5 Ways to Get Off the Well-Marketed Path
Photo Credit: Christina Ammon
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My best travel experience was driving a biodiesel clunker across Asia. The truck was built from reclaimed materials (i.e. garbage) and broke down constantly. Once, on the side of a highway, without another tourist for miles around, I remember how uncertain I felt. And how awake. I recognized myself as on a true adventure.
Adventure contains the word venture, which implies a gamble, an attempt at something new and experimental. True adventures can be tricky to come by when our media-saturated minds are seeded with the same ideas. This is why we all end up kissing at the Eiffel Tower, eating pad thai on Khao San Road, and trekking “off the beaten path” together in the same zip-leg cargo pants.
I doubt that having mechanical breakdowns in Asia would make any travel magazine’s Top Ten Adventures list--after all, we never even made it to the Taj Mahal, or to Angkor Wat. But that night, as we drank beer and hammered crab with 12 Malay mechanics, I knew we were on the trip of a lifetime. By forgoing status-quo transport in favor of that crazy truck, we were, indeed, venturing.
You may not have time (or the inclination) for breakdowns in Asia, but if you are a counterculture soul who’d like to ditch the clichés, here are five contrarian travel suggestions that might put the venture back into your adventures.
1. Sit Still in Nepal
If the thought of trekking to Everest Basecamp makes your hamstrings sore, see how they feel after 10 days of sitting still at one of Nepal’s Vipassana retreat centers. This cross-legged immersion in monastic living demands 11 hours each day observing the relationship between your body and thoughts —an experience sure to open up new terrain.
Vipassana, known as "insight meditation," relies on silence, detached self-observation and contemplation of impermanence. I met a few Vipassana devotees among the trekkers whp dominate Nepal’s tourism scene. I was struck by their age: They were mostly in their 20s, a cohort more famous for their Twitter-length attention spans than for being spiritually precocious.
“Before this retreat, I couldn’t sit still for ten minutes,” said a traveler from Germany. Participants were required to check their iPhones at the door.
Some approached Vipassana like a gap-year line item. Others—especially those on a budget—were drawn by free room and board for 10 days. But post-retreat, their hubris turned to humility. I never tired of their stories, which were as compelling as any mountaineer’s tale. Physical pain, fear, food cravings, painful memories, aversions, and moments of bliss defined the experience. “I felt electrical currents pulsing like an all-over body orgasm,” one practicioner said. The pay-off for scaling your mental Mount Everest is apparently very high.
But why travel to the adventure capital of the world just to explore the great indoors of your psyche? Some feel Nepal is an auspicious place to practice since it is said to be the birthplace of the Buddha, who discovered the technique 2,500 years ago. And while the retreat center near Pokhara is basic, its location on Begnas Lake couldn’t be more stunning: the Annapurna range provides a perfect backdrop for contemplation.
2. Go Wine-Tasting in Morocco
When I stepped off the ferry in Tangier, it occurred to me: this is my last chance for a glass of wine.
Alcohol may be ummul-khabaith – or the root of all evil-- in this Muslim country, but it didn’t stop Burroughs, Ginsberg, Leary, and the other Beat writers who partied in this permissive port city back in the 1950s.
I honed in on Tangier’s preferred watering hole, a joint called el Minzah, and drank my commemorative cabernet among portraits of deceased glitterati. Then I obediently resigned myself to the more culturally appropriate mint tea.
That is, until a longtime expat enlightened me about Domaine de la Zouina, a winery about a 40-minute drive (or train ride) from where I’d be staying in the Fez Medina. I was dubious. But it turns out that in the past 15 years, two progressive kings have invited French winemakers to lease prime land, and a wine industry has begun to flourish. Quietly.
Though the wineries are in easy reach of popular tourist destinations like Marrakech, an informal ban on advertising means that tour operators must peddle them discreetly. I went to the Domaine, toured the red-soiled vineyard, and fell in love with a crisp pinot gris. I explored the Roman ruins of Volubilis, where 2,000-year-old tile mosaics depict the gods of wine Dionysus and Bacchus.
Indeed, Morocco and wine have a shared history. But how does wine-drinking go down with modern-day Moroccans? Export figures suggest it might go down pretty well. Of the 30 million bottles produced by the country’s largest winery, Celliers de Meknes, only 5 million of them are exported. This reflects a larger pattern of wine consumption. As much as 95 percent of the country's wine stays in the country -- a statistic that implies one bottle per person. That's per year.
Drinking wine may be haraam in Morocco, but the greater sin may be showing it. If you choose to drink wine in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do: be discreet.
3. Pet Dogs in Mexico
Mexico is a depressing destination for dog lovers. An over-population problem means that our four-legged friends roam the streets underfed and often feral. So, I was surprised to come upon some of the luckiest pooches in the world in a jungle-hugged village known as Yelapa. This dog-haven is a 40-minute water taxi ride from Puerto Vallarta, and when you step onto its shores you are as likely to be greeted by a yellow lab as a tour guide.
A basset hound adopted me in minutes. Charlie nested under my beach chair, trailed me on hikes, and even accompanied me to the Saturday night disco. But I quickly learned not to get attached to this long-eared Lothario: turns out he is like this with everyone.
What makes Yelapa dogs so distinctly charming? It might be the work of volunteer vet Pamela Rojas, who has kept the population under control and modeled a pet-friendly vibe. It also doesn’t hurt that there are no cars in the village; dogs are free to snooze in the pathways. And perhaps there is a touch of natural selection going on. Yelapa’s relative isolation made me wonder if these dogs might be a genetic branch unto themselves.
Whatever the reason, Yelapa is the place to go for a dog-fix. They’re so cute you will forgive them when they kick sand in your margarita and pilfer your guacamole while you are out for a swim.
4. Dine at Truckstops in France
I was midway between must-see destinations—Paris and Normandy-- when we pulled over at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Eyeing the line of 18-wheelers in the parking lot, I was wary. I didn’t come all the way to France to dine on frozen hashbrowns.
But this "relais routier" soon changed my whole idea of truckstop dining. Inside, roughty-toughty men forked salads and decanted carafes of wine, while a sing-songy waitress passed plates of cheese between tables. It turns out in France big rigs and baguettes are not mutually exclusive—and neither are long-haul drives and wine.
We settled in alongside the truckers and dined on a 12-euro fixed menu that featured a salad bar, trout with almonds and a third carafe of red. The waitress delivered Camembert to our table (“Fromage!” she sang) and then the meal was topped off with a sweet crumble au pomme and cappuccino.
Relais routiers are on the decline. There are less than 1,600 today—still a lot—but down from 3,500 10 years ago. Noise and pollution measures have corralled trucks onto main motorways, where chain restaurants predominate. Only the most accessible relais routiers survive. But there’s hope: With tolls and fuel prices now increasing, more people are avoiding motorways. Perhaps, the relais routier is posed for a renaissance.
Some commentators have declared relais routiers the last holdout of French cuisine. I wouldn’t know. But if good affordable food and friendly servers are your thing, load up your GPS with a location map and head out.
5. Visit Bangkok in Backcountry British Columbia
It’s easy to see why Thailand is such a beloved tourist trap. I could’ve turned myself over forever to that sweet succession of street cart Tom Soms, Thai ice teas, and $3 foot massages. But amid the humidity and crowding, I often longed for the crisp air and open spaces of my native wild west.
So, when I heard about a Thai lodge in British Columbia’s wild Cariboo country, it seemed like the best of all possible worlds: 270 miles north of Vancouver, Echo Valley Ranch sits at a nexus of landscapes: arid canyons, lush forests, craggy mountains, and glaciated plateaus. It’s also a nexus of cultures. The most prominent building on the property is the Baan Thai, a pavilion designed by Thailand’s best traditional architect, Pineo Suwankiri. Its steep roof design sits well next to the more rootsy log-built main lodge.
Amazing architecture aside, it was eating Thai food among the pines that really won me over to the Ranch. The outdoor dinner entailed a cowboy style BBQ alongside pra la prig (deep-fried fish with three sauces) and yum nua (beef spicy salad). I loved it when ranch owners, Norm and Naan, joined my table with their nine border collies, who orbited us at a polite distance.
The ranch is a bit posh, so it’s definitely a special occasion-type place. But it never felt pretentious. Wandering the grounds, I got a sense of stewardship and patronage as I bumped into some enriching characters. I feel lucky to know about this little unusual intersection in the world and hope to return soon for another round of pad thai under the pines.
In the end, contrarian travel is more a mindset than a list of destinations. Adventure can’t be artificially induced, but it can be courted. Just go easy on the Rick Steves, keep an eye out for the unexpected, and maybe misbehave a little.