February 2011

The problem of adult travel

by Steve Brock on February 25, 2011

I took this photo of a large moth on another trip in the Bahamas. This one is "only" about four inches across, but it still caused wonder.

When I was 11, my family took a trip that included a stop in Caracas, Venezuela. I primarily remember two things from my time there.

First, I recall riding in an air conditioned bus with other tourists through the outskirts of the city and seeing miles of shacks lining the hills around Caracas. That was my first exposure to widespread poverty, and as a kid, I’m not sure I knew what to do with that.

What stood out at the time, however, wasn’t the dilapidated nature of those thousands of tiny abodes but the fact that almost every one of them had a television antenna attached to its roof or side (since some of the makeshift roofs would not have supported even an antenna).

In my young mind, I figured that TV sets were expensive items. How could anyone who lived in such poor conditions afford such a luxury? And yet the landscape before me was one of mud, corrugated tin, sundry bits and pieces of wood, leftover construction materials and this massive forest of metal multiple T-shaped antennas standing out against the skyline.

It was, to me, a wonder.

The second thing that amazed me that day was a trip up an aerial tram to a peak overlooking the city. It wasn’t the vista, however, that grabbed my attention. Instead, clinging to the walls of the tram station in the darkest corners and shadows were moths the size of a man’s hand. Make that a professional basketball player’s hand.

I had never seen an insect bigger than a small hummingbird before and here were moths that could have stood their own against a bird the size of a robin.

I’m sure I pointed out both of these marvels, the antennas and the gargantuan moths, to my parents. I’m sure they acknowledged and appreciated my observations. But I don’t think they got the wonder of it all, at least to the degree I did.

Why? Because as adults, they understood that living in poverty, by our standards, does not mean living without resources or the desire for entertainment afforded by an inexpensive television set. They knew that bugs can get big. They knew that, to them, there were far more interesting things to notice in Venezuela.

They knew all this because they were adults and adults know these things.

But now that I am, at least chronologically, an adult, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. As an adult, I’ve seen the devastation of poverty in places around the world. But I also have so-called answers for it, rationale and ideas for solutions. Adult responses. Yet none of those adult concepts makes me ponder the situation or let it get under my skin and to my heart as much as being aware of antennas or moths as a kid.

We can travel in pursuit of answers. That’s what we’re trained to do as adults. But the older I get – ironically, the longer I’m an adult – the more I believe there’s a more fulfilling and meaningful way to travel.  

I think I need to spend less time explaining things like poverty and Lepidoptera (the species of butterflies and moths) and more time marveling at a landscape of antennas and standing mouth agape at huge, scary, and beautiful insects.

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Getting the most out of a guidebook

by Steve Brock on February 21, 2011

We never would have found these ancient - and secluded - friary ruins in Ireland had we not read about them in a single guidebook: none of the half dozen other guidebooks we had noted them. That meant we had the entire place to ourselves...and the cows and sheep.

What’s so meaningful about a guidebook? Nothing really. It’s what you do with it that will determine if the outcome is meaningful or not.

In today’s interconnected world, you wonder if the guidebook itself is becoming an anachronism, a throwback to a time when people read actual newspapers and a social network usually involved a potluck. So I’m less concerned with the medium in which the information is presented – books, printouts of PDFs, downloadable e-books, podcasts, phone apps or live access to Web sites while traveling. The question to me is this: Is the content of value to the traveler?

I know of some travelers who say no.

Those who oppose guidebooks say that such aids:

  • Prevent or at least hinder personal discovery
  • Lead you to the same places everyone else goes and reinforce stereotypes
  • Err on the side of the safe, tried and true international hotels and restaurants rather than local ones, or, when they do come across an indigenous find, they ruin it by telling everyone. That hidden gem then becomes as private as a Royal Wedding.

 I agree with those points to some degree. But to me, it all comes down to how you use a guidebook. Here are some thoughts on how to get the most from written guides (we’ll save the subject of live tour guides for another time):

  • Realize that all discovery is personal. Just because a million people have been to the same place before doesn’t make it any less meaningful for you the first time you go there.
  • Use the guidebook as a starting point. Use it to identify places and events that sound interesting to you and to avoid those that don’t. The primary value to me of a guidebook is that it saves me time. Think of it as a filter, not the final word on what to see.
  • Don’t settle for just one perspective. As I noted last time, I always go to the library and check out as many guidebooks as I can. I’ll usually end up buying one or two to take or photocopy (or more recently, download onto a Kindle), but I only purchase the one that most aligns with my style, needs for this particular trip and travel sensibilities. Look over several and find what works for you.
  • Focus on both the similarities and differences. Most guidebooks will overlap 80-90% in what they cover, at least in terms of the sights to see. That 90% will include the popular, touristy places. But read carefully for the other 10%. In the details listed in only one book, you often encounter some of the most interesting finds, places you’d never discover on your own. 
  • Cast your guidebook aside once you get your bearings. Guidebooks serve well to provide you with background, an initial orientation and some possible places to consider you might never find on your own. But once you get there, you’ll experience more meaningful encounters through talking with locals and other travelers and making your own discoveries. 

 All of the above points matter, but here’s the main reason I use guidebooks: They prime me for openness.

That may seem counter-intuitive because if anything, you may think that guidebooks close you by pointing you toward the same old sights and foisting someone else’s perceptions on you. But to me, by having a greater background and familiarity with the popular sights and even other people’s opinions courtesy of the guidebook, I’m actually free to look around more on my own without worrying about what I might miss.

What about you? How do you use guidebooks? Or do you? Do you just show up and wing it? Has your use changed over time? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts on what works for you.

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The best travel advice ever

by Steve Brock on February 18, 2011

When preparing for a trip, as for this one to Peru, read all you can…and then forget it.


Okay, maybe this isn’t the BEST travel advice I ever received, but it ranks up there with don’t drink the water, pack light and never accept marriage proposals from strange men in Nigeria.

I could throw in, “Don’t dine near cats in Greece” but only my friend Ed would fully appreciate the value of that insight.

The so-called “best” advice came to me from another friend, Ty, when I was in grad school preparing for my first trip to Asia. He had spent some time in Hong Kong and similar places, so in my eyes, that made him an expert on the region. But his advice applies no matter where you go. And that advice is this:

When you’re planning a trip, talk to as many people as you can who have been to that place, read as much as you can, learn as much as you can.

And then forget everything.

His point was that it is easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information you can take in before a trip, especially today when just about every place you will visit has been documented by travel advice Web sites and bloggers. So visit these Web sites, read the books, look at the photos, watch the videos and talk to everyone you know who has been there.

When you do, you’ll start to discern patterns and uncover topics and places of interest to you. But before you reach that point of over-saturation, stop. Just stop. Put the whole trip, as much as is possible, out of your mind. And then you’ll discover an interesting aspect about our brains.

Your subconscious brain processes far more than you realize. So when I say, “Forget everything,” in reality, you can’t. The important points will stick and when it comes time for your trip, the things that stood out as you were absorbing all the advice earlier will come back to you.

Don’t get me wrong, as we’ll see in the next entry, I’m a firm believer in taking guidebooks or printouts/notes of information with you on your trip. You’ll want to refer to those for the details once you’re onsite. But for now, read and learn and then as they say – at least in the movies about New York gangsters – “fuggedaboudit.”

I followed this advice just recently in preparing for an upcoming trip to Peru. I went to the library, got all the books I could, skimmed through them to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and then put them aside. I’ll come back to them once we get closer to the trip, but for now, I can enjoy the anticipation so much more by not having to even think about any of the details.

Try it. You’ll find it not only helps you in the anticipation phase, but also adds value on the trip when the sights trigger nuggets of insight you read or heard about earlier.

And it sure beats the heck out of dining with cats in Greece…

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Believing in wonder

by Steve Brock February 15, 2011

We can learn a lot about wonder and travel from the Volkswagen Super Bowl ad regarding wonder and our response to it. Maybe the Force is with us more than we realize…

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Cairo: the value of being there

by Steve Brock February 12, 2011

Experiencing first-hand events such as those in Cairo, Egypt as President Mubarak steps down demonstrate the amazing value of being in a place at a pivotal point in history and how doing so with others forever changes us.

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The loss of something beautiful

by Steve Brock February 7, 2011

We encounter things on trips that move us profoundly but we don’t know why…until other “unrelated” circumstances reveal surprising connections. I came to appreciate this recently by encountering two very different forms of death.

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Planning and Control

by Steve Brock February 4, 2011

You’ll have a much better trip when you concentrate primarily on those things you can control and trust God with the rest. This is true not only during the trip itself but also during the planning stage of your trip, often for some surprising reasons…

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