I was sitting in the common space of a Berber adobe hotel in the desert oasis of Merzouga on the border of the Erg Chebbi (dunes) in the Morrocan Sahara desert. I was playing with my iphone, killing some time before the scorching sun and blast furnace temperatures went down enough that we could venture outside for the start of our camel trek. I came across an post called “The 10 Rules of Packing” by “The Good Traveler” and my interest was piqued. As I read it I found myself disagreeing with several of his “rules” and when I came to the end of the article I saw a link to another post called “How to be a good traveler in 10 easy steps”. Instantly I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this post. I’ve commented on here that I consider just about all travelers “tourists” and that most people who claim otherwise are deluding themselves. Sure enough he starts his post with “Those who leave their homes for temporary jaunts to other places can be sorted into three basic categories: Tourists, travelers, and good travelers.” Instantly irritated, I didn’t get less irritated as the post went along. Here are the two referenced posts.
Now, I love National Geographic and to be honest these are the only examples of writing I’ve ever read from this author. Additionally, it looks like he is leaving the blog so I suppose a critique of his work is bad timing. Finally, I am well aware that it is easier to rip apart then create, so if Aric S. Queen somehow reads this (extremely unlikely), I apologize.
That being said the whole purpose of this post is to state my disagreement with many (but not all) of his sentiments and to state what my opinion of that matter is. For convenience sake I’m going to respond to both articles at the same time. Sticking with Aric’s list theme, I came up with five major problems I have with these posts. I suppose I could have gone for ten so there’s continuity with his but I’ll spare any readers that amount of snarkiness.
First Problem: The titles.
The “Rules” of packing? Other then maybe getting a passport or some necessary shots there are no hard and fast rules. Every person is different and every trip is different. “How to be a good traveler in ten easy steps”? Does this seem slightly sanctimonious to anyone else? I realize that if you want to sell your product you need to be confident and present yourself as an authority but come on, this is a travel blog.
Second Problem: The tourist v. traveler (and his new category of “good” traveler) debate
This is an old debate and has probably been done to death. My opinion is that there are many types “who leave their homes for temporary jaunts to other places” for instance business travelers, people traveling in their own country to visit family and friends or to places they have lived/been to many times, and then people who travel to a place they have never been to mainly to experience the culture and view the sites. I believe that the author of these posts is referencing this last category. I also believe that if you travel to a country you have never been too, especially if you do not fluently speak the native language and you are doing so not for business or similar purposes: you are a tourist. I would argue the difference between conscientious tourists and arrogant, obnoxious tourists, but anybody in that situation who claims not to be a tourist and instead a “traveler” is in my eyes falling right into that obnoxious category. Finally, I do use the term traveler frequently. For people who are traveling. I just think that they are mainly tourists.
Third Problem: The packing list.
I actually agree with his first two “rules”, with the exception that he recommends a carry-on with wheels. In my recent travels there have been multiple times I’ve laughed at people trying to drag wheeled luggage over rough terrain, but nothing was more annoying then watching people trying to wrestle their luggage down the beach, into the surf and up over the edge of the longboats on the coast of Thailand. They almost always needed help. If you’re staying at Hiltons or traveling European/American cities then by all means bring your wheeled luggage but if your going anywhere off the beaten track just do everyone a favor and bring a backpack. You’ll thank me when your sitting in a cramped rickshaw with your pack sitting on your lap.
In his rule 5 he says books are sexy but not to bring them, instead loading up a kindle. I disagree with this for several reasons. One, at almost all places I’ve gone you can find English language books and you can almost always trade your current book for a reduction in price. Second, I try to bring as few electronics and valuable effects as possible (my iphone being the only exception). If a book gets stolen, lost or wet it’s no big deal. A kindle is a different story. Third, if you’re camping, taking crazy bus trips or off the grid it can be real hard to recharge things. Paperbacks rarely need charging. Fourth, books are sexy. (Additionally, in his How to be a good traveler steps he maintains that you should bring 4-5 of your favorite book to give as gifts and that if you follow his 10 steps to packing you will have plenty of room. Mixed signals buddy).
In rule 8 he admonishes you to not bring jeans. I generally don’t bring jeans on my trips but that’s mainly because unless I’m going somewhere cold I’ve been bringing ONE pair of pants, one pair of shorts and one swimsuit and I want the pants to have zippered pockets for my wallet/passport. Packing this light may not be for everyone but keep in mind if you need more clothes they’re probably going to be cheaper where your going to then where your coming from and then you’ll always have a good story if somebody asks you about the item. A lot of the travelers I meet wear jeans and are very happy with them. If you like your jeans bring them along. They’re not going to smell significantly worse then your synthetic pants.
Finally, in the last packing item he disparages Crocs (or similar shoes). I’ve never worn these but I will say that imitation Crocs were the shoe of choice for Nepali porters in the Solu-Khumba region (Everest) while I was over there. Seeing those guys carrying almost twice their bodyweight up steep mountain trails in cheap plastic shoes was pretty amazing. If they can do that, you can do whatever you want in them. Fashion be damned.
Fourth Problem. His statement “Stop acting like you know: Taxi drivers and bartenders are your consiglieres, your guides. Don’t tell them where you want to go; ask them to point you where you should be.”
Anybody whose been traveling knows that if you get off a train in some distant location that caters to tourists and go with one of the touts standing in front of the cabs that you’re going to get charged double and end up at his employer/uncle/friends hotel or restaurant. Most of the time a shitty tourist trap. It pays to do a little bit of homework and have a place to tell them to go to, or at the very least just get away from the main transport areas and ask the advice of someone who isn’t specifically hassling you. Taxi drivers the world over tend to be some of the most disreputable people I’ve met (of course there are always exceptions). Once you meet somebody local who you trust, that’s when it’s time to stop acting like you know.
Fifth Problem: ” If you’re a sports fan, watch (and cheer) from your hotel room.”
If you’re the type of person who can’t contain being obnoxious while watching your team then by all means follow this advice. However I’ve had some great experiences watching sports with the locals, and I’d hate for anybody to miss these opportunities.
Ok, I guess that’s enough bashing of a well-meaning travel writer. I think for my next post I’ll give some of my own tips for packing that I’ve learned over the last 5 months of constant travel. Then somebody can tear them apart.