18 Aug 2011

Misguided by the Guide

Take the average holidaymaker. Give them a holiday guide. The paperback kind. What do you get? A long wondering thought... A thought that says something down the lines of how was it like before the holidaymaker and the holiday guide became an item?

'The Sleeping Gypsy' by Henri Rousseau (1897), via MoMA

Ninety seven percent of visitors to our garden preservation society come on their guide's recommendation. Whether said guide is called Guide du Routard, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or else. Wow! That's big business! You just secretly hanker after the thought that they did a Lonely Planet guide to the cool blogs out there and hey presto yours would turn popular in no time, generating cool advertising revenue in the process and liberating you from the constraints of the day job for the lucrative joys of the dilettante!

If you titillate the inquisitive side of life like La Baguette, you'll even start wondering what happened to the spirit of holiday adventure pioneered by our elders who went on vacation before guides had been made compulsory or at least before they became diluted down the mainstream like they now have. I'm not exactly an elder, yet my idea of a holiday has never involved the safety of a guide either, telling you in different levels of subjectivity where to go, where not to go, what to see, what not to see, what to eat and what not to eat. Rather a holiday needs to conjure up an adventure, a personal experience, a trip on the edge of the unexpected in all good measure. I wouldn't be daft enough as to encourage blissful ignorance and choose to get lost in the Borneo jungle or ramble carefree across Nicaragua!

'Mist-covered valley, Corsica', by Stéphane Victor, © Lonely Planet Images 2011

With me by your side, you don't want to look like your average tourist. You make sure you take your tickets, your wallet and passport and a good map. If you wanna feel smart, maybe trek down the local library prior to departure to soak in the flavour of the place to be visited, yet generally have faith in your own streetwise approach and capabilities as an explorer and authenticity-seeker, mastering those positive energy vibes in the process! Because what would go wrong if you did miss out on that holiday guide?

A few years back I travelled to Havana, Cuba, with nothing more than a very succinct pocket guide (thirty pages of it if that, and mostly pictorial!) and just planned my stay once I was there. I didn't miss out on anything a holiday guide might offer. In fact, my days were action-packed and the only time I ever glanced at the pocket guide was on the outbound flight from London, albeit distracted by the airline entertainment on tap, from the irrelevance of Miss Congeniality to the more topical Buena Vista Social Club pet sounds seeping through my headphones.

Buena Vista Social Club, via Amazon

I repeated the pattern with California! This time I only packed two simplified fold-out downtown maps of Santa Barbara and San Francisco and bobbed down the 101 like a local, with that Californian carefreeness. When in Rome, do as the Romans do... If I wanted to see the real Cali, man, I made sure I'd stay clear of the holiday guides. Simple as.

Back to our garden preservation society, the holidaymakers I have seen lately come accompanied by the guide, whose contents they all seem so evangelical about. They know how long the visit takes, the opening hours, the highlights, the lowlights, and the rest of it. In fact some of our visitors refuse to hear our garden presentations on the pretence that their guide does it for them. Blimey! There is only a thin demarcation line between the holiday guide and the bible methinks.

'Conoco, Albuquerque' (1969) by Ernst Haas

Some 'pilgrims' go even further, following religiously the guide's recommendations. Here at 9:00am, gone at 10:00am, reaching a new destination for noon, before embarking upon a new discovery mission later in the afternoon. Military precision. I thought holidays were supposed to be fun, unpredictable and relaxed. By the look on the face of some of those 'pilgrims', this sounds more like a military campaign doubled as a tick-box exercise. The hordes of tourists end up congregating down to the same places of pilgrimage. The secret coves of yesteryear have now become interplanetary bases, and the quiet country lanes have morphed into crowd-surfing spots, with our guys holding their guides to their hearts. At least - for once - it's not their Blackberries!

Meanwhile the locals have had to source new out-of-bound places that they keep to themselves for peaceful enjoyment, only until the next publication. As for the guided tourists, are they not simply putting themselves at risk of being misguided by those very guides they so religiously follow? By seeking to be smart, have they not simply just given up on any spirit of adventure, exploration and opinion, even kudos? In other words, how much is too much information, especially when handed to you on a plate? And after all, is ignorance not bliss? Hmm... So then... free yourself from the guide corseting your every move, and start living your holiday instead. Here's a sure first step towards freedom!

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