managed to do, by breaking boundaries of old-school traveler:

  • You probably know the leaning tower in Pisa, but have you seen one in Venice? I did!
  • In China I had a chance to stay with Tibetan people, just because I took a chance to travel to the dusty Xinduqiao.
  • visited Kashmir at the time when it was a dangerous place to be.
  • I ate the best dumplings in my life, when I chose to walk (1 hour walk) from my host’s house to the downtown of Chengdu, China.
  • I went to a medieval festival in Vicchio, Italy.
  • I got lost in the narrow streets of Sevilla and enjoyed it…then started to worry that I will never find the way back to the hostel.
  • I met a random guy at the restaurant in Chinatown, New York city who showed me the Chinese community house where elders performed classical Chinese music.

[highlight]What is your experience on traveling differently than a typical tourist? Did you enjoy it or was it a disaster?[/highlight]

by M.Borgarbúi

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