I just finished watching a “documentary” about Guatemala. It purports to be factual. On the basis of that film by itself I’d consider myself a fool for not getting on the next plane headed there, it’s so beautiful and inviting. But the “documentary” is in point of fact an hour-long travel brochure. I just finished three years of global nomading and one of the earliest lessons to learn as a nomad is not to believe everything you see or read. That’s what this post is about: self-preservation in the face of disingenuous, paltry or skewed information for travelers. There’s plenty of it out there and it can put you in situations that range from dodgy to massively disappointing. Here are my thoughts in retrospect about the phenomenon.
Being an optimist by nature I always give both places and people the benefit of the doubt until it becomes clear that no slack should be cut. That stance may seem naive to some, but it was always my opinion that an optimistic stance opened up the possibility for experience that would be precluded eo ipso by a stance of pessimism. It’s kind of like going on a date — if you decide from the get-go that it’s a no-go, then there’s really no point even in making the effort. The prescient pessimist decides beforehand how everything will turn out. I didn’t want to do that, but neither did I want to stumble into a hornet’s nest having been told I’d be headed for paradise. So I did my best to become an informed nomad. I consulted multiple sources of information on the places where I intended to hang out. I did my due diligence, indeed I did, and still ended up in some places I’d never have chosen to be had I known beforehand how things would turn out. Just how did that fly get into the ointment?
Oops, Travel Writer Speak With Forked Tongue
I shouldn’t be badmouthing travel bloggers because I’m one myself, but I’m not in the business of writing rapturous accounts of three-martini lunches under faultless blue skies in what ostensibly passes as the ultimate vacation destination. My business as a nomad was to find a place where I could live abroad without it driving me nuts. Vacations are short, nomad hang-outs are long, and therein lies the critical difference. If you book a week in an all-inclusive resort and never leave the place, you can safely rely on only one source of information that’s fairly easy to verify. But just imagine if instead of an all-inclusive resort you have to sort out a place to live for six months in the nearby town. It would quickly become clear that life is not so simple. Since all-inclusive resorts figured in no way into my plans at any point, I knew I had homework to do, and plenty of it.
Trusting travel writers is a bad idea from the get-go. If you take them at their word you’ll think that it never rains in the tropics, that sewer systems of the highest order are coin of the realm in developing countries and that life in a place where 60% of the population lives beneath the poverty line is one long succession of engaging, pleasant encounters with your fellow human beings. I doubt you could manage to pull all that off even during a week in an all-inclusive resort. Perish the thought that it should occur during six months or a year living like the locals do.
In my experience it’s very difficult to find a travel writer or blogger who is either able or willing to give you the straight dope. That circumstance may stem from anxiety about the number of retweets or perhaps represents an attempt to ward off nastiness in the comment section. Whatever the reason, you’re more likely than not to get a view of the place through decidedly rose-colored glasses. If you’re a newbie heading into that territory, rose tint is not what you need. What you need is the bald truth so you can sort yourself out as quickly as possible.
With three years of hindsight now I can estimate that only about 20% of the material I could find on any given area of interest to me turned out to be really useful. The amount of work it took to get that 20% far exceeded what most people would be willing to put into the effort of becoming informed. In addition to the bugbear of rose tinting mentioned above, absence of information is even more thwarting. For some parts of the globe in which I spent time it was absolutely impossible to get any information at all about flora and fauna, geology, even demographics. Why such information should be so difficult to find in this day and age passeth understanding, but them’s the facts.
Here’s an example: Boracay in the Philippines. I happened to live about four hours away from it It’s been an international tourist hotspot for some time, until it got shut down and hoovered over last year at the decree of Duterte. I never went there because it sounded like Las Vegas On-The-Water — no gambling, but a primary focus on nightlife and boozing and such rot. And it’s in the Philippines, so you can count on the infrastructure being improvisorial and stretched beyond capacity. It sounded to me like exactly the kind of place to avoid. But to look at the tourist brochures you’d think it was Little Miami. There was no mention that for three, perhaps four months of the year it drowns in rain. The rainy season in the Philippines means rain with a capital R, in Boracay just like everywhere else in the Philippines. But there’s no mention of that fact in the travel literature. Nobody tells you that if you show up between June and October (or November, possibly even December) you should definitely plan on buying an umbrella. But don’t put one in your luggage, because it will be confiscated in the airport. For some reason that remains entirely opaque to my understanding an umbrella is considered a security risk for air travel in the Philippines. What fresh madness is this, you ask? Business As Usual in the Philippines. Sh*t happens. That’s the operative phrase. Nobody tells you that stuff, either.
