Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious is a plea by Seth Kugel for travelers to recapture what has been lost in the age of TripAdvisor, Instagram, and Google Maps.
While you may not have been able to put your finger on why your visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome didn’t thrill you as much as you’d anticipated, Kugel spells it out quite clearly: Once we’ve seen umpteen photos posted by others and read every review of the place on TripAdvisor, our true experience melds with those that are not our own. Somewhere in the mix the awe we’d expect to feel is pre-empted. Lost.
Kugel, who penned the “Frugal Traveler” column for the New York Times from 2010 to 2016, tries to coax us back to the days when a trip to Rome would leave us spellbound, mystified, and delighted. He says:
Even a tiny push toward spontaneity and discovery can improve just about any destination.
This is the nugget that runs throughout the guide. The book opens with Kugel visiting a tiny town in Hungary, one so small and remote he can’t even find it on TripAdvisor. He pushes himself to wander through the streets and talk to strangers. As a result, he finds a small museum that no one has visited in three weeks. He is almost invited to a pig-killing, but he misses it. And he stumbles upon a distillery. Though the schedule is not one most adventurers would plan in advance, it’s the very fact that he would never have planned such a day–could have never dreamed up such an itinerary–that results in its organic thrill.
Organic. That’s another word the Kugel implores us to consider when it comes to travel. He says that the organic food movement is onto something relevant to travel. Organic foodies strive to eat like we did before hormones were injected into livestock and pesticides laced on our produce. Similarly, organic travelers would get back to basics too:
A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual to spend a morning wandering about a foreign town with no smartphone to tell you what to do, no service to create “authentic” experiences for you, and no particular goal in mind except to let discoveries happen.
How can we ensure that we leave our travels with a sense that we weren’t the pawns of some city-bus tour? That all of our Instagram images aren’t the ones preplanned by some tour guide? How can we put the spontaneity and discovery back on the itinerary?
Kugel empathizes with the traveler, who say, only has two weeks of vacation a year, so of course, doesn’t want to risk wasting a week wandering while missing important sites. However, sometimes a detour of an afternoon is enough to stumble upon the memory that will last for the rest of the year, as happened to Kugel in rural Turkey. He stopped his car to take photos of wild geese. Or at least he was pretending that was the reason for his stop. Really, he was hoping to meet some locals, and that’s exactly what happened. Before he knew it, Kugel was invited to the home of a man named Nuveram. Kugel writes:
He led me through carefully tended garden, past pomegranate trees and ahammock into a living room without furniture….Then came the food: a heaping plate of Turkish rice, grilled chicken, wafer-thin bread, tomato and cucumber salad, two plates of spicy green peppers, and no silverware.
Against the backdrop of stories such as this, Kugel implores us to consider how much risk we are willing to bear? Sure, Kugel missed his planned stop in Turkey to veer offroad. And the visit to Nuveram’s house lasted past the afternoon and into the evening. But it’s this connection with real people from other cultures–one that is not manufactured by someone from the tourist industry–that is what it truly means to be a traveler.
Kugel has packed lots of practical advice into these pages. For example, he urges us to weave room for spontaneity into our itineraries, even if we can only commit to a few hours of off-road adventure. He says that we should promise to talk to five strangers every day of our trip, even though it may make us squirm. And always angle for an invitation to a local event or a homecooked meal, but do so with a smile.
By the way, Kugel is all for using Google Maps, Yelp, TripAdvisor and Booking.com. But he warns that you need to know how to use these tools the right way to get your ideal results and not the ideal results of the company that publishes the app. So it’s how we use the technology, as well as how much we rely on it, that determines whether our overall travel experiences will be enhanced by it.
Rediscovering Travel is a fun and thought-provoking read. Part memoir, part philosophy. It truly makes us ponder what it means to get there, then go further.