This is my response to a post written by Gary Arndt titled “Commentary: Put Down the Guidebook, Pick Up the History Book”. If you’ve never heard of Gary, he’s the man, and you should definitely check out his site. He’s a world traveler, and a pioneer in the travel blog community.
Traveling is a big part of my abroad experience, so I enjoy reading Gary’s blog Everything Everywhere for its practical content, but also because Gary lives what I would deem as the ideal traveler’s lifestyle.
In the post, Gary stresses the need to put down the guidebook in favor of a history book – basically what the title says. For example, referencing the Colosseum, he writes, “Knowing who Vespasian and Domitian are can give you a much deeper understanding of the Colosseum. You can find the entrance fees and operating hours anywhere.”
His opinion is that while sometimes useful, guidebooks are often biased towards attractions, hotels, and restaurants that can offer the author perks, and it’s not uncommon for them to be out of date by the time they get around to hitting your bookshelf. He favors the internet for it’s up to date info and for the diversity of reviews from actual travelers and not over paid authors. Again, it’s a great post.
My response is twofold.
First, while I agree with Gary for the most part, I wouldn’t totally rule out guidebooks as aids when planning your travels abroad. I think they’re the best starting point when you’re trying to map out your trip in a foreign city that in actuality, you probably have no real clue about. Back to the Colosseum example, I’ll be honest; I didn’t know what else I was supposed to look for in Rome when I went in November. Yeah, there’s the Colosseum, the Vatican, and some Roman ruins, but other than that, I didn’t have much to go on (and I had taken 4 years of Latin). Guidebooks are useful as a tool for revealing what’s out there, what you’re actually supposed to see when you visit a foreign place.
Of course, and here is where I start to agree with Gary, don’t rely 100% on guidebooks. Once you figure out what you want to see, go on the internet and do a little research. I would say 99.9% of us study abroaders are internet literate, so it should be no problem to hop on a computer and dig up some good solid up to date info, whether it’s on attractions, lodging, dining, or transportation.
And here is where I totally agree with Gary – after you figure out what you want to do and what you want to see, go pick up a book (some sort of history book, it doesn’t have to be your high school World Geography textbook, but something with a little historical authority). As he says “To really understand a culture, you have to understand its history. Food, dancing, language and religion are all important, but sort of meaningless without the background that history can provide.” Learn as much as you can, because if you miss out on the actual culture aspect of traveling, then you’re really missing out on the biggest part of the experience.
Here’s the second part of my response, which is more of a realization on my own part after reading the post. And this is where I think the connection between studying abroad and traveling is most visible. I hope your goal when traveling isn’t to sit on the beach everyday sipping Mai Tai’s and getting a tan (if you want to do that for a day or two on one of your trips, that’s fine, but don’t make it your sole objective on every trip). We’re not some family on a vacation passively trying to partake in a little sliver of culture before we head back to our 9 to 5 jobs next week.
We are in the most amazing position. We have 3 months minimum (more if you’re lucky) to actively participate in every aspect of local culture. We’re not tourists trying to snap a few photos and buy a souvenir so we can say we’ve been here or there. We’re students, whose ultimate goal should be, as active participants in local culture, to understand the past and embrace its impact on the present – what we are currently experiencing.
Think about it, just by being abroad, we’re already one step ahead of every other traveler out there, because while they’re trying to take a piece of local culture home with them, we don’t have to because for us, local culture is home (at least for a few months).
I’m starting to get really philosophical on myself, so I’m going to stop there. But what I’m trying to say is simple. As study abroad students, we have the opportunity to be the ultimate traveler – one who is already immersed in the culture, and has access to plenty of the history, simply due to the nature of being broad.
So first, don’t be afraid to give Lonely Planet a look. I think you’ll actually find their stuff pretty useful.
And second, but more importantly, take advantage of every opportunity you can to travel, and appreciate every moment you’re abroad. You’re only a 21 year old college student once.