It’s now been over a year since the world unlocked after the pandemic, budget travel is possible again. Hostels with dorms for ten people are open for business; Maskless travelers happily board crowded airport buses instead of cautiously ordering a taxi. Me too, I started to travel again with few means. I’ve never quite bought into the idea that the best things in life are free – or, at the very least, cheap. I have a weakness, for example, for central heating and my iPhone. But I’m increasingly wondering if travel is my only exception (at least, once you take flights out of the equation).
It often seems that the goal of hotels in faraway destinations is to separate guests from the hot, sticky reality of the country beyond the “safe” air-conditioned enclosure. I once visited Bangkok as part of a posh package and found that my only interaction with Thai people was the bowing ladies who came for our fluffy white towels. Luxury resorts position themselves as a “home away from home”: a satellite city, with satellite TV in your room; connect to the familiar comforts of home and disconnect from your destination.
My love of hiking is a bit unexpected. I’m usually pretty girly and high maintenance – I’m not sure I own a pair of jeans. Putting my things in a backpack means there’s no room for my hair straighteners, and the idea of doing my four-step skincare routine in a mixed dorm is laughable. But it forces me to realize that I’m just as much – maybe even more – of a person when my hair sticks out in its natural curls and I have nowhere to hang my clothes.
[See also: Douglas Kennedy’s Diary: The orchestra’s return, US abortion wars, and how to be a traveller in the time of Covid]
I also have to let my guard down in other ways when sharing a room with multiple strangers – I have to assume that someone won’t steal my bag while I’m away or invade my privacy while I’m sleeping. Hostels work because backpackers depend on each other’s unspoken goodwill and reciprocity. I now understand why northern co-living arrangements, where neighbors share common kitchens, dining rooms and play areas in a way that encourages community, make Scandinavians so happy.
On pre-booked tours, the destination is set and the generic speech is pre-approved by company headquarters before being delivered by a guide at the microphone. Instead, I go to the biggest square in the city I’m visiting and look for “free walking tour” guides, standing under large umbrellas. Rather than a barrage of dates, battles, and invasions, people who work for tips often have their own story about what the city means to them. A place is defined by the experiences others have of it.
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Eating in an expensive restaurant aimed at tourists with a view of the port is like a date that is a little too attractive: they feel less need to exert themselves. These restaurants cook what they think Western foreigners want, which may mean less authenticity and less spice. In Portugal, I found the petiscos were much better in twisted restaurant-style joints with layered menus and sticky red-green trinkets. In Vietnam, the £1 pho simmered in front of me by street vendors was much better than that in a cafe; chefs often benefit from an audience. And sharing a bench with other customers means I can see what the locals are ordering.
I wonder if we are missing out by opting for sanitized modes of transport that cater to tourists, such as taxis or coaches. A country’s public transport system can tell a lot about its sensitivity. The punctuality of the German public transport network is emblematic of the order of its inhabitants. At the other end of the spectrum, India’s trains represent to me its quirkiness and “anything goes” mentality. Despite the relative conservatism of the country, I slept in a bunk above a foreigner and woke to the sight of smiling men as they performed their morning excretions on the slopes.
On a trip to Medellín, Colombia, I stopped ordering Ubers after realizing that taking the metro helps to understand the Colombian psyche a bit more. Since it opened 27 years ago, after years of drug wars and bombings, Colombians are so proud to be entrusted with a modern urban railroad that they keep it spotless: it doesn’t there’s no graffiti on the walls or chewing gum on the floor. And of course, nothing like hairpin turns to make you appreciate the humanity we all have in common. The Laotian man sitting next to me on a bus through his country spoke no English, but he knew enough to smile comfortingly – and pass me the sick bags his wife had packed in her satchel.
Very often when we travel we pay for the luxury of privacy. A room, a table, a car for one means we can be safe from natives. The pandemic has made us realize how privileged human interaction and closeness are; it’s a shame to pay to deprive yourself of it.
Tracey Thorn is on sabbatical
[See also: Locked down in London, I long for a Spanish bar, a Tuscan vineyard – or even a French supermarket]
This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2022 issue of The New Statesman, Crushed!