Guidebooks: pleasure and pain
As I cross the threshold of yet another hostel found in the guidebook, I realize that my thirst for adventure is becoming more and more intense; it is weeks since I have been traveling backpack on my shoulder, yet it seems to me slowly that my days are getting very similar to each other.
I put my backpack in the room and start wandering around the hostel surrounded by a crowd of travelers “like me”: people who are preparing their meals, others who are trying to find new friends, but the music that echoes from that corner is always a little too much loud and I never, or almost never, hear words in the local language: everyone expresses themselves in English, while during the late nights scattered groups are formed by nationality.
The speeches often repeat themselves: stories about the travelling days, best places to see, the hostel where everything is cheaper and then the bar where you can taste the best traditional dish or the market where the fabrics are more colorful than the rainbow or the bus taken in “this” station while reaching it with “that” taxi: everything you can talk about is yet magically inside the guidebook.
There are basically two types of guidebooks: the first is read before leaving your country, but then left at home, because its contents are only descriptive of local traditions, the history of the country, uses and customs, architecture etc. ; the second is full of useful information: bus timetables, the best bars and hotels, the best attractions, the most popular local tour operators, up to specific advice on the best experiences and when to do them; this is the guidebook with which we move from one city to another, because it helps us choose what to do tomorrow while looking for the next hostel in which to rest today, after a long and funny day.
There are many of these guidebooks, but the best ones can be counted on your fingertips and, if you have already been around the world, you know that there is one used by the vast majority of travelers which I will not mention for advertising reasons.
But let’s go back to the hostel: I sit in an old armchair lined dozens of times and listen with little attention to the talks around me, while reading a book. Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, I will meet most of these guys again and, often, we will have fun together.
It is an itinerant Erasmus, a queue of travelers that unwinds along a predefined route along the continents, where experiences, aromas, flavors, unexpected events have all already been experienced, cataloged, summarized and presented to the general nomadic public in the travel guide, in so that times and expectations are met; even in the Western way of traveling everything must be efficient and made usable; we are the children of planning, of time which is always something else: money, commitments, responsibilities, goals and fun.
And even when we travel we need this: to move by planning, save time and avoiding possible inconveniences: today we will dedicate our morning to the best museum in the city and then a visit to the largest handicraft market, in the evening an aperitif in the most popular bar in Copacabana, rebuilt like a sixties French winery, and then off to the hostel where we can share our days with our fellow travelers.
Is it all the fault of the guidebook? Of course not, it’s just a tool; everyone will tell you that the danger of a blade is not in its ergonomic handle or in its being well sharpened, but in the hand of the person who holds it.
The guidebook is useful, because it can simplify a territory, summarize it and make it accessible to those who do not know it; it is not hurtful to open it every now and then to clear your head or look for useful information. But, in my opinion, traveling means to get lost, using time in a different way, letting the need to control everything slip away from your fingers and open up to the unexpected and unpredictable. Indulge in the chaos of life to discover that every day is exceptional in his own way, without a routine or a to-do list. In this way the encounters multiply, the experiences become more authentic, the places visited will belong to us.
And, above all, the journey is enriched when it becomes a personal discovery, conducted voluntarily in an attempt to find the only thing you cannot look for in a guidebook: yourself. One day, sitting on the side of the road, between two villages with an unpronounceable name, while you wait for a ride in a car or a shabby bus that you don’t know when it arrives, a void is created in which past and future do not matter; there is really nothing to do, nothing to hear or something to be impatient about, the day could stop on the side of that road and you stay there, captured by what is happening around and inside you.
Welcome to the world, my fellow traveler, one day we will meet: but not in a hostel marked in the guidebook.