Monday, January 4, 2010

Traveling for Pleasure versus Traveling for Work

I recently took a one week vacation to Portugal with the sole intention of spending quality time in a new place with a special person in my life. This was the first time in years that I had left the country with the sole purpose of having fun rather than to work on either a photojournalism assignment or development project. Even as I began planning for the trip, I realized that in addition to having a different purpose and therefore different logistical planning, it was a completely different personal experience. Both my travel companion and I were used to traveling on a slim budget and experiencing the country more from a local's point of view, but of course we wanted to see the main tourist attractions and taste the local foods.

The first difference I saw was the use of a guide book. I didn't even think of getting a guide book, because I had no need for it when I was traveling on task, but my companion bought the Rick Steve's in Portugal and we both literally and figuratively wore it thin. He had originally aimed to purchase the Lonely Planet copy, but ended up with Rick Steves because LP was sold out. We found the Rick Steve's quite good in its recommendations, but we did find several mistakes in prices and hours of operation despite the book being published only a few months prior to our travels. We used a combination of the guidebook and recommendations from locals to plan what and where we were going to eat and what and when we were going to see sights. It was nice to see the country's treasures and to know in advance the types of food that they're known for so that I wouldn't find out later and regret not trying it, but it was also much more hurried because we had so much that we wanted to do and see.

In contrast, when I travel for work, there is no guidebook. I find a place to stay and get my initial transportation and then rely on the locals that I'm working with to point me to food to try. In addition, because I'm usually working everyday with an occasional day off, I tend to stay in one part of the country going from my housing to work and back instead of traveling around seeing the different sights and tasting the different foods that the country is famous for. Through this form of travel, I get a better insight into what life is like for a local, although I am limited to the views of the economic and social classes that the locals I am working with are in.

For example, when I was living with Indian-Tanzanians in Tanzania, my experiences were completely different than if I had lived with black Tanzanians. Due to their society, the Indians tend to travel mostly by car and are rarely seen walking around on the streets. They tend to own the stores and send their children to private schools and have fairly stable internet connectiosn as well as more of a fusion diet. Alternatively, living with one of the political ministers in Uganda, he was a black Ugandan, but was a politician and thus of a higher socioeconomic class, drinking Amarula after dinner every night with hot water plumbing inside the house and fluffy beds. Obviously, I did not get a well rounded view of what life is like for the individuals that I hope to empower and help help themselves rise out of poverty. (A future post will center around doing what it takes to really understand the people that are in the most need and balancing that with your own safety and health.)

Traveling with a guidebook could have given us only a tourist's view of Portugal, but because of our unique interests, my companion and I went out of our way to get to know locals, get their input on places to stay, visit, and eat regardless of its popularity with tourists, and learn about their lives. As we were not limited to one location for work, we were able to meet a large variety of locals and even got a chance to stay with a local in Sintra (a town that came straight out of a fairy tale) in his beautiful home (more on this later). Due to a tight itinerary, however, we weren't able to spend as much time with the interesting people that we met. In addition, seeking out tourist attractions did put us in contact with other tourists which is always an interesting experience of its own.

Another main difference was housing. Traveling for work, I found one place to live and made that my headquarters during the entire time I was working in that area. Often I tried to find host families or longer term housing such as campgrounds, but traveling for pleasure and especially as a couple, we looked mainly for hostels a day before or the day of entering a certain town. It was only when all the housing in Sintra was occupied when we went to a restaurant and asked the owner for a place to stay and he offered us his "modest" home which turned out to be a beautiful home with a great view and perfect location.

A big pro for both types of travel was the food. In the case of traveling for pleasure, I had a chance to try foods that were popular in many different regions of the country and for various socioeconomic classes. In the case of traveling for work, I spent much more time with locals, so I had a chance to regularly eat home cooked food and also learn their unique ways of preparing food. In both types of traveling, one of my favorite things to do is try the street food (I only had digestive trouble with street food in India) and go to the grocery stores to see what is available and what the locals buy. Traveling to Ecuador for work, I went to the grocery store and bought one of each fruit I had never seen before to try. Traveling to Portugal, we bought the bread, cheese, meats, and snacks that the locals shopping at the store were buying and had a picnic in one of the castles.

Transportation was of course different because in one case we were traveling around the country and in another I was traveling to and from work in a much smaller area. In the former, we took the train, bus, local transportation, and more, whereas in the latter I stuck mostly to walking and the local public transportation.

There are many other differences as well, but in the end it seems that it is a combination of your purpose (and therefore your mindset) and breadth versus depth that make your personal experiences differ so greatly. Traveling for pleasure may give you more exposure to history, culture, other travelers (with fascinating stories of their own) and the country as whole, but traveling for work may give you a deeper insight into what life is really like in the country including food, work, transportation, and relationships between locals. Of course the two types of travel may be much more similar if the travel for pleasure takes place over a much longer period of time. Still, it seems that most that travel for pleasure tend to spend the majority of their time with other travelers rather than with locals, and in touristy or expatriat areas rather than in local hangouts or work places. Then the dilemma arises: given a limited amount of time and resources, what type of travel should I do?

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