August is peak travel season, which means that right now millions of Americans are traipsing around the world creating the stories they’ll be telling captivated dinner guests and captive grandchildren for decades to come.
But as user reviews are added by the millions, social media becomes a substitute for live interaction and cheap international data tames a once-wild world into digital submission, the good travel yarn is in decline. Greater access to information means fewer impromptu decisions and fewer surprises. “I discovered this homey trattoria in Rome” now too often means “I read about it on Yelp,” and stories of summer flings are more likely to begin with “I matched with him on Tinder” than with “I met her in line at the Comédie-Française” (true story).
It’s hardly just Italy and France. Even nontraditional tourist destinations have been documented to within an inch of their lives. Wondering what to order for lunch at Bobodia, a Halal chicken spot in downtown Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso? “Don’t hesitate to try the kidneys and liver parsley!” reads one TripAdvisor review, translated into English with the click of a button.
Whether TripAdvisor reviews are helpful or hogwash is subjective, but either way, doesn’t a meal of giblets in West Africa make for a better story if you stumble upon it serendipitously rather than seek it out upon the advice of Chantal J. from Marseille? In other words, if the best travel experiences happen when things don’t go according to plan, why do we plan so much?
I’m not suggesting wandering off to Mongolia without cracking a guidebook (although that sounds fun). For most of us, at least some advance planning is a necessity. I always make at least a skeletal plan, but I’m ready to drop it in a flash if something better comes up. It almost always does.
A few years ago, my girlfriend at the time and I were driving through a sleepy stretch of coastal South Carolina on our way to spend 24 hours in Charleston before heading on to Savannah, Ga. That was, until I spotted the Carolina Country Store, a charmer of a white clapboard general store with a sign outside advertising boiled peanuts.
I suggested we stop for some, though I had no plausible reason to do so. For one thing, thanks to the $6.95 barbecue buffet at a place called Hog Heaven a few miles back, we were hardly hungry. For another, boiled peanuts are disgusting, a mushy Southern tradition that shows once and for all why God invented honey roasting.
But something about the place was irresistible. As I chatted with the amiable owner and admired the antiques and old photos that adorned the walls, another customer started to teach my girlfriend a technique for trapping alligators with her bare hands. It was a skill he had picked up working the grounds of a nearby privately owned historic plantation, he said. His boss was out of town. Would we care for a tour?
Um, obviously. We spent the next few hours with him, climbing around an ancient rice mill and bowing our heads into former slave quarters. It was the kind of afternoon that you don’t forget.
It was dusk when we arrived in Charleston, so we had to cram all my plans into the following morning. We checked out a few sites, but I have only the vaguest memories of those places, and certainly no stories to tell.
A skeptic might say we just got lucky. Most road trip rest stops, after all, do not result in a free alligator-trapping lesson. But what’s the worst that can happen when you skip out on travel plans and do something spontaneous? You get a mediocre meal? You lose the chance to take a selfie in front of the 14th-ranked attraction in town? I’ve made a habit of abandoning plans, and I don’t recall ever regretting a spontaneous deviation.
There was the time in Naples, Italy, that I got so sick of ticking off tourist-packed top-10 pizzerias that I decided to flee one evening to a randomly chosen subway stop and eat at the first pizzeria I saw. Or the time when a monastery on the Albanian coast was not where it was supposed to be, so I parked my rental car and took off down an unmarked dirt path. Or the time when I found Oaxaca jam-packed and overhyped and took a bus into the Mexican countryside, asking the driver to suggest a nice town with no tourists.
The Naples night led me to a raucous student spot where I had the best pizza of my life — though I have no idea whether it was actually that good or whether the excitement of discovering it made it taste better. (And I don’t care.) The Albanian path emerged at an idyllic beach where I stripped down and went skinny-dipping. (It turned out that an Austrian couple hidden under a rock outcropping was watching the whole time.) And the day in a random town featured a hell of a homemade chicken mole and a visit to a 16th-century monastery that did not even show up on TripAdvisor (leading me to suspect that the company may be biased toward halal chicken stands in West Africa.)
Smarter skeptics might object on the grounds that, as a travel writer, I am on the road countless days a year with time to spare, whereas they get 10 vacation days a year and have to make them all count. Or they’re traveling with kids so there’s little room for error. Or they want to impress a romantic partner, not lead a National Geographic expedition. And, by the way, that I’m a white man with a lot less to fear.
All are compelling arguments, but I’m not suggesting you have to travel the way I do. Adventure is relative. What qualifies as wild to a kid on a gap year (riding a bus through Central America, say), a family with children (a home stay with a local family) or a novice traveler on her first trip abroad (opting out of an afternoon group tour for an aimless stroll) is different.
Of course, if you simply prefer to be led worry free to monuments, mountains and great restaurants, there’s nothing wrong with that — if that’s what you really want.
But there’s something very wrong if it’s not, if the flood of information, the temptation of smartphones and the ever-expanded “authentic” offerings from an ever-more-interventionist travel industry have siphoned the spontaneity out of you.
A summer trip is a rare chance to break from routine, to escape the narrow sliver of the planet we inhabit the rest of the year. It used to be easy to distinguish such independent travelers from the lemmings following flag-waving tour guides. But the line between them has blurred. If your trip follows a tightly-planned agenda inspired by user reviews, popular Instagram feeds and Top 10 lists, aren’t you really just taking a virtual group tour, with your smartphone waving the flag?
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