Divisive ranting, reminding, volunteering, couch sharing, guide book burning, passport stamping and language learning by an Aussie swagman in South East Asia. Rob Armstrong gives us the responsible travel guide.
Undoubtedly the greatest way to minimise the impact of mass tourism is to get off the well worn path and away from the tourist hotspots. That is easier said than done as evidenced by our backpacking friends in South East Asia, as they regularly bump into each other in various towns and cities. As motorcyclists we have a distinct advantage over other travellers in the freedom that 2 wheels and an engine can bring. Not the airy-fairy metaphysical feeling of freedom from work and other responsibilities that motorcycles bring, but the physical freedom to travel along, literally, a world of mapped and unmapped highways, byways, tracks, trails and unmaintained jungle paths which lead to who-knows-where. The decision to travel by motorcycle gives us access to the village seen from an open train door, turns that small road leading into the jungle that flies past the bus window into your next adventure and makes the remote beach seen from a tiny airplane window your new camp site. Motorcycles are one of the few means of transport that will take you to places where the locals will still talk about the last foreigner that came through some 15 years ago and ask if you know them.
Unfortunately, simply owning a motorcycle isn’t going to improve the impact we have on other cultures. As long as there are still people out there that insist on being the fastest around the world or making bee-lines between capital cities in a vain attempt to avoid dysentery that is served as an entrée to every local meal (or to visit BMW dealerships to get their complex land barges serviced), our impact on the host communities isn’t much different from the average tourist. In the same condescending way that your mum would say “I’m not angry, just disappointed” after you decided skateboarding was more important than school on Friday afternoon, I can’t help but see these rides as missed opportunities by riders who commit large sums of money, time and effort in return for a little notoriety and a piece of paper. Tertiary education takes a lot of time, effort and money to get a piece of paper too, but at least you can get a job with that one.
While strategies employed by local and national governments like Barcelona, New York City and Bhutan to combat the damage that mass tourism brings are above the humble motorcycle traveller, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working towards reducing our impact to little more than tyre tracks in the dirt. Simple acts like making an attempt to understand the local language and customs help to foster a sense of pride within local communities and respect between locals and travellers, while getting off the tourist trail provides for more meaningful development and job creation within economically stronger communities. Inadvertently damaging a culture in the process of travelling is like cutting down a tree after you’ve photographed it so that no one lese can take the same photo.
Changing the way we ride starts in the planning stage, and like most great expeditions these days, most of our rides will begin from behind a computer screen. Studies by the Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life have found that planning a trip can be the most exciting part of travelling while on the same token, stressful holidays were found to be the least enjoyable, suggesting that over planning is a bad idea too. Finding a good balance can be difficult but I’ve found that having a handful of must see places, roads and events in my back pocket, while leaving plenty of time for wandering about in the spaces between, means you get too see the important stuff while keeping away from the tour bus routes and leaving yourself open to the unexpected experiences that really make each ride unique.
Of all the planning resources, paper maps are my favorite, with their all-encompassing view of the world they discriminate between locations and roads far less than any guidebook. For detail and information though, nothing beats Google Earth. There, you can get a feel for distances long and short, plot remote routes in otherwise unmapped areas, see photos taken by locals and even save places of interest and tracks to phones and GPS units for later reference. Other good starting points include Google image searches of specific locations while websites like Atlas Obscura have some more off the beaten path ideas. Wikipedia is an incredible source of information on the history of a country but try not to ride from one historic monument to another, or you’ll quickly find yourself back on the tourist trail again. Ride reports in magazines or on forums like ADVrider, social media groups and even the blogs of individuals that decide to push the envelope a little more than the rest of us can provide inspiration too.
The final part of your planning should be to stop leaning so heavily on that tourist bible, aka the guidebook. There are few things more embarrassing than watching a fellow traveller wave this holy tome in the face of some poor receptionist, screeching about how they are being ripped off $1.50 according to their 10 month out of date consecrated manuscript. I’ve always found it odd that these guidebook pilgrims are so surprised when they end up in the same areas time and time again, like adherents to the Quran being shocked that there are so many other Muslims in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. I’m not even going to touch on the accuracy of these things, suffice to say that some of them are no more accurate than some books written hundreds of years after the events they describe. The best thing you could do is shelve them so you’ll have something to start the fire when you get back and tell all your tall tales to friends and family around.
Actually, don’t do that; my mum was a librarian and would have me strung up in front of the local library if she caught me advocating book burning. A much better idea would be to swap them for an “X-language to your-language” dictionary or two. While being fluent in the local language would be ideal, few people have the resources or inclination to study, but even having basic words like “hello” and “thank you” can go a long way to fostering respect between traveller and host. You don’t need to be fluent and you will need to be comfortable making mistakes, but with a little effort you might just show a degree of interest in their lives and culture that goes beyond a zoo-like fascination; remember, this isn’t the tourist trail anymore and these peoples lives haven’t been put there for our entertainment. If the idea of me roasting marshmallows over the embers of your “SE Asia on a Shoestring” tome is too much for you, there’s always Wikivoyage.org which is both lighter, cheaper and more up to date than the paperback versions (and even if its not, you can change it yourself).
So now that you’re actually on the road and worrying about axle nuts being tightened properly, the simplest thing you can do to get off the tourist trail is avoid tourist hotspots. They’re easily to identify by the demographics of the shopping areas; if less than 80% of shoppers are local, you’re probably in a tourist hotspot. While removing yourself from the safety net of being surrounded by other foreigners can make communication challenging, expose you to difficult sometimes difficult customs and local food that can have you knocking on strangers doors, wildly gesticulating in an attempt to convey the urgency in which you would like to use their toilet, spectacles like this can be the catalyst for genuine friendships and the authentic experiences that the tourist trail has long since commercialized or forgotten about. It’s these connections that often lead to a whole world of experiences, like invitations to village weddings or hanging out in local-only secret spots to relax on the weekend that aren’t written about in travel guides or sold as part of tour packages.
Slowing down on some parts of your journey to observe daily life can also be a good way to meet locals and its far less embarrassing than letting your bowels do the introductions. Searching for location inspiration in local nature, lifestyle or even photography magazines can be far more hit and miss, but can have extraordinary payoffs if your luck is up. I was flicking through some artsy photographic magazine out of sheer boredom in Yogyakarta, Indonesia when I came across some stunning shots of a place in east Java where the locals drill for, and refine their own crude oil. Try to find that in a guidebook or on Indonesia’s tourism webpage.
With all that being said, tourist hotspots do serve a purpose and we all inevitably end up there eventually, be it to restock spares and supplies, get clean, take a break from getting dressed inside a tent, reconnect to our own world briefly or just find someone that you can converse with fluently for a few days. Personally, if I can find accommodation with a shower that flows like a waterfall, I’ll stay an extra night or two. But with the growth of the online Collaborative Economy, spending time in tourist areas doesn’t necessarily mean you have to act like a tourist anymore. There are a whole host of websites like Couchsurfing.com and AirBnB, Cookening.com, Meal Sharing, Dine With Locals, EatWith and Withlocals.com that all give you the opportunity to throw yourself directly into the lives of locals and experience authentic local food. While some of them will save you a little money, all of them ensure that the money you do spend goes straight into the pockets of your hosts and the local economy, instead of being siphoned off into the offshore accounts of multinational hotel chains. For those on the same sort of budget I am, police and fire stations, mosques, churches and temples have all been OK with me pitching a tent for the night or two in various parts of the world while getting me out of the hostels and hotels, which are better insulated then an esky when it comes to cultural exposure.
If you’re looking to be the ultimate goody two shoes in the hostel though, you can’t go past volunteering. While one of the best ways to give back to the community that you’re a guest in, there are two things you need to be careful of when volunteering. First is that your actions aren’t going to cause more harm than good. There are plenty of documented cases on how ill-informed voluntourists regret not having learnt more about the culture, people and skills that are required when setting out to save the world. Other times unscrupulous agencies have been known to charge ridiculous sums of money for participants to partake in these projects, the majority of which never makes it to the people it’s intended for. Groups like People and Places try to match volunteers to projects based on skills and abilities while Grassroots Volunteering puts people in direct contact with established community projects. Alternatively you can put your wheels to good use through local NGOs that may need assistance running supplies or, as was the case in Malaysia in early 2015, scouting disused jungle tracks in advance of a convoy of 4×4 vehicles carrying food aid to people cutoff from society by record floods. Which brings me to the second pitfall of volunteering; don’t preach about it. If you’re doing it for your ego more than the benefit of those less fortunate, selfies on the tourist trail might be the right place for you.
We’re all responsible adults (well, most of us) so it might be time we started taking a little more responsibility for the impact we have on the communities we visit by changing the way we travel and where we spend our tourist dollars. Instead of racing around the countryside, or even the world, in some kind of ridiculous attempt to fill a passport with stamps or panniers with stickers, try spending a little longer in one area and really experience a culture; despite what tour companies will tell you, it’s never just laid out for you to purchase. Breaking down the barriers that naturally exist between strangers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds can take time, but if you manage it, the rewards are infinitely greater than a passport filled with different shaped inkblots and a hangover.