There is no universal experience
When I was 20, I backpacked across the US from Chicago to Los Angeles over two months. My best friend and I volunteered on tiny organic farms and caught trains and buses across eight states.
All of our friends said the same thing.
‘You’re going to get murdered. You know that right?’
We waved them off because we were young and invincible. We were also right to wave them off. We did not get murdered. Instead we met an endless array of wonderful, helpful and friendly people.
But as I got further into my twenties and travelled more and more, not only did the warnings continue but I found myself weighing up destinations based on their supposed risks.
And I found myself drawn to places that were famed for being easy and friendly. I met other travellers who’d dismissed whole swathes of the world because they were ‘too dangerous’ or even ‘too touristy’. They’d made an arbitrary decision to never visit because of what they’d read on forums.
And we were all in danger of missing out on a lot.
One man’s trash
Travelling anywhere is always an experience unique to you. There is no black and white here, the variables are infinite. They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure — well the same can be applied to places and peoples.
I knew an Eastern European woman who said she hated the French. She couldn’t stand the way they only gave her menus in French instead of an English version. She disliked that they spoke to her only in French.
The French are famed for their determination at retaining the Frenchness of their language and customs. She hated it, I’ve always loved and respected it.
Some people might loathe the idea of jumping on a rickety bus crammed full of locals and instead exclusively visit locations accessible by air-conditioned private cars. Others might crave that visceral experience.
We are all different and we all travel differently.
But there are two particular strains of travel myth that are hard to avoid. The ‘dangerous’ places and the ‘touristy’ places.
The truth about danger abroad
I was just reading a forum on accommodation in Naples. A woman was asking which neighbourhoods her and her husband should avoid in the stereotypically rough Italian city.
A few commenters gave their advice and warned her to be careful about petty theft wherever she stayed in the city, including vespa riders snatching bags off shoulders.
She eventually posted that she’d decided to go to a ‘safer’ city.
The commenters said they’d never intended on putting her off and were just giving out the standard warnings. They said Naples was a wonderful place to visit and explore. But their warnings were too much for her.
And here’s the thing about many ‘dangerous’ places; they’re all the same.
In your average city destination, wherever you are (bar warring nations or those experiencing severe political unrest), the risks are broadly the same.
It’s probably not very wise to walk around some parts of Naples at night holding an SLR but you know what? I wouldn’t do that in London either. And I’ve never thought of London as ‘dangerous’.
But our capital is full of petty theft. A common piece of advice in foreign cities is to loop your bag around your arm or leg when in a cafe. Well…I’d do that in plenty of places in London too.
I wouldn’t walk down the back alleys of Manchester at night alone just the same as I didn’t do it in Panama City. If you’re asking for trouble, it doesn’t really matter where you are.
There are plenty of places throughout the world where you might have to keep a sharper eye out than others. Just as you should read about the local customs, common scams and level of corruption. But you only don’t need to do that in your home country because you intrinsically know about them already.
If you avoid Naples because it has a documented record of pickpocketing than you’ll also have to avoid your own city centre because someone nicked a woman’s handbag last week.
Leaving the house involves a certain level of risk.
What if I decided against Naples and instead went to a stereotypically ‘safe’ place, during which some unscrupulous person decided to break into my house? Wouldn’t that be ironic? And certainly not impossible.
The tourist traps
When we listen to the experiences of others without doing any research or experiencing ourselves, it’s all too easy to write off entire places or nations.
For years I never had any intention of visiting the Canary Islands. The only thing I’d ever seen about them was package holidays and sprawling resorts full of English people eating fish and chips. It did not sound like my kinda jam.
But then I found myself sailing there and staying across the islands for three months. And it entirely transformed my view.
The Canaries do have pockets of beach holiday resorts and tat shops but these places are easily avoided. I spent an entire month in Tenerife and barely came across anything that was remotely trashy.
Instead I discovered phenomenal hiking trails, monumental cliffs, cloud forests and the beautiful twisting streets of Santa Cruz. I simply didn’t go to the holiday resorts in the south. Tenerife is far more than what the package holiday brochures would suggest.
I’d judged an entire island chain on advertising that was never meant for me. And I should’ve known better.
You get an interesting flavour of traveller — a type which I’ve fallen into the mindset of occasionally — the travel snob.
They’re the type who never go to the ‘popular’ places and look down upon those who do. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for going to those destinations off-the-beaten track — you don’t really have a choice when you travel by boat — but the ‘popular’ places are worthy too.
They often hold the widest range of culture and price. There you can see five-star hotels opposite the tiniest of local tavernas. You’ll see the nation’s most iconic sights which have histories so thick and complex that ignoring them simply because they’re popular pictures on Instagram is sort of missing the point.
By travelling exclusively based on the opinions of others, you’ll miss the only thing that matters; your own opinion, based on your own experiences.
It’s not a competition. You neither have to see Machu Picchu nor spurn it for its popularity. You can do what you like. It’s your trip.
The truth about travel
Going to somewhere Else is both utterly new and very much the same. You are there, for a start. With all your life experience and viewpoints and interests. But also, everywhere you go you will find other humans living their lives. You’ll find places to eat and things to look at.
The history will be different, the architecture exotic and the flavours rich and new. But everything you see, you will look at through your eyes.
It’s why travel writing is so endlessly enjoyable. Because each writer sees places differently. They see different things, speak to different people and have different experiences.
My joy in riding the Whistler gondolas in summer might be based on the bird’s-eye-view of fat marmots, while yours might be based on the exhilarating height and feeling of being drawn up the mountainside.
Your Paris is not my Paris. My Bali is not your Bali. My Canaries is not your Canaries.
That’s the truth about travelling. It’s your experience of a place, nobody else’s.