Another major pitfall I found was the habit of many purveyors of accommodation in developing countries — in my experience the Philippines, Colombia and Mexico — to lie through their teeth when describing the accommodation they have on offer. My most recent trip to Colombia was a good case in point. I combed very carefully through the listings to find a vacation apartment with a balcony. When I arrived at said accommodation, there was no balcony. There was no “outside eating area” as the facility description plainly states. There was window onto the street and directly across that street a disco that blasted dance music until 2:30 AM four nights a week. And mind you, the place cost me as much for a month as I’d have spent at an Extended Stay in the USA. Another example: a “hotel” touting a 24-hour front desk on Siquijor turned out to be a house stuck down a back road inhabited by an elderly woman and 12 dogs with a lamentable tendency to bark at the drop of a hat. I could multiply examples of this nonsense ad nauseam. I’ll spare you the details. Just be forewarned that no amount of due diligence can prevent your stumbling into such situations in such places.
Only Seeing Is Believing
My biggest beef with travel writing is that it completely lacks dimensionality. There should be a subcategory for those of us who don’t hesitate to spill the beans on the reality element, because that’s what you’re gonna get when you’re on the ground. Let me give an example.
My last stint in Colombia took an unexpected turn because the apartment I had booked turned out — as I suspected might happen — to be a complete bust. I booked it on the website I always use, got the confirmation, etc. etc., but about a week before I left for Colombia I had a friend call the place and find out if the reservation was still on. It turns out that reservations require a 50% deposit to be valid. Did the company get in touch with me to discuss just how that deposit was to be done? Of course not, that would make too much sense. I got a Whatsapp number and finally made contact myself with a representative, who told me that there was a problem getting in touch with me through their network. Why they list with an international booking website and then can’t communicate with potential clients passeth understanding, but hey, it’s a “developing country” and things don’t have to make sense.
The upshot of that muddle was the need to find another place. Things of the vacation apartment type being thin on the ground, I ended up in the city center, exactly where I DIDN’T want to be, in the apartment mentioned above with the missing balcony and the disco across the street. Having bit that bullet, I settled in for the few weeks of my stay. I was unprepared for the sights that circulated beneath the windows looking out over the street — as it happened, one of the main streets a major plaza in the downtown area.
What did I see? Homeless people sleeping in broad daylight on cardboard spread out on the edge of the sidewalk with a sack pulled over them. There was also a neighborhood regular, a man without legs who ambulated within an area of about two blocks using his hands to propel himself forward while the empty legs of his pants dragged behind him. People were quite considerate and avoided stepping on the trailing pant legs. There were also vendors going up and down the street all day long calling out their wares on megaphones. Ripe avocadoes! Mangoes, tasty mangos! There were times I closed the windows during the day despite the balmy temperatures just so I could hear myself think. I’m one of those odd people who enjoys a bit of thinking once in a while. My bad.
Nothing I found about travel in Colombia gave me a heads-up about such realities. I find it impossible to believe that the people who have published or posted things on travel in Colombia never saw what I saw. Similarly, nothing I read anywhere told me that I’d be panhandled unmercifully in public places to the point that I’d stop sitting in the nearby public square with a coffee because I got sick to death of people hitting me up for cash. That’s exactly what happened about two weeks into my stay. I stopped going out except to go to the grocery store or to do errands, when I moved along the street briskly to avoid being approached.
