24 February 2014

To Plan or Not to Plan?

I have been to 34 different countries by now. I was reviewing my previous trips a while ago, and realized that I have taken so many different types of trips, which I have suited for the destination. Basically, the style of traveling I adopt differs depending on the type of destination.

See, I started traveling on my own in 2006. I was 24. Before that, all of my travels were with the family. 2006 was the first time in which I traveled for fun and saw things that only I saw, without my family. 2006 was when I flew on my own to the Czech Republic. My parents were living there, but I stayed there for about 2 and a half months during the summer. And while I was there, I explored the country quite a bit, riding trains on my own. That was fun.

A year later, I went to Ecuador for a week. I based myself in Quito, and explored the capital, as well as doing day trips to towns close to it. It was my practice trip for a larger trip the next year, which was Peru. That was in 2008. The next two years, I stayed in North America, only crossing to Canada, but also exploring the US West Coast. That was the first time I tried staying in hostels. And 2011, I went to Mexico for a week, basing myself in Mexico City, while doing day trips to Cholula, Puebla, and Teotihuacan. 2012 was my trip to Guatemala, where I went there for 3 weeks, traipsing around the country, riding chicken buses all over the place. And last year, I went to Belgium and Luxembourg in the spring, and Armenia and Georgia in the summer for 3 weeks. Finally, last month, I was in Malta for 9 days.

Aside from that, there are other trips for business purposes, like attending conferences here and there. In short, I have traveled a bit. And there are different styles that I have adopted depending on which destination is at hand.

See, when I started traveling, I wasn't too ambitious with my plans. In fact, my impetus for traveling actually started when I was in Prague, in 2006, in a Colombian restaurant. I was having dinner with the parents, when I said how nice it would be to be able to visit South America. If I remember correctly, my dad immediately said "Jeruen, don't go there, you'll get kidnapped." So I secretly vowed to prove him wrong. I opened a map of South America one day, and found where I wanted to go. Machu Picchu! So I wanted to go to Peru the next year. However, I realized after doing some research that Machu Picchu is actually a little hard to get to. It is not near any big city, and it is in the middle of the Peruvian heartland.

So I went to Quito, Ecuador instead. For practice. I only based myself in one city, and did no internal travel. I thought that if I can get out of Quito safely, then I would try Machu Picchu the next year. That was how it happened. Peru was in fact the first destination in which I did a lot of internal travel. And here, I still reserved my accommodation way ahead of time. I tried booking hotels in rural Peruvian towns while in North America. I remember arriving in Ollantaytambo and somehow, my reservation was not confirmed. Fortunately, the hotel had a free room for me.

I would repeat the pre-planned method in Seattle and Portland (where I tried hostels for the first time), and in Mexico City. I spent a full week in Mexico City, staying in the same hostel all those nights, and while I enjoyed my stay, somehow, I figured I could turn the notch up some more.

So after a challenge from my sister to go on a trip with minimal planning, I headed to Guatemala in January 2012. The only thing planned for this trip was the round-trip flights, as well as a hotel stay for the first night. I was arriving late in the evening and I didn't feel like it was safe to look for a place to stay in the middle of the dark in Guatemala City. After that, everything was where the wind took me. In fact, the day after, I went to the bus station, and saw that there was a bus going to Honduras, a totally different country, and sure enough, I boarded it. My days in Guatemala were very very different from the tentative plan I made, and printed as a PDF. I found the network of chicken buses very flexible and convenient. I just had to go to the bus station and pick whatever bus I wanted.

I did the minimal planning model in Armenia as well, in fact, as with Guatemala, I went to another country with no planning. This time, I was convinced by travelers I met in the hostel in Yerevan to cross the border to go to Georgia. So I did that, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also started couchsurfing, which allowed me to discover a totally different side of the country, because I was staying with locals.

Somehow, it still depends on the destination, whether you can be spontaneous or whether you have to plan everything. See, I traveled a little bit in Europe as well, but for Europe, you have to pre-plan things, because otherwise, you will be hit with a large dent in your pocket. When a friend and I visited Belgium and Luxembourg, we already know which cities we wanted to visit. Malta was a little different: I stayed in three different places in the country, and had no definite plan per day, but then again, the country was very small, and I can go from one end of the country to the other within one morning.

So yes, somehow, I would like to have a non-planned trip at least once a year, perhaps. But it turns out that I have to get out of Europe to do that. It turns out that this type of travel is more suited for third-world countries, or developing countries. That being said, for me, planning is also half the fun. So if I do a trip where I do not plan things, it is more for the challenge, than for the fun. Overall, I think given my travel experience, I can easily adapt my behavior to achieve full enjoyment of the destination.

That being said, there are new variables in play. We will see how I fare when I travel next.

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