Adventures, big or small, make the trip

Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2006

There's a wry poem by Donald Hall called ``Scenic View" that imagines a favorite mountain vista getting ``paler and more distant" every year as sightseers' picture-taking ``sucks color out." This has tragic consequences: The mountains become ``unseeable peaks/ fatal to airplanes."

It's an exaggeration, of course. But Hall is onto something about the way travelers interact with vacation destinations.

Nothing is sadder to me than to see a bus disgorge a horde of tourists so that they can take photos and buy bric-a-brac. Then they motor on, believing they have been somewhere and seen someplace.

While I have taken my share of snapshots and resort vacations and package tours, I avoid being a passive tourist whenever I can. Rather, I try to build my curiosity with some knowledge and involvement.

In the 18 years since my first big gulp of international travel, a round-the-world jaunt as a college student through Europe and Asia, I have been lucky enough to have lived in three countries and trekked, trained, driven, and flown through 27 others. From balmy Anguilla to Cold War Hungary, from a miserable week in a Mexican tourist trap to a memorable month long home stay in Japan, I have been blessed with unique, rewarding, and almost invariably positive experiences.

I would like to think this positive karma comes from the cultivation of habits and reliance on pointers I have picked up on how to travel well. A travel philosophy of sorts has been forming in my mind over the years.

I realize one's point of view can be governed by the reason for one's travels. Some people are perfectly happy spending their days sequestered at a beachside resort, lolling in the sun while being waited on by smiling locals who speak English. They don't want to mess up their vacations with the unexpected.

I could probably never persuade this contingent that there is a difference between a tourist vacation and travel.

Me, I'm all for turning travel into an adventure, a mission, a quest. Hiking 95 miles across Scotland. Ignoring the guidebook and dipping into that mystery stew in Guinea . Daring a ferry from Hong Kong to Lantau Island in the South China Sea.

These leaps need not be death-defying or extreme. In travel, taking any chance -- however small -- often leads away from the predictable, pre packaged, and often disappointing tourist-centered experience and toward true connections with people and culture.

Try this: Take a look at a map of your destination city . Study it. Invariably, those smaller streets correspond to the oldest part of the city. That makes them interesting. Beware of zones where lots of English is spoken, where tourists amble by in a confused daze blankly reading menus as hucksters promise fine dining and a ``table just for you." Search out quieter, less neon streets. They often take you to where the locals eat. The corollary to this rule: If there's a line in front of a bakery, restaurant, or nightspot, it's probably for a good reason.

Of course, my ``let's try this" strategy has not always worked well. I have had Chinese schoolchildren pelt me with rocks. I nearly killed myself on St. John scaling a cliff in flip-flops. And I almost spent a chilly night in France's Gorge du Verdon when a trail to a supposed shortcut disappeared as dusk fell.

A miserable bout of dysentery in India and a bone-rattling bus ride in Thailand's northern highlands also come to mind. But my improvisational approach has mostly yielded good results -- and good stories.

My strategies for encouraging good travel karma fall into three categories: planning, tactics, and attitude.

Enjoy this stage. Talk to travelers who have been where you are going and read novels and watch movies set in your dream destination. Read up on history and culture. Develop a quest: ``In search of the best french fries in Belgium."

Buy the right guidebook. Fodor's isn't appropriate for the backpacker set; nor is the ``Let's Go" series going to make sense if your idea of a holiday is cruising the Riviera shopping for jewelry. Get more than one guidebook and compare notes.

Develop a flexible itinerary. Have some set plans and bookings, but leave some days and nights free. Don't let a missed train or bungled hotel reservation ruin your mood. Be open to change .

Think like a local. At home, you would avoid downtown on Saturday afternoon and the auto route during rush hour. Expect the same population patterns on your vacation. Research public holidays. Hit the beach mid week.

Discover hidden gems. Cities are clever at directing you to monuments, museums, and shopping zones. Ignore tourist office advice . Be wary of package tours, canned culture, anything put on just for tourists.

Be smart. Find out about unsafe neighborhoods. But don't let fear of trying something new (or a ``bad experience") paralyze your vacation.

Feeling trapped by mobs of other Americans? Be willing to walk. You can find yourself in a silent, leafy square or pristine patch of beach.

Pace yourself. Mix cities with out-of-the-way villages. Stay put for a few days and engage with the sense of place. Those two-week whirlwinds leave you needing a vacation after your vacation.

Ask questions. Interact with the locals, but don't expect them to speak English. Cultural differences, even misunderstandings, can be great ice breakers. Be open to embarrassing yourself.

Reserve judgment. Don't expect your vacation experience to duplicate your gas, food, and lodging back home. Deal with things. In France, forget pancakes and eggs for breakfast. And most of the world has not quit smoking.

Fit in. Leave that beer-slogan T-shirt behind . Keep your shouting for emergency use only. Even in countries where everyone seems to speak or understand English, it is polite to learn and use a few local words like hello and thank you.

Enrich your experience. Be curious. Enhance your travel through knowledge, reflection, and honoring history . Avoid American fast food.

Participate . Engage in your temporary nation. Eat the sea cucumber stir-fry in Shanghai . If the Icelandic couple you meet proposes a night of nightclubbing, go for it. You'll be rewarded in countless ways.

To continue to find ``authentic" experiences abroad, I advise travelers to keep their ears to the ground. I remind myself of this all the time: Get off the pool side chaise . You could be the discoverer of the next new thing .

Five-star stays and nine-course meals in Paris or a rustic camping site in the Greek Cyclades in gale-force winds -- it doesn't matter. The riches of travel aren't measured by the length of a credit card statement or the number of trinkets purchased , but by the list of addresses and names of people you have befriended, and the number of anecdotes you can recall once you are back home.

Happy trails.

Contact Ethan Gilsdorf, a freelance writer and poet in Somerville, through his website,

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