Travel has changed the world, so goes a popular saying. But today, given the changing lifestyles and choices, it can be said with certainty that, the world has changed the way we travel. Decades ago, the traditional traveler set out expand his mind by seeing new things, experiencing a new culture or watching sunrise in a new place, but today, traditional travel has become quite meaningless, insipid and watered-down version of what it was – once upon a time. Today, travelers are seeking a more meaningful and sustainable way to travel.
So, what exactly is a watered-down version of a travel scenario we are talking about? In short, traditional-travel refers to quick tours that do not scratch the surface, merely grazing the tip of the iceberg, giving you a run- through of information that barely registers, like, those tours that promise five cities in three days – that’s what we are talking about.
I bring this up because I once happened to speak to an acquaintance about her fantastic multi-city package that ran her through five European cities over three days. I was curious at the speed with which they must have traveled. Unfortunately, all she remembered (of Bratislava) was the gelato ice-cream and the statue of Cumil, the Workman.
You must have heard of similar scenarios too. This very reason is why alternative travel was born and continues to flourish. And with good reason. Because it helps travelers get in touch with reality and to take them away from the notion of visa-stamps and Instagram pictures. It brings back the real reason for travel. Because, today’s travelers are learners.
The reason for alternative travel
First of all, to understand alternative travel, we need to understand why we travel. If you are a business traveler, then you might be limiting your choices, but if the thirst that drives of your travel is quenched only with curiosity and satisfaction of immersing yourself into the local life, you are probably looking for an alternative travel. Because, deep in your traveler’s mind, you know that you have a need to fill your travel diary with meaningful and real experiences, to understand and imbibe authenticity and uniqueness that every place has to offer, because that is where learning happens. Because alternative travel is the best teacher.
Live and experience a place like a local
Integrate yourself into the local life. Stay with the locals. Opt for a more local way of living – find a host (various resources are available for this), get off the beaten track, do something new or novel. This of course takes time – and is not possible on a skip-the-queue-type of tour. But living like a local means, you also pay the local rate! How cool is that. By “being local”, you also get to see, eat, experience the local things that might not be a part of a tourist-itinerary.
If there is one thing I have learnt in many years of my travel is that, in the end, all that you remember of the trip is not the shopping you did or the pools you swam in, but the people, their hospitality, your role in enriching their lives, what you gave back and how you felt when leaving a piece of you behind. I have never felt sad when leaving a hotel, but leaving a host always felt like leaving a family member behind. The smell of their food or their kindness far outweighs the picture I have of famous landmarks.
Experiencing the real
Some of my best memories of backpacking in Myanmar involved the unknown little places I visited with a local girl, who happened to be staying at the same hostel that I was. With her, I discovered Snake Temples, the best rice-salad and cheap fruit markets. But most of all, being with her, I got discounts on buses, and ferries and shopping. Similar with my Couchsurfing host in Trabzon, Turkey and again in China where I discovered underground shopping malls, underground kitchens and entertainments reserved exclusively for locals. There is no better way to learn about somebody than to experience what they do.
Help save the world
To keep up with the traditional travel or mass-tourism framework – like the need to build new resorts and swimming pools, much of the ecosystem is being destroyed. Forests are being cut down to create more housing facilities and cater to other largescale demands – luxury, chauffeur driven cars, private transfers and such like, impacting the environment. In being part of this, we forget that we are consuming or destroying more local resources than we pay for, or need, simply to fulfil our flights of fancy.
Alternative travel brings accountability. The responsibility of the surrounding environment is in the hands of the people living there. Long after the “tourist” has left, they remain behind to deal with the consequences of their own actions. By involving ourselves in their lives,, like using the existing resources (staying with them, eating local food, doing everything they do) we can impact the world in a whole different way.
Are you an alternative traveler?
Real travel is more than sightseeing. And you are one of those travelers that aim to leave your presence in the world, loves giving back, connects to a new place in meaningful ways, helps preserve the local culture and tradition, empowers a local community, does not expect the locals to shower you with attention or food all the time or wait on you 24x7 and enjoys doing things in return, uses the public transport and helps in reducing carbon footprint, you are probably already an alternative or traveler.
What can you do on an alternative travel?
A question that promptly gets asked when the term “alternative travel” comes up is, “what can you do.?”
The answer is simple. Anything that wouldn’t go on a tour package. For example, volunteering is definitely an alternative travel. Other examples are joining the drive to save the rain forests, beach-cleanup, learn cooking or wine making in Italy, picking coffee and learn the art of roasting, save the sun-bear, clean up the rivers…the list is endless. My best alternative travel experiences were in Africa – we helped in building a classroom and clearing out patches of land to grow corn and vegetables. It was the most satisfying six weeks I’d spent in my entire life. In those six weeks, I not only learnt how to lay bricks, but also about farming, soils and manure. Today when I am sent pictures of children reading books in the library I helped set up, my heart swells with pride. Giving is far more satisfying than taking. Alternative travel has taught me that.
Alternative travel is what you make of it. To some, it is the challenge that brings them closer to what they really want, by opening their eyes to the reality. It gives them the ability to see and understand everything is a different light – the light of realism. We all know that travel changes us in unimaginable ways, bringing us closer to the source of learning and joy, so why not give in to our innate desire of learning and dig a little deeper into a new experience?
Alternative travel gives you the freedom to learn to do something by involving yourself in it. Here, you give a part of yourself to a place before taking away a part of the place with you.