I’m the first person to admit it: I’m addicted to buying Lonely Planet guidebooks.
When I’m preparing for a trip, one of the first things I do is head to BookPeople, my lovely local bookstore, to snap up the latest version of my chosen travel bible. I love perusing a freshly-cracked Lonely Planet: gazing at the glossy photographs, comparing the proposed itineraries with my own, salivating over the list of can’t-miss food. I even love the way these books look on my shelf, their dark blue spines serving as a visible reminder of my worldliness — ”Montreal & Quebec City,” “Iceland,” “South America on a Shoestring.” (Yes, in case you weren’t convinced of how cool I am, gaze upon my mass-marketed guidebook selection!)
But, I think I’m done with Lonely Planet, and with travel guidebooks in general. At least for now.
Finding a Better Way to Travel
When my husband and I went to Mexico City and Oaxaca last month, I did what I always do: I bought a Lonely Planet, both to help pre-plan our itinerary and also to lug along during the trip to serve as our portable spirit guide. And there were times when it really came in handy — trying to locate an elusive market in Coyoacán, for example, or deciphering where we were amidst the thick forest of Chapultepec. But then one day, while eating at an admittedly delicious LP-recommended restaurant in Oaxaca City, I glanced around and immediately felt a swirl of darkness pass through my very soul.
We were surrounded by white people.
There was the fifty-something French couple, decadently sipping their sparkling waters. There was the loud American family getting tipsy at lunchtime, their shirtfronts turned into Pollock-splattered canvases of salsa and beer. There were the two British women in the corner, extolling the loveliness of their black bean soup.
In other words, the place was infested with a specific cross-section of white people: The Lonely Planet market.
It certainly wasn’t the first time in my travels that I’d been encircled by fellow guidebook devotees, but it was the first moment I thought, I need to actively find a different way to travel. Guidebooks just weren’t cutting it anymore. I think the last straw was when, at another recommended Oaxacan restaurant, amidst a sea of blonde diners, we overheard a group of elderly gentlemen call the server over to inquire if their ice was made from bottled water.
I don’t mean to imply that the majority of tourists tend to be culture-deaf, or that being around other tourists is always wholly bad. What I am saying, though, is that if you perpetually travel with a Lonely Planet or some other guidebook equivalent in tow, you’re 100% guaranteed to be more exposed to piles of people just like you — people taking the exact routes you’re taking, eating the same food you’re eating, and snapping photos at the same damn church you’re photographing. And what’s the point of that?
Bringing Back a Sense of Wonder
In addition to being inundated with guidebooks, we undoubtedly live in the age of the travel listicle. There are so many “Top 57 Places to See in [insert country name here]” lists out there, it’s enough to make any traveler’s head spin. The pressure is real, and the FOMO is potent. There’s also a sense that, if you shell out $2,000 of your hard-earned cash to jet off to London, you’d sure as heck better “make the most of it” by cramming in as many museums and monuments as possible. But, how much are you truly eking from the experience when you travel this way? Are you really getting a feel for a place, or are you merely checking items off a list? And, at some point, don’t all of those churches and statues and art museums mold into one giant Leaning-Tower-of-Eiffel glob? (Seriously, I’m exhausted just thinking about some of the marathon trips I’ve had, madly dashing from landmark to landmark, never fully retaining what I’ve seen.)
Please don’t mistake me: if you’re entranced by the idea of seeing the Colosseum, go! If you’re a Monet fan who’s been dying to get a glimpse of the Water Lilies, this is totally what you should be doing. What I’m suggesting is, though, rather than falling prey to another bland listicle promoting universal bucket list items, determine instead what it is you truly want to see when you go somewhere new. What speaks to the specific nature of your heart? Do that thing.
Personally, I’m also feeling like it’s time to bring back a key sense of wonder to my travels — something that’s been temporarily erased by my Lonely Planet-endorsed walking tours. The wonder of not having a plan, or a special monument to see. The wonder of stumbling into an unknown mescal bar, or alighting upon a hidden urban cemetery.
It’s also time to travel with a conscience. One of my favorite travel writers, Bani Amor, wrote an excellent Bitch Media piece on this very subject. Of the many important topics discussed in the piece, the sentence that really grabbed my attention was this one: “Travel guides overwhelmingly reflect those who hold the most power in this world — white folks from the West.”
This gross imbalance in power is what the entire travel guidebook industry is based on. Going forward, I want to consider the implications of what it means to carry an American passport, and to be a guest in someone else’s culture. One major way to do this would be through procuring recommendations from local people, rather than blindly taking advice from a group of people in power whose job is to provide neutralized travel tips to a wide audience.
Fewer Guidebooks, More Local Knowledge
When my husband and I were in France last year, we walked a small part of the Grande Randonnée, an ancient network of footpaths preserved by the French government that snakes around the entire country. (Ah, the French and their penchant for preserving old things!) For three days, the only activities we had planned were to walk our section of the path. For three days, we lived in a semi-euphoric state, and not because of all the red wine we were drinking. We didn’t see the famed lavender fields in bloom, but that wasn’t the point — the point was to meander for a while in the French countryside and see what came up.
It was one of the happiest travel experiences of my life. I just kept thinking, this is how Provencal air tastes. This is what a French leaf looks like when it crumbles in my palm. This is how people assemble their gardens and construct their lives.
In other words, this is what it feels like to resist the pressure to see the “sights,” and instead, actually immerse myself somewhere new.
So, no, I won’t be buying any more guidebooks in the foreseeable future. Which isn’t to say I won’t be researching a place before I go; rather, I’ll just be doing a different kind of research.
Before my next big trip, I plan to ask everyone and their mother on Facebook if they know any locals I can connect with. I’ll learn some regional history beforehand, and buy a real map of where I’m going (and mostly never use it, because there’s nothing as blissful as aimlessly meandering around a foreign city). I’ll spend less time researching hip bars and more time learning the language. I’ll read novels by local authors to get a feel for the land and its customs, rather than relying on outside sources.
From here on out, I’m also giving myself permission to bypass the places I’m “supposed” to see, unless I really want to — and, more importantly, unless I understand why I want to. In lieu of mind-numbing monument hopping, I’d like to spend more time stumbling down streets I’ve never seen in pictures, gazing out bus windows, and encountering slices of life in unlikely places.
Most of all, I just want to travel purposefully, with my eyes on the road ahead of me — and not with my nose in a Lonely Planet guidebook.
Justine Harrington is a writer and traveler based in Austin, Texas. In her work, she’s inherently drawn to themes of unconventional travel and minimalist wandering. Check out www.justineharrington.com or find her on Twitter at @_JustineLee.