Recently, I read an article by Chris Arnade that was posted on HackerNews with the title On the cheap, like a local, and without a lot of luggage. If you haven't put it together from my own title, I have some disagreements with Arnade. We see eye to eye on a few things, and I can certainly admire some of their travel philosophy. But I have a bone to pick with a bit of their advice, and their attitude towards travel.
The article embodies an unfortunate trend of toxic gatekeeping that I've encountered far too often in traveling enthusiast circles. The mentality that if someone traveled in a way that you didn't agree with, they didn't really experience the area.
The past couple of years, I've been traveling the world as a fully nomadic software engineer. In general, I stay in large international cities, in housing around the median price, prioritize visiting the major attractions, and carry around a literal head-turning amount of luggage. I'm planning on writing a few dedicated articles on some of my thoughts, tips and experiences. But for now, I wanted to step through Arnade's recent article (formally titled How to Travel) and list some of my grievances.
One of the big ideas from How to Travel is that traveling is a learning experience, and that the local population are your teachers. So you should get to know them, what they're like on a daily basis, and generally see how they get on. Like the entirety of the article, this statement is a great idea that's been warped into something I decidedly disagree with. Let's break it down line-by-line, Reddit flame-war style.
I travel to get an idea of how other people live.
Meeting people and hearing new ideas is one of my favorite parts of travel. Unfortunately, Arnade continues on to explain this is why he avoids large cities, popular restaurants and busy parts of town. I believe this sentiment is rooted in the often-repeated mantra that you need to get to know "the locals." The irony being that the vast majority of people in major cities are indeed "the locals." More importantly, they tend to speak at least some level of English, and talking with people is the best way to learn from them. It's nearly impossible to understand the nuances of someone's life without having a deep, in-depth conversation with them.
Silently observing "the locals" is not an in-depth learning experience - you could have learned more by checking out a book from your local library. I don't want to see how people live. I want to meet people, and to talk with them. To ask them where they grew up, to hear their views on politics, and family. Of life and love, of hopes and dreams, and of fears and foes.
My general rule of thumb is to go to the less visited parts. The neighborhoods where most people live, but few visit.
On the surface, this resonated with me. But as I began to think of it more, I started to disagree. My strategy is usually stay on the outskirts of the busy parts, and take day trips to the less visited parts. Much of the reason for this is simply convenience. The busy parts are the city hubs, where transportation options and day-trips are most accessible. I've also found it lower risk to stay in these areas - accommodation is usually easier to find, internet and infrastructure is more stable, and modern conveniences are readily available. They also tend to be closer to emergency services, should I need them.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the major city centers are also the areas where it's easiest to socialize. This is both important to me on a personal level, but also a great way to better explore an area. Traveling solo can be very hard emotionally, but it can also limit some of the things that are accessible to you. For instance, I would not dare go hiking through an unknown rainforest by myself. But with a group of friends I met at the bar in town? Sign me up!
[Have] only a few days dedicated to side trips that residents actually do.
I agree with this, and would like to add that one of my favorite ways to find these is via Airbnb Experiences. These are hosted by locals, usually folks just trying to make some extra money by cashing in on the tourist economy. I avoid some of them, like bar crawls or restaurant tastings. But there's also many hidden gems, and some of my fondest memories have been surfaced from this corner of the internet. I've had great luck with ones involving hiking - spending a few hours hiking with a local is a great way to learn more about the area and culture.
That being said, the notion that there's some subset of things that residents actually do is a bit contrived. Most residents have done the well-known landmarks as well, and often many times at that. In poorer areas, many residents would love to do the stereotypical toursity stuff, but it's unfortunately inaccessible to them. I'll touch more on this later, but in general, you should aim to do whatever strikes your fancy.
[Instead of hotels], I’m an Airbnb convert. I like having my own space.
The majority of my accommodations are solo bookings through Airbnb, so me and Arnade are very eye-to-eye on this one. But I've also had some really great experiences staying at Airbnbs which are a room for rent in someone's home. It's a fantastic way to meet people, and as a bonus you are supporting an independent and local homeowner, instead of an investment property bought by some out-of-town investor. I have friends which I continue to keep in touch with that I've met by staying in a room they hosted on Airbnb. I've been invited to parties, dinners, soccer games. I've had amazing hosts who included me in their friend groups, and gave me the insider tips to the cities. So don't discount the power of the rented rooms on Airbnb!
I’m a hardcore light traveler. You really don’t need to bring much.
I am on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Of course, as someone without a permanent home, I'm also an edge case here. When you get down to it, essentially all of my worldly possessions are with me as I travel. So I cannot, in good faith, argue that the average traveler carry even half of what I do. However, if the idea of bicycling is at all appealing to you, I hope that I can convince you in the next paragraph to at least consider bringing (or renting) a bike.
