Your Best Travel Guide Isn’t A Book

If you’re seeking a “more authentic” travel experience, ditch the guidebook and try speaking some of the local language. It will get you much further than you might think.
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“Best Travel Guide to Experience Peru like a native”

Get off the beaten track and experience the real deal!”

“Avoid all the tourist-traps with these hidden gems!”

You’ve heard these claims before. Follows by an inevitable list of five “Funky”, “Intense”, or “Authentic” places — places that no other tourist would ever conceivably visit. Except, of course, for the 50,000 other tourists who have bought the same travel guide or stumbled across the same blog post.

On the one hand the entire idea of an “authentic” experience is ridiculous — who exactly is to judge one person’s experience as less real than anyone else’s? But on the other, who of us is content to simply jump on a plane, swipe our credit card at a hotel, and eat at restaurants we are told are the best?

I know I’m not. I think it’s the adventurer in me — the restless part that wants to get out into the world and truly develop a feel for life in a different place. The part of me that will not be satisfied by a pre-packaged experience, however “authentic” the “best travel guide” claims it to be.

Side stepping the advice of travel guides and travel blogs means a different kind of travel. More uncertain, but perhaps, more rewarding. Instead of relying completely on a prepared map of recommendations use your own inner resources to actively navigate whatever crazy situation the world has thrown you into. 

A Little Less Guide, A Little More Travel

Language. Language is the first, if not most important, of these inner resources for travelers. A key that unlocks doors to worlds you could not have imagined. I began traveling through Central and South America with only a basic command of Spanish, and learned much of what I know through conversation and watching telenovelas (admittedly, my guilty pleasure). However basic, my knowledge of Spanish has made my trips more meaningful and exciting. It has set me off into the unknown: new friendships, finding out about a good local bar or, as it sometimes happens, a ride into town on a tractor.

Connect With The Locals

For example, a number of years ago a friend and I traveled to Bolivia to work on a documentary film. At the time, my Spanish was terrible, optimistically speaking. We were at the Sunday vegetable market in La Paz, Bolivia, and things were not looking good.

“My friend and I are working on a documentary film, do you think we could possibly please, if it’s no bother, film for 10 minutes?” I managed to say in my most polite Spanish to the papaya vendor.

1000 bolivianos,” the vendor replied distractedly (about $150. Way out of our budget and much more than the going rate).

Es un poco caro…” (It’s a little expensive) I began, then faltered as the woman shrugged and turned towards another customer. “Pero por favor…” I said a little louder. No dice. I stood there dumbly, lost amidst the cries of the children and the bustle of traffic, when I remembered a short phrase that a Bolivian friend had taught me before leaving. “If you get stuck negotiating,” she said, just try “rebajame pues” (which loosely translates as “cut me some slack”). What did I have to lose?

Señora por favor, rebajame pues,” I began, waving my hand. Suddenly, I had the woman’s attention. And everyone else at the papaya stand for that matter. She broke into a grin.

How does a gringo like you know a phrase like that? Only Bolivians say that.” I explained that I came from Rhode Island, which has a large Bolivian population. I bought a papaya and we spoke for another couple minutes about the city, about the weather, about life in the U.S. We paused, looking out onto the winding, impossibly steep streets of the city.

“So,” I said, sensing the moment. “What do you think about filming with some gringos for a couple minutes?”

“That depends,” she replied with that same grin, “on how many papayas you think you can eat.”

Thirty minutes later, we walked away with considerably more fruit than we wanted (it had cost us about $10 all told) and all of the market footage that we could dream of.

A Truly Off-The-Path Experience

Years later I had a similar, if a little more hairy, experience while traveling through Ecuador. I had dallied too long at the street festival, and I was late for the last bus to the capital until 3 pm the following day. Scrambling through the maze of traffic and vendors, I arrived just in time to see my bus disappear, its taillights winking at me through an evil cloud of smoke. Stranded.

Worse still, the few hotels in town were out of the question, since they were all booked up for the festival. Dazed by the prospect of spending the next 18 hours on the streets, I drifted back into the festival, feeling highly sorry for myself. I landed at a small cafe and ordered a beer. Down the road someone was lighting off fireworks. Behind me, a small group of student-age people were talking excitedly in Spanish, “When José gets back we should set some off ourselves!”

¿Qué explosivos tienen?” I asked them, feigning indifference.

“¿Perdóneme?” One of them asked, incredulously.

“What kind of fireworks do you have?” I repeated in Spanish, unnerved by the response.

The expressions on their faces made it seem like they thought I was either a street preacher or insurance salesman. I made as convincing a gesture of lighting a firework as I could. Uncertain glances back and forth, then a look of realization, then broad smiles. A word to the wise: explosivos refers to something much, much more powerful than fireworks.

“You mean fireworks (fuegos artificiales)!” they said laughing, “I took you for some kind of cop. It was a little funny for a gringo to be asking for dynamite.”

By this point, however, my mistake had broken the ice and we were off to the races. When their friend finally came back they invited me up to the rooftop, where it turns out they did indeed have fireworks. 

Amidst new friends, delicious wine, and fireworks I spent the night under the crazy Ecuadorian sky, listening to the brass band thundering off the walls. When they found out about my missed bus my new friends insisted that I stay with them. I wouldn’t be sleeping on the streets after all. The next day as I headed out to catch my bus to the capital — as if their previous hospitality wasn’t enough — I was sent off with a hearty llama steak and bowl of quinoa soup. Not sure a travel guide would have that in its list of “authentic places to eat” in Ecuador.

Let Language Be Your Guide

These examples do not require a high degree of fluency or a love of danger. Even if your idea of an adventure is a conversation with the bus driver, learning another language will open up your world to that possibility. Language lets you slip into a foreign current, to encounter life in a different place from the inside out. Fortunately for those of us who are not fluent, language is not a zero-sum game; you don’t have to study Spanish for three years before you are “ready” to travel.

Most bus drivers will not care if you mess up the subjunctive. They will be happy for the Spanish that you do speak, for the effort you have made and the opportunity it allows them. Certainly, someone who is fluent may get a better deal, but if you don’t speak the language at all, how can you expect to negotiate in the first place?

Whether you are going for a short stay or planning a long trip, learn the language! Even for a short while! It will come back to you in more ways than you can bargain for.

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Noah Harley
Noah Harley is a writer, translator, and musician living in Queens, New York. He recently co-produced and translated for Salero, a feature-length documentary exploring humanity’s fraught relationship with natural resources shot on site in southern Bolivia, which garnered grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the San Francisco Film Society. When he is not writing articles or producing videos for Babbel, he roams the eastern coast of the United States with his band, The Horse-Eyed Men.
Noah Harley is a writer, translator, and musician living in Queens, New York. He recently co-produced and translated for Salero, a feature-length documentary exploring humanity’s fraught relationship with natural resources shot on site in southern Bolivia, which garnered grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the San Francisco Film Society. When he is not writing articles or producing videos for Babbel, he roams the eastern coast of the United States with his band, The Horse-Eyed Men.
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