Some people like Vasco da gama and Columbus went around the world for a vocation and ended up discovering fortunes and new worlds. But many of us travel for a vacation where we spend our hard earned money to relax, rejuvenate and return with rich memories.
Before we decide on our vacation jaunts many of us tend to ask around for opinions, experiences and budgets. But often, we get jaundiced by perceptions and prejudices and end up missing out on great vacation places. When I decided to book my trip to Japan, I refrained from asking around for opinions. And when I disclosed my travel plans, I was dissuaded citing Japan to be very expensive location, a non-English speaking country to lack of vegetarian food. But I didn’t pay heed to their unsolicited opinions.
After a two week trip in Japan, here I stand on the podium as a self-proclaimed winner and loser. I won against those naysayers by disproving their perceptions and I lost my heart to the country, its people and culture. But before I make the naysayers jealous with my travel experiences and pictures, I would like to share my approach to planning and preparing for a trip.
Have a reason to travel
There must be a fundamental reason why you would want to vacation in a certain place. You should fuel that desire by trying to read up about the place, its culture, history, lifestyle of people, their cuisine, geographical and climatic conditions, etc. to qualify or disqualify the place.
This summer, Australia featured during my conversation with another travel aficionado. But then when we did further reading and research, we decided against traveling there despite English being their native language and playing home to Kangaroos and exotic species in the Great Barrier Reef. Why? Because I didn’t find their culture and history compelling enough to spend my hard earned money and moreover, I was not looking for an opportunity to fill my Face Book page with scenic images to show off my affluence or happiness.
And when I looked up from Australia I spotted this beautiful Island Nation, Japan that was often rattled by earth quakes and nuclear disasters. But what intrigued me was their faith and resilience. Soon I was mired in a million questions on their culture and faith and wanted to explore the country and experience their customs firsthand.
Do your research
While many jump on package tours, I prefer doing my own research and customizing an itinerary based on my interest. Packaged tours are like canned food – very much unappetizing and unhealthy. One just needs to invest time to match their interests and pick spots of interests before they set out to experience and explore. Though travel guides often do a quick job of outlining culture, places of interest, accommodation, food, transportation, etc., but doesn’t provide to in depth view into culture. When I watched travel videos on Kyoto, a city of thousand temples, I realized the similarities it bore to Kanchipuram and Varanasi and I could guess why our Prime Minister tied up with Kyoto to develop Varanasi. Only when you read and research you can understand the subtle parallels and enjoy the place and culture even more. Otherwise it would be a paralull!
Read their newspapers
An expert traveler understands the social, political and day-today issues before he/she travels into any country. The best way to begin your journey is to start reading an English Daily, develop your own perspective and go beyond guide books. By closely reading one of their dailies I discovered that the famous Tsukiji Fish Market was closing down for good on November 14 and I was able to go there and get an experience despite being a vegetarian. The digital age and social media has made this more easier; by simply following popular newspapers and journalist one can get access to day-today happenings and issues. This is how you can be a more knowledgeable, informed and sensitive traveler distinguishing yourself other vagabonds.
Go beyond guide books
Guide books are written for pedestrian travelers and may never be able to meet individual interests and needs. If you want to see the dark side of a city, throw away the guide books and start self-exploration.When you walk around the city you discover what guide books seldom share. I have been always interested in graffiti and during my visit to East Berlin I joined a paid tour to explore graffiti and learn about squatters. When I was wandering along the streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo, I asked myself could this dirt-free and beggar-free country have homeless and graffiti. And during my explorative walk from Shinjuku to Shibuya, I discovered the underworld that wasn’t describe in any of the guide books. The underpass was filled with graffiti and had a few homeless people. Had I gone with guidebooks, I would have missed a rare sight in this city.
Speak to a local
Most guidebooks and websites often exaggerate on what customs must be observed, traditions to be followed, tourist traps to be avoided and sometimes they forget to keep their material up-to-date. When we finished our dinner at Milan Natraj restaurant at Shibuya and as we got ready about to pay our bill, we realized that tipping at restaurants is considered rude and insulting. A few days later when we were at Tennoji Shrine at Osaka a notice at the entrance in local language warned us against playing their latest craze (Pokeman) at the temple. Though none of us played Pokeman at Tennoji, it is always safe to learn the customs and traditions with a local. While we all want to be a courteous and polite traveler, our actions can offend people inadvertently.
Disconnect from reality
To enjoy your vacation to the fullest and get the most out of your trip you need to disconnect yourself from reality. Disable office emails on devices, uninstall Facebook, and stop reading newspapers from back home. As you are away you will neither be able to help nor participate and sometimes what you read can make you feel miserable.
A friend of mine on the trip was pre-occupied the day American Election results were out. He was constantly on his mobile checking the status and ended up feeling unhappy about Trump’s triumph. On the same day rest of India was crying and queuing up outside banks with demonization announcement. I had no idea of the pain and two weeks later when I landed at the Airport I felt life was as usual with no disruption. It is good idea to stay disconnected from reality and re-connect when you are back from vacation.
Travel to me is very much an intellectual and internal journey as it is fun. Not sure if you would ever want to travel with me after reading this blog, but remember to make your trips fun and memorable.
Get ready for the next one on Tokyo…from guide books to beyond guide books.