It's an expensive upfront cost - buying a commuter bike and travel case can easily run you $300 USD each. After that, though, it's surprisingly easy to bring the bike on any airline I've traveled, and usually not too much hassle to get it from the airport to wherever I'm staying. And the rewards cannot be understated. Aside from general transportation, exploring a new city on a bicycle is unmatched. I can cover tons of ground, going at a leisurely pace or a blistering one. I can afford to follow my heart and meander down backroads, because going the wrong direction for a couple miles is not really that big of a deal. I can explore parts of town that I wouldn't feel comfortable walking through, as the bike gives me an easy escape route. This is sometimes escaping by speed, like the time I had to shake a pack of feral dogs. It can also be an escape in the form of maneuvering - once, a drunken gang had created a blockade on the only road out of town. With my bike, I was able to quickly reroute off the road and slip by without incident.
Aside from my bike, I also travel with my guitar. While I don't generally recommend this to the average traveler, I'd like to say that it's been a great way to meet people, and has provided indescribable joy. Music can bridge cultural gaps in ways that words cannot. Simply playing my guitar in public has resulted in so many memories. From blossoming romantic interests, all the way to making some extra cash, and everything in between. I've even been on a submarine, thanks to someone I met while playing my guitar on a beach!
I also bring lots of cash. In hundreds and twenties. You can almost always change cash with no commission and at a better exchange rate than credit cards charge. Often the best place is local banks and jewelry stores (yes) that post the rate of exchange on a chalkboard.
Much of this depends on the country, but in general I typically don't travel with too much cash myself. I try to arrive with ~$200 USD just to reduce the stress of arriving in a new country. And if you do need cash while in a foreign country, my recommendation is to secure a debit or credit card which does not charge international fees, reimburses ATM transaction fees and allows for cash withdrawal. It's not too difficult to find, and then the only hit you take is exactly what the exchange rate is when you withdraw the money. I've personally never traveled to a country where finding an ATM once a week was difficult.
Be very very picky about what 100s and 20s your bank gives you.
Chris Arnade likely has more countries under their belt than me, so I'll trust his wisdom on this one. But I will say that this has never been a problem for me.
I find a few [restaurants], and go back over and over. The owner [of my regular spot in Istanbul], Jamal, doesn’t speak any English. And I don’t speak any Turkish.
Perhaps there's something I'm missing, but the idea of being a regular to understand the "ebbs and flows of people's lives" while also not being able to effectively communicate with them is counterintuitive to me. If I could walk into a small restaurant and have a thirty minutes conversation with the owner, it feels like I would learn more about that place, the owner and both of their relations to the city than Arnade would grok in thirty days of eating at a restaurant surrounded by people speaking a language they don't understand. Aside from that, food is a great gateway into the culture of an area, and one of my favorite things to explore. Going to a variety of restaurants lets me feel out an area - what are the dishes and drinks that are recurring in the restaurants? How do the staff interact with the customers? What kind of places attract the tourists, and which ones are the local favorites? Being a regular at just a few places does have it's benefits, but I usually keep that consistency for the coffee shops.
I prefer to travel to a city the time of year its most uncomfortable. So like Montreal in the winter, or New Delhi in the summer. I want to see a place when it’s at the apogee of its essence, not when it’s the most comfortable.
This excerpt was yanked from the end of the article, and I think it's a fitting summary of the core tenant behind Arnade's travel philosophy; if you aren't making sacrifices in some way, you didn't really experience the city. It strikes me as a kind of reverse elitism. A protest against the stereotypical tourist experience, but taken to an extreme that's hardly accomplishing its goal. Arnade continually pushes for borderline masochistic habits; flying as inconveniently as possible, staying in rougher parts of town, refusing to use cab services. Even going so far as to advocate for eating anything as long as it doesn't get you sick too often.
There is indeed something to be said about casting aside the typical tourist experience, and in taking the road less traveled. In peeking into the often mundane lives of the average population. Early in their article, Arnade makes an astute and accurate observation - many major cities across the globe often feel the same. Of course, this is true. But it's because many people across the globe are often the same. Of all the truths I have discovered while traveling, this has been the one that rings truest to the core. Humanity is entirely human. But just as any singular person can also be a complex, nuanced individual, so is any individual city. Whether it be a population of five hundred or five million.
So embrace that individualism, both in the place you are visiting, but also in your own travel habits. Find the crowded beaches when that is what you desire, and explore the back roads when your heart yearns for that. Most importantly, appreciate them equally for what they are. That is how to travel.