Travel

My last post mentioned I was going to be away from two weeks; I just returned. It was the longest vacation I’ve taken since college, 2 full weeks.

I enjoyed myself – I saw a lot of cool sights, did a lot of cool things and met a lot of cool people. But in the end, I think I’ve decided that it’s not my type of travel. Basically my vacation was staying in 4 major cities for, on average, 3 days each (Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Köln, and München).

Now, maybe I have peculiar interests. I’m not a huge fan of museums (I enjoy them but find that I reach a ‘tolerance limit’ after about 2-3 hours). I’m not into clubbing at all, and prefer quieter bars/pubs/beer gardens for drinking. I’m not a big restaurant spender, and I don’t enjoy travel shopping too much (more on this in a later post). What does that leave? I enjoy seeing historical/architectural landmarks, churches/cathedrals, parks, random streets, boat tours, farmland, forests, strange/different cheap restaurants, and drinking/talking – if I know somebody.

I’ve now done a one week and two week backpacking trips to Europe. And my verdict was the same each time (though more firm after the past two weeks). First off, I’m not a huge fan of large cities. 3 days is a strange time limit. It’s enough to see the bulk of notable landmarks, and a few museums and restaurants. But on the third or fourth day, I sort of wonder what else there is to do. At the same time that I’m pondering this, I feel a really intense pressure that I *MUST* do something new and exciting, as if just sitting around would be admitting my travel was a failure. I feel this sometimes in NYC as well, a strange feeling like “I’m near all these people who are doing crazy stuff, and I’m mostly sitting around. I’m being so lame!”

Now, my personality is not suited to the things that 80% of people do; many of them are probably at nightclubs and so on, which hold no appeal. But there’s still this foolish voice whispering these things to me.

I feel much better in small towns/smaller cities. Because the number of options is more limited. It’s the same as going to a huge grocery store, and there are 40 kinds of peanut butter, and you freeze. The number of choices available is just painful. You’re confronted with this horrifying possibility: what if you buy a sub-optimal peanut butter?! As a matter of course, when confronted with 40 kinds of peanut butter, I select the store brands, reducing the number of options to a manageable 3: low-fat/normal/chunky. I feel much better, it’s like frugality is a defense mechanism against the huge variety of choices. Brand loyalty is probably the same.

Cities are like peanut butter. I most enjoyed the city with the least (IMO) to do, Reykjavik. Things got quiet at night, people were mostly chilling in pubs and cafes, just as I was.

I also found excursions outside of large cities much more memorable. I mean, seeing the Kölner Dom (I believe it is the largest cathedral in Germany) was cool. But in the end it was just a huge cathedral, filled with hundreds of tourists just like me. It’s a dusty relic of memory. I experienced the building, but what kind of experience is that – if you’re not an architect? I suspect that 95% of those who visit stay for 20 minutes and then are on their way.

Compare with the top experiences from my trip (unordered):

  1. Traveling by small fishing boat to a windswept grassy island off the coast of Reykjavik, where there were some horses roaming free. Hiking 5-10 km around the island, looking at distant volcanic mountains and the Atlantic ocean in the distance.
  2. Riding the transit system to the end of the line in München, then hiking 4-5km to a monastery/brewery, drinking a liter and a half of beer, talking to the bored German working the beer garden (and some other tourists), and then hiking back.
  3. Taking the train from Amsterdam and getting a guided tour of Leiden (charming medium-sized Dutch city) … and Dutch blood banks with ERE member DutchGirl.
  4. Renting a bike in Köln and pedaling along the Rhine for 35-40km; enduring miserable rain and intense winds to get back to the rental place.
  5. Taking a day trip from Köln to the small town of Brühl, seeing a huge Baroque palace, and then especially seeing some tremendous parks/walkways around the grounds.
  6. Drinking 3 liters of beer outside a pub and then talking to a never-ending stream of thousands of drunk people (Australians, Americans, Germans, Swiss, English, Russians) as they left Oktoberfest.
  7. Meeting this old filmmaker who captured all the volcanic events in Iceland over the past 40 years, and watching a movie in a little theater he set up in his garage. Surreal scenes of people moving & evacuating mattresses as cinder rains from the sky, as their houses are swallowed up in what looks like black snow.

Only one of these was a ‘big city’ thing (Oktoberfest). Everything else was in smaller towns, or smaller cities (under 150k people). Much of it was outdoors.

My conclusion after 3 weeks of this type of city-hopping travel, is that I don’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t remember too much about the big landmarks in cities, and much of museums. They’re functionally dead, I remember some of the pretty sights but they’re not the same as the experiences or the people. The schedule of 3-4 days per city is enough to get bored, but not enough to really get to know the place. In fact it feels like the only thing it’s good for is to take the same tourist pictures everyone else will take and be able to brag to your buddies about the sheer number of cities you’ve visited. This is a really superficial way to travel (though I admit I’ve fallen victim to ‘city-collecting’).

On the other hand, I’m still enthusiastic about long-term travel, 2-3 months per location, even though I’ve never tried it. I’ll need to wait until I’m financially independent to have time for that.

In the meantime, over the next 2-3 years, I’d like to try some different things. One would be a week (or longer) hiking trip, seeing the natural environment and tiny hamlets in a foreign country. Something like hiking for a week in Patagonia or New Zealand. Another possibility is going to some big city, spending a day or two there, and then going to stay in some smaller nearby town for a week. This probably sounds a bit strange, but it’s appealing to me (this after never having tried it…). A third possibility is a longer stay centered in a smaller (but notable) city. Reykjavik was absolutely perfect for this, with a population of 120k, very unique culture, clean and friendly, and the possibility for cool day trips or overnight camping.

In the end I’m sad that the common way of traveling is not so appealing to me. But I’m glad I learned this after only two trips and now have the opportunity to find a new mode of travel better aligned with my nature.

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5 Comments

  1. Well… Seeing four cities “all over Europe” is maybe too much for just two weeks. It’s a very American thing to “do Europe”. On the other hand, we may be accused of doing the same when we travel to the US and “do the west coast”, or something like that.

    I wonder whether you could really enjoy going to some remote place, with nature around (forest, or the sea), a village (to not be too lonely) and then seeing absolutely no sights, but sitting there, walking around, cooking a dinner, going to the village pub at night. Who knows, that type of holiday may suite you better. Too bad you haven’t seen “the 1000 most important places a person should see before he/she dies”. I believe that is good old consumerism again. Maybe your holiday is better spend with some rest, friendship and calm nature? Less expensive too and maybe a better use of precious holiday hours.

    Reply
    • m741

       /  October 1, 2012

      I think the type of travel you suggest is far more my style.

      I’m definitely aware that there’s a “consumer” aspect, ie, traveler as consumer of sights, and this is something I sort of internalized and which made me uneasy as well, because I don’t like to consider myself a consumer.

      I actually had a copy of that book (was given it as a gift), it’s a strange book – all these places you should see, but it’s not really a tour guide and a lot of them are really huge tourist traps, which I’m beginning to believe have no emotional value whatsoever. That is, stopping by and just seeing the Colosseum or something for 20 minutes doesn’t make you any more cultured or have any lasting impact on your view of the world.

      Reply
  2. Hi M741

    It sounds to me like a lot of what made your experiences worthwhile were the people. I completely agree with you that many landmarks and tourist spots in big cities are immediately forgettable. You go and take some pictures and forget about it later.

    I have implemented a policy with my GF that says we can only travel to places where our friends are from or where we know people. For example we have a Filipino friend and traveled with him for a week in the Philippines. We got away to do our own thing for a few days but I really enjoyed going to places that we normally wouldn’t have known about because we were with our friend. Plus because we are already friends and very similar it almost guarantees we went to places we would like.

    Our next trip that we are looking at is Zimbabwe. It’s a place I never would have visited myself but or friend is from there and again I think he would show us a great time. So Zimbabwe it is!

    I like this policy as it also encourages me to make friends with people from many different locations.

    Reply
  3. jennypenny

     /  October 3, 2012

    Are you just not into cities? Do you like living in NYC?

    We travel a bit. We do use cities as a launching point, but we’ve had to make some rules. We pick only one museum and one tourist site (like the Space Needle), and then throw the guidebook away. We do get out on the water if we can because we love sailing, and we go to local breweries (but not famous local breweries) to talk to people. I like to travel, but I like *being* in another city more than *seeing* another city, if that makes sense.

    You’re the third person I know to talk highly of Reykjavik this year. Might have to move it to my short list.

    Reply
    • m741

       /  October 4, 2012

      You’re right, I’ve found I’m not a big city person. I think that living close to a moderate-sized city would be best for me (~500k people).

      As for travel, I like your idea. I like being in another city as well, just people-watching. It’s the psychological dissonance of being there but feeling compelled to *do more* that I don’t particularly enjoy.

      Reykjavik was wonderful: a unique, clean, friendly small city in an awesome environment. Great if you enjoy cooler weather, the ocean, or Vikings. Cheaper now than it used to be (but still a bit pricey).

      Reply

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