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Pondering ‘The Essential Tao of Travel’ by Paul Theroux

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Paul Theroux is travel writing legend. I’ve always wanted to comment on Theroux’s Essential Tao of Travel, but I never had enough travel experience to think that my opinion is worth more than 10 rubles.

However, I recently passed two significant travel milestones. First, I’ve been traveling nonstop for more than a decade (since 2006). Second, I’ve been to over 100 countries (111 to be exact).

Therefore, I’m feeling cocky enough to pretend to be an authority.

Here are Theroux’s 10 travel tips listed in his Essential Tao of Travel book  and my thoughts on each one:

1. Leave home.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

This sounds obvious, but Theroux means it in the broadest sense. If you grew up in Atlanta, going to Los Angeles isn’t really leaving home especially since chain stores have wiped out whatever idiosyncrasies each city used to have.

I constantly encourage people to get out of their comfort zone. This is especially important for those who haven’t done so.

Did you grow up with a silver spoon in your mouth? Leave your silver spoon at home, go to Africa, and learn to eat with your hands. Now you’ve truly left home.

2. Go alone.

Solo Hiker on the Inca Trail, Peru. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

I agree, especially if you’ve never really done it. Traveling alone on business doesn’t count.

Most people (especially women) are afraid of traveling alone. Women have good reason to be cautious especially since many countries can be extremely sexist.

Still, the best way to learn a foreign language is to be surrounded by people who don’t speak your language. It’s amazing how fast I learned Russian because Russophones are often monolingual. With no companion, I was forced to learn Russian faster than Edward Snowden.

However, you don’t always need to go alone. Travel with a companion or a group once you’ve had a few solo experiences. Then decide what you prefer. I walked from Mexico to Canada and back along the Continental Divide Trail. It was seven months of solo hiking. I hiked 3,000 km (2,000 miles) before I encountered my first backpacker. It was a lonely trip. I loved it. But I love traveling with a fun companion more.

Moreover, traveling alone is always better than traveling with an incompatible travel companion.

3. Travel light.

My ZPacks tent is always in my backpack.

Francis Tapon

My ZPacks tent is always in my backpack. My friend, Scott Williams, had the same ultralight model. (Photo credit: Francis Tapon)

Yes, but I like to ultralight camping gear with me. Theroux isn’t much of a camper. An ultralight sleeping bag, pad and tent add only one kilogram (2.2 pounds) to your luggage, but it buys total flexibility.

It’s sad to see tourists spend so much of their vacation staring at screens looking for their next hotel. They’re terrified of being homeless. When you have your own camping gear, you always know you have a backup. I’ve even camped in Rome.

Having no hotel reservation allows you to accept offers to stay with local family. Humans are hospitable. You’ll miss out on their hospitality and some unique insights into the local way of life by always being attached to a hotel reservation.

4. Bring a map.

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I’d say bring a GPS. Theroux might bristle at carrying GPS technology, but it’s helpful.

The downside is that you’ll have less interaction with the locals. In my last four years of travel in 48 African countries, locals are always surprised that I know how to get to where I need to go, sometimes better than they do!

Some love Google, but I prefer open source maps because they’re vector based, which means they take up far less space (and take less time to download) than Google’s maps. My favorite map app is Maps.me, but there are many others that use the same Open source map.

5. Go by land.

Tana, the capital of Madagascar.

Francis Tapon

Tana, the capital of Madagascar. (Photo credit: Francis Tapon)

Yes, it’s slower, but it is cheaper and so worth it. You don’t need to do a round-trip. If you’re in a hurry, fly back.

6. Walk across a national frontier.

Take a hike. (Photo credit: SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, I’ve done it several times. It’s always an interesting experience.

7. Keep a journal.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Yes, but I’m lousy. I always write a book about my major travels, but I often fall behind on my note taking. There’s an Android journal app that is useful since it backs up to the cloud. It’s tragic if your travel journey gets lost or stolen during or after your journey.

8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in.

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I disagree. Read whatever you feel like. It’s your vacation.

In fact, I prefer reading about wherever I’m traveling so I can ask the locals questions about whatever I have read.

9. If you must bring a cell phone, avoid using it.

Some can’t put away their phone no matter what’s going on. (Photo credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Absolutely! This is advice is more important (and harder to follow) than ever. Travel bloggers are the worst. They’re so obsessed with transmitting every experience they have that they lose their immersion. They have to post a photo every hour and tweet their every brain fart.

When having a meal, especially with locals, put your phone away, please.

I’m no Luddite, but let’s not lose our humanity.

10. Make a friend.

Rejoice Tapon making friends in Madagascar.

Francis Tapon

Making friends in Madagascar. (Photo credit: Francis Tapon)

Yes, preferably many. One of the best things about technology is that it allows us to maintain contact with our far-away friends. It’s remarkable how many friendships I’ve maintained over the Internet even though they started with just a fleeting experience long ago. In fact, some people can make friends before they arrive at their destination with sites like Couchsurfing.

Rejoice Tapon on a beach in Nosy Be, Madagascar.

Francis Tapon

On a beach in Nosy Be, Madagascar. (Photo credit: Francis Tapon)

The thru-hiking community has a popular saying: hike your own hike. Simply put, it means to listen to others, but ultimately do whatever pleases you the most. Theroux has his opinions; I have mine. He’s right; I’m wrong. However, you can be even more right than Theroux.

In short, listen to us experienced travelers, but in the end, do your own thing.



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