Even during those utilitarian outings I would find my sensibilities shocked by some sight — an elderly person caved into a walker barely moving down the sidewalk with no accompanying person anywhere in sight; a man apparently in his 30s sliding down the street on his buttocks with his non-functional legs stuck out straight ahead of him begging donations over a megaphone; complete confusion on the sidewalk with people completely oblivious to organizing passage in two directions, to name just a few instances. I always steeled myself before heading out to do the shopping because I needed to talk myself into being non-reactive just like the locals. It’s all Business As Usual for them, of course. Nobody reacts to anything. If you react you’ll just stick out like a sore thumb.
The clincher in Colombia was the outbreak of mass protests against the Duque administration that spread across the country. I happened to be in a smallish city in the Coffee Triangle, well away from the major kerfuffle in Bogota, thank heavens. A few times I saw a group of protesters go by on the street in front my my building, but they were a spindly lot and passed quickly making far less noise than the disco across the street. Nevertheless I was put on notice. The situation in Bogota was the thing to watch, of course, because that’s where major decisions are made that could affect the whole country — such as the declaration of martial law. Absolutely the last thing in the world I wanted to do was get caught in the middle of that muddle. I’d been in Colombia only four months earlier and all was calm as could be. It was clear that those days were over and that the motivation for the protests was not going to disappear. That’s how quickly things can change. I’m grateful I wasn’t settled there for some months as I had been in the Philippines. A quick exit would have been much more difficult to orchestrate.
Similarly in the Philippines, governmental changes precipitated my decision to leave the country — a decision that came very easily because I was fed up with the place by that point anyway. Immigration policy changed quickly and became much less friendly to tourists staying more than 30 days. So I decided to cut my losses and ditch the place. I’m very glad I did, no regrets there. Finding political change combined with unrest in the Colombian populace likewise tripped my exit switch. As soon as I learned that one of the demonstrators in Bogota had been killed by the police, I changed my departure flights to the following week. In other words: OUTTA THERE. No regrets there, either.
Apparently We Can’t Have Nice Things
This past summer I got the bright idea to spend a few months every year in Europe, since that’s the place that most feels like home to me. I started doing research on places and tourist attractions, much of which was familiar territory because I lived in Germany for two years in the 1980’s and knew my way around in Germany and Austria fairly well.
Then I started reading the news of the day in the German and French presses and listened to news broadcasts from Deutsche Welle and Der Spiegel. It was at that point the fly hit the ointment.
I lived in Germany about 8 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As it so happens, much of Germany’s cultural landscape for both literature and music lies in what was East Germany. You say Bach and you think Leipzig. You say Zwinger and you think Dresden. You say Goethe and you think Weimar, and so forth and so on. Since it was impossible for me to visit those places during the years I lived in Germany — they were behind the Iron Curtain — I thought it a great idea to visit them now, since they’re all as easily accessible as any place in what was West Germany at the time I lived in it.
If you read the tourist blurbs on places like Weimar and Erfurt you’d think it’s all wonderful and a tourist’s dream. The news of the day tells another story, however. There have been demonstrations and riots in some cities in what was East Germany. The radical right-wing political party that has sprung up in Germany — Alternative für Deutschland — is based in the former East Germany. It has gained support quickly and in some places already has a majority in local government. Dresden has seen some of the most violent goings-on with regard to demonstrations against immigrants.
That fact changed my perspective about travel in the region in a hearbeat. Since I speak German fluently there’s no way I can be just a dumb foreigner. I’ll understand everything I hear around me. That means if I sit in a cafe in Dresden and hear two old farts going on about these effing immigrants and how Germany needs to be made safe for Germans like in the good old (Nazi) days, I’m gonna choke on my cappuccino. I’ll be on the lookout for skinheads and cross to the other side of the street if I see any. If in my goings about I come across well-disposed hosts in hotels or vacation rentals I will wonder all the while how they would treat me were my skin color a few shades darker and my last name not obviously central European. What, pray tell, would happen if my last name were Al-Azizi or something of the sort? One shudders to think of the possibilities. I had also thought I might travel in those environs with a Colombian friend, but it quickly dawned on me that Germans would hardly distinguish between a Latino tourist and an Arab immigrant — they probably look all the same to you if you’re an AfD supporter. So I quickly put that notion out of mind. No need to ask for trouble, is there.
At the end of the day, then, travel is no easy business. It takes an enormous amount of work and requires enormous resources of the traveler with regard to flexibility, resourcefulness and patience. After I did my hasty exit from Colombia in December of 2019 I decided I’d cool my heels for a while in the States and ask myself some hard questions about the nomad lifestyle I engaged three years ago. The point of engaging it was to broaden my experience and bring enjoyment to life. What outcomes did I actually find after three years of it?
Doing the Travel Balance Sheet
I’ll admit it: I was surprised by my assessment of the nomad period. But not dismayed — getting to the bottom of a situation rarely leaves me dismayed, however unpleasant the reality in question. If things stink to high heaven it’s best to find the offending corpse. That’s the only hope of ameliorating the situation to whatever degree amelioration is possible. As I thought back over the three years of my global nomad life to date, I realized that it was successful with regard to bringing a lot of new experience my way after retirement in 2015. As I’ve mentioned in other posts on the retirement topic, I’m not one for piddling about in golf carts and playing bingo. My self-confidence was vastly improved after three years of dealing rationally and effectively with whatever crap came my way, be it from circumstance or from people met along the way.
If, however, I ask myself the question, “Did you enjoy those three years of experience?” things go pear-shaped fairly quickly. As I flip back through my mental Rolodex of memories it quickly becomes clear that there was far, far more stiff-upper-lipping than enjoyment in those three years. That isn’t at all what I had in mind. Even having resisted putting on those travel blog rose-tinted glasses and despite having armed myself as best I could with as much information as I could find, my memory traces a stream of experience that required of me strength, intelligence and both mental and emotional stamina far more often than it led me into those green and happy meadows of enjoyment in which retirees are supposed to wander like contented cows.
The short answer,then, is: no. No, I didn’t particularly enjoy the experiences global nomading brought my way. Had I been yachting in the Mediterranean from a base in Monte Carlo that tune might well be different — but how many of us have that option available? Nobody I know does such things. The nomading I did in the places I did it was determined by elements not entirely under my own control, such as the amount of money at my disposal as a retiree. Had I had a few million bucks to knock back every year I’d certainly have ended up in different places doing different things. But such speculation is idle and fruitless since it, too, lacks the reality element as much as the rose-tinted view of the travel blogs does. I’ve also been enough around wealthy people to know that they’re often more boring than us regular folks since all they think about is money and conspicuous consumption. For my money such things are just golf carts and bingo with gold plating. Where’s the fun in that?
The brute reality of the moment is that the world has become too crazy for global nomading to be anything other than more trouble than it’s worth. Everywhere I look things are in an uproar either in the human or the natural dimension of things, sometimes in both. Climate change also hit home big time in 2019 with Australia going up in smoke after California had its turn at being the barbie. Environmental conditions are now at a point where they influence decisions about where to be in the world — something none of us has ever built into our equations before. We’d be fools not to do so now.
All this leaves me in something of a quandary. I’m back at square one again, the same point I was at when I retired in 2015. I need to figure out what I want to do with myself. Global nomading is no longer an option, whether I will or no, and it so happens I no longer will that it be so. I’ve had enough challenge marathons to last me a good while. Golf carts and bingo are out, I’m getting too old to undertake expeditions to ascend Everest and it’s unlikely I’d succeed in launching a second career before I’m too old to care whether it succeeds or not. So I have some thinking to do. Yes siree.
I have only one regret from the three years of global nomading: it showed me a world that is in far deeper trouble than I realized before engaging residence abroad. The things I saw in the places where I stayed haunt my memory more than grace it with their presence. I saw beautiful landscapes and became acquainted with parts of the Planet I will hold in fond memory until the day I die, but as far as the human dimension goes I most often find myself shaking my head and saying to myself, “Just don’t think about it.” Life is no picnic in most parts of the world and it never seems to get better. It’s just plain depressing.
But life goes on and where there’s life there’s the need to figure out what one is to do with oneself. I’ve got that thinking cap on, so stay tuned …