What You're Missing on Guided Tours
Note: This is a guest post! Please enjoy.
I have to admit; I’ve never taken a guided tour.
It seems there's a comfort in following a ton of other travelers; that the option of traveling with people who are similar to you is more adventitious than wandering around and finding those who aren't.
It’s a weighted question, and maybe there are some undertones I’m not picking up. I may just be the luckiest woman in the world: the friends I've made along my travels are the best and (for the sake of this blog) most affordable tour guides you can stumble upon.
Perhaps through a couple of my experiences and observations, you’ll have the extra push to jump into the wondrous discomfort of stepping foot into foreign territory alone, trusting that you’ll make friends along the way.
The high arctic is difficult to access, and I was there by a swing of luck—I'd been chosen to conduct field research on the Greenlandic ice sheet. Every morning, we would pack ourselves into a couple red trucks and drive along the non-existent (or World War II era) roads on our way to the field sites.
While in Greenland, one might say, it'd seem most sensible to go on a group tour to an island where the musk ox population is greater than the human one.
However, I would push back, it’s exactly this kind of place that deserves to be visited in your own direction. There isn’t much going on, so people are often happy to give you a ride or spend the entire day (true story) hanging out and showing you around.
I have a vivid memory of our little red trucks diverting onto a narrow gravel road, while a large tour bus (the only one in the area) went down the slightly-better paved road.
“Why don’t they follow us to the ice sheet?" I asked the field leader. "The map indicates the oldest formations to be this way.”
It turns out that private tour groups aren't allowed entry directly onto the ice sheet. I thought maybe it was a science thing—something along the lines of “let’s not destroy more of the little we have left.” But the next day, we saw the cutest Danish couple walking down the gravel road.
We picked them up in our little red trucks and asked them about their travels. As the stick shift stalled on a particularly awkward ascent, they told us that they'd come here on a life goal to hike through all the Earth’s biomes before they disappeared; they were hiking around as individuals, and as such, there was no part of the landscape they weren’t allowed access to.
The tour bus company couldn’t legally promise that they'd keep an eye on their thirty passengers at all times, so they had to go to the part of the ice sheet that was protected by a moraine (something that served as a natural fence). These kinds of laws accomplish a manner of a “weeding-out” process—if you go through the trouble of hiking across Greenland without a bus, it's assumed that you'll probably be respectful to the fragile ecosystem in which you’ve spent all your time and money to visit.
From what I’ve seen, guided tours are exactly that. A tour. There's little room left to explore the secrets of the earth thoroughly: there's a path that must be walked within a given amount of time. For those who are easily distracted by river spirits or scuttling lemmings, I only hope your group doesn’t desert you for keeping them behind schedule.
Seoul, South Korea
I happened to go to South Korea in pursuit of a love interest, and we spent a couple weeks traveling the inland and coastal portions of the northern part of the country.
Somehow, I got enrolled in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament (Note from Mrs. Nerd: Doesn't everyone?), and we met a man who taught English in Seoul. He was a bit of an outcast from his original southern-US home and didn’t quite fit into the mold of the expat community in the city; he seemed most comfortable hanging out with the locals.
In a city as dense and sprawled as Seoul, social platforms such as Tinder are more often used to find friends than booty calls.
After the Frisbee tournament in Pohong and getting lost in the mountains of Seroksan National park (I would love to write more about this, if anyone is interested in Korean camping and getting rejected by mountain monks), we met up with the English teacher and his lady/it’s-complicated friend, who were ready to show us the most unconventional parts of downtown Seoul.
I inquired about the craziest food we could get in the city—and we spent the rest of the night traveling around downtown eating, people watching, and loitering in the fancier districts. Seoul has a superb transit system, but it’s even easier to get around when you’re led by a tipsy Korean woman.
Some highlights of our night include eating live octopus (whose freshly chopped tentacles continue to squiggle in your mouth as you eat) and super spicy deep fried chicken feet, served with talons and all.
We bought some soju (an alcohol made from starch that sells for less than juice) and drank it on the rooftop of an apartment complex. In the brilliance of artificial light cradled by the sheer cliffs surrounding the city, everything felt so real. The bamboo mat we sat on ... and the few stars whose ancient brilliance reached all the way to us, shining on chipping plaster beneath the smog.
I’m not sure what package that would fall under in a group travel option selection.
Mexico City, Mexico
Getting to Mexico these days isn’t terribly expensive or difficult; I’ve been to Isla Mujeres, Tulum, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta doing the drinking and beach bumming (all amazing experiences