When telling people out by travel plans or telling stories from my most recent trips, I am often asked “Wow, how did you decide to go there/do that?” One of the things I always try to do when traveling is to getting a “behind the scenes” look into my destination, to see beyond the tourist-y restaurants and packed historical sites to see what it truly means to live and work there. On my last trip, I visited Iceland and took a horseback riding adventure (with a guide and several other foreigners) to help the local farmers with their annual fall, Réttardagur (sheep round-up). Every summer, each farm lets their sheep out into the mountains to graze and then must collect them again before winter starts. Unfortunately, when they try to retrieve the flocks, they are often mixed up and need to be sorted first. To tackle this mission, a large group of farmers (and their families) throughout Iceland set off on horseback with their sheep dogs to round-up the sheep and drive them (ie. think cattle drive style NOT with any motorized vehicles) to a set location and then sort them out. During this experience, we got to directly mingle with the locals as we helped them move 15,000+ sheep approximately 25km over the course of two days before sorting them. In the process not only did we get a real sense of how the people live and work, but we also made an appearance (albeit brief) on a local Icelandic news special. (To see an edited clip of the TV program, click here).
These types of unique, off the beaten path adventures are my favorite and so I frequently seek them out. But HOW do I find out about these things? First and foremost, it’s about research. When I plan a trip, I start by watching as many travel related DVDs/YouTube videos about my possible destinations. This is a great way to see what your options are and get some idea of how long you want to spend in a certain place, or maybe even change your travel plans all together! For one of my trips, I thought I would spend a week in Denmark with several days spent in Copenhagen and then venture out to other Dannish cities. Yet, when I watched the DVD I got out of the library, it also included the other Scandanavian countries and when I saw the views of the Norwegian Fjords, I KNEW I had to include that in my trip. Sure it meant skipping the Dannish countryside, but there will be other trips and it was a decision I do NOT regret! The vast beauty and magnificence if this countryside can’t even be adequately expressed in worlds or even pictures…
Another source of inspiration, is often looking at pre-planned tour groups in a particular area. Some group tours can be great, but often times you get stuck on large buses, getting dropped from sight to sight getting an expensive but watered down version of a particular location. Unless of course you can pay the premium for a private tour. Yet often times, I find that I can beat the tour groups prices by booking things myself directly through the merchants (trains, airport transfers, hotels, etc). And by using a pre-set tour’s itinerary for ideas, I often get a lot of inspiration and the occasional unique, non-touristy idea.
Yet even if you don’t have the time for research or planning, you can still manage to get some great INSIDER tips once you arrive at your destination. The best way to do this is to MEET people and ask questions! I find that when I am traveling solo I often am more social and willing to introduce myself to others, whether fellow tourists or locals. The first thing you do when you arrive in a city, is to get a tourist map of the city (obtainable from ANY hotel reception, even if you aren’t a guest) and then asking for recommendations on where “the locals go?” This question has gained me INVALUABLE information about an unknown location. Just think about what you would say if a tourist asked you “if I only have 24 hours here, what do I HAVE to see?” You would probably be dead on giving the tourist a great idea of all the highlights (and probably unique) suggestions. So try that for yourself on your next trip!
My last tip is to be open and receptive to the kindness in others. I recently visited Dubai and while touring around the “Heritage Village” area of Dubai, I stumbled upon a small cultural center where there were several Emirate men sitting around offering free coffee and sweets to any passerby. Yet most people weren’t stopping probably because as Americans we are CONSTANTLY shown through various media outlets, that everyone is out to “get us’ and that the world is a dangerous and scary place. Yet, in my travels, I have met some of the nicest, most amazing people because I truly believe that 99% of people in this world are simply striving towards one goal, happiness for themselves and their loved ones. They aren’t PURPOSEFULLY out to hurt you, offend you or steal from you. So instead, if you treat people kindly and with a smile, you will be greeted with love and kindness in return. So, anyway, back to these men at the cultural center, I decide to stop and enjoy some arab coffee (a light roast, brewed with saffron and cardamon which gives it a unique flavor) and get to talking with these guys. Mostly about their various experiences with the US mainly through studying and business interactions as well as about Jewish/Arab policy and similarities (see my last blog post “Are we REALLY that different?”). After about an hour of thoughtful, adult conversation and a delicious sweet rice dish they serve, I mention that I am planning to take a “dessert safari” (involving ATVing in the sand dunes, riding a camel, and enjoying a classic Emerate BBQ) and if they had any company’s they could recommend or what they thought a fair price was for such an outing. Instead, I am offered, come by the cultural center TOMORROW with your passport and we will take you around on a personal FREE dessert safari to show you the United Arab Emirates. And I say, yes, because it feels right, and safe.
Now, I know, you are probably thinking I am COMPLETELY CRAZY, trusting practically complete strangers to take me by car outside of the city and into the dessert. I could be kidnapped, rapped, robbed, murdered… all those things we see and hear on the news on a daily basis. Yet, two very distinct things made me say yes: 1) my intuition (which made me feel safe and happy around them and never once screamed, this isn’t safe) and 2) my belief in people’s true goodness. Plus, don’t they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained? Apparently, this tour was offered to several other tourists who stopped by that day, but NO ONE else came but me and my tour guide, Achmed.
But that was most certainly their loss! I had a fabulous time seeing the gardens of one of the Sheikh’s private residences:
I also got to learn the difference between the different sand colors (the red containing a lot more iron than the yellow/brown variety)
Seeing the Wadi (or oasis) village of Hatta and the heritage town where I learned about the ancient bedouin traditional lifestyle.
And also that dates, actually come from Palm trees. I mean don’t get me wrong, I consider myself an educated person, but I guess I never thought to ask where Dates came from… Makes me wonder what kinds of other things I am missing out on?
On our way, we were also the guest of one of Achmed’s friends, a local Hatta tabacco farmer where we enjoyed more Turkish coffee, a large exotic fruit basket AND got a tour of his tabacco farm 🙂
We met some Pakistani honey vendors as we entered into Oman, on our way BACK to the U.A.E. and to the Indian Ocean.
We stopped for a traditional Arab seafood lunch and ate on the floor cross-legged with out hands 🙂
Oh and lets not forget our stop at the oldest mosque in the U.A.E. dating from the 1400s where I had to borrow a traditional dress and hijab to enter. And finally, I got to see all sorts of native animals, up-close and personal (camels, donkeys, etc).
And this doesn’t even begin to mention the great philosophical discussions we had during our long 8+hour day of driving! We discussed politics, religion and humanity. In fact, one of my favorite sentiments from that day was the concept that Achmed said, “if you are hungry, you can not give to others. So first make yourself full and then give generously.” How poignant and true? Overall, this experience of getting out there and experiencing the U.A.E. by trusting in the goodness of others has given me great insight into the Emirate hospitality and has, as Achmed would say, given me a new “BROTHER” 🙂 So, get out there, listen to your heart, shed your fears (or tell them to F-off) and have an adventure!