Sunday, January 25, 2009

How to Plan for the Unplannable: Guidebook Mashing

I find the yes/no guidebook debates fascinating.

I don't have much to say beyond what's been said. Yes, it's unfortunate to try and reduce a beautiful place in the world to a uni-dimensional game plan. Yet, it's also unfortunate to get mugged in a South American grotto because you didn't know you should have gone left instead of right.

I've been fine-tuning my information-carrying strategy. I like reading about a place before I go, if only because it builds anticipation and begins to create curiosity. It also helps to know a little bit before going to avoid cultural gaffes and get in interesting conversations with people who are living there. Yet, I want to pack as minimally to increase mobility. Roughly half to three quarters of any given book is not useful to find what I'm looking for.

Here's what I do right now. I am certainly open to altering these strategies.

(1) I buy, or source, any books I will get at a bookstore so I can cross-compare. I usually have an idea of one place I want to visit in an area, and I check to see what the comparative coverage of a sample spot is. If there are no good books, I don't buy a book. If there is a good book, $30 is nothing for the many ways it may save your ass. Do you travel uninsured? Then it is possible guidebooks are not for you.

(2) I make a condensed version of the book, by photocopying (e.g. maps) or just making notes about the most useful advice. If I didn't buy the book, at a local library (though please do not violate copyrights and copy the whole thing). Often, even if I did buy a book I use the library to add additional details from others - maybe there's some random festival only one book thought to list that's worth getting more information on (often via the internet).

(3) I consult blogs and friends to add more detail. When I went to Paris, I sent a quick note to a friend who had just finished a year there. She wrote me back with a very detailed beautiful walking tour that was the highlight of my visit and certainly took me to unlisted places. I like blogs better than review sites because they tend to contain a whole body of work, from which I can gage what kind of traveler the person is and maybe even get in touch with them. I scan popular, vetted travel websites for interesting ideas and news articles.

(4) As soon as I arrive I check out local media, preferably the stuff targeted to my age in the country and newspapers. I rip things out and tuck them into my "guidebook," which ends up becoming a quasi travel journal. In urban North America, even craigslist can give you some fascinating stuff to see or do.

I also do the usual: make friends with bartenders/university students/whoever, but I understand this is actually not feasible for everyone and often depends on social skills, language skills, etc.

If there is less time to prepare I just plan out the first twenty four hours (multiple contingency plans, for example: what if my first choice of transit isn't possible) and make sure I stay in a hub city at a decent hostel. Most hostels in hubs have a guidebook kicking around, if not an entire library. I also really don't mind the LP-heads who use a book as a Bible and check everything off - if you get past having different goals and ideas about travel, they often give a shortlist about what's good/closed/can't miss/overrated and where the book has been dead on or is now totally wrong.

Is this too labor intensive? Just a way of making myself feel like I'm different from being an LP-head in kevlar synthetics and Tevas, when really I'm still not embracing the full journey by letting myself get off a plane a little less prepared? Establishing impressions about a place that will taint my experience of it? Maybe so, maybe so...

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