The night of my flight to Bali, I seriously did not want to move my butt and head to the airport – I had just gotten comfortable with being home, after a month of internship and (mostly) independent living in a downtown apartment.
It was going be a red-eye with a long layover in Luala Lumpur – not dreadful, but definitely lethargic. I had no plans and little expectations of what’s to come. My native Indonesian friend Vicky planned out everything and I simply dumped my brain and followed.
Bali, as it turned out, completely exceeded my expectation. I had to try the “basic-bitch” smoothie bowls and avocado toasts, cycle in the countryside and visit local villages, go coffee-tasting then take a long walk on the beach and drink out of a coconuts while watching the sunset. Of course I had to end by visiting the most famous Hindu temples. It was a glimpse of the local life, and a taste of southeast Asia. And it was fantastic.
The more that I have traveled, the more I love traveling. I used to confound “traveller” with “tourists”, and had little interest in either. The thought of following a non-local guide who yells into a loudspeaker and travel with a crowd of strangers gives me creeps.
The first time that I attempted to travel and be more than a tourist was last summer: I made plans to go to Germany and Austria, first visiting a friend in Frankfurt, then take the Eurorail to visit places along the road to Vienna. When I started making my plans, I set my mind to make it something more than just visiting the landmarks and standing among five thousand other tourists with hats and cameras. But I didn’t know where to start. So I Googled, “how to travel”, “things to do when traveling”, “tips for travel”… It helped me some, but not too much.
I still didn’t know how to travel until this summer after I spent a month in Seville, Spain. Traveling, I discovered, can be so much more than what I thought it was. When done right, it is addicting. So this is my “how-to” travel and how not to be a tourist. Remember it is going to be different for everyone: the right way to travel is when you come back feeling happy and fulfilled, and wanting to travel some more.
MY FIRST TIP TO HAPPY TRAVELS: THE COMPANY
After spending a month in Spain with fantastic views but very mediocre friends, I realize that to be happy when traveling (as with all other times in your life) is to be with people whose company you know you will enjoy. I still really loved Spain with all its fantastic views, but I knew that I would have loved it so much more if I had my good friends with me. In contrast, my time in Bali was truly fantastic because I was with my good friend, and turned to immensely boring on the last day when she had to fly to Singapore to cure a monkey bite.
Travel, like every other time in your life, is about the people. It is about the memories you make with your friends, and the views that you have seen together. That’s why I don’t think I can ever travel solo. It is different for everyone, of course. But I would just rather share the view with people I know.
MY SECOND TIP TO HAPPY TRAVELS: connect with the locals
Don’t be stupid. You will probably never find life-long friendships or deep, meaningful love with people that you met on the road. Eat, Pray, Love is after all a white people love story that never happens in real life even for white people (or perhaps, maybe they do but I am not white). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make connections with the locals. Like I said, it is always about the people. It is the story of people that you would tell to your granddaughter, not the story of the landmarks that you saw.
I have always read experienced travelers say, “talk to the locals”. They probably are less socially awkward than I am. How do you make local connections? I find it hard to just walk up to someone and strike up a random conversation with a local whom you are not even sure that they would speak your tongue. I do not believe in the late-night deep conversations in hostels either (I don’t stay in them).
However, I gradually realize that I had it all wrong – it is not about become good friends with people that you just met. No one establishes friendship that easily. It is not even about making friends. It is simply about extending your little social tentacles/antenna (whichever one gives you a less weird visual metaphor), and simply have a small conversation with the locals that you naturally came in contact with. If you know someone, that is great. If you don’t, try to get on some local guided tours like biking, rafting or cooking classes. In Bali, of course I have my local friend who is Indo, but I also talked to the guide who took us on the biking tour and our driver who was Hindu and a local Balinese. Our driver spoke some English but not very well, but we made small talks when he drove me around.
He took photos for me when Vicky wasn’t there at the Hindu temple, showed me a colorful wristband and told me, “Hindu, when you see this.”
“Ahhhh,” I nodded, took the small piece of knowledge with gratitude.
MY THIRD TIP TO HAPPY TRAVELS: don’t pretend that you are a local
Many people advise the travelers to pretend they are local and live like the locals would for an “authentic experience”. I understand where they are coming from but I would have to disagree.
Don’t be a tourist who only goes to see the spectacles. Be a traveler who appreciates and treat the place you visit with respect. But always remember you are a visitor still. Don’t intrude, or seek the “authenticity”. Firstly, authenticity does not exist. Seeking authenticity is really an effort to appropriate someone else’s life for the novelty of experience. To me, it is simply a superiority complex – insensible, arrogant, and really annoying.
In my four days visit to Bali, I have grown to love the place, but I always kept in mind that what I have seen and experienced, is but a tiny fraction of what is there. I don’t claim that I have had the “authentic Balinese experience”, or that I understand what that is – I probably never will. Even with a month in Seville, I was still an outsider, a visitor. I only claim that I have had an authentic personal journey, which opened my eyes to more possibilities and beauties in the world, and I returned with a humble heart knowing how much beauty is out there still waiting for me to explore.
Those are the tips of how I travel, which I only figured out with trials and failures. With these in mind, I can set out to experience the maximum. How do you travel? Let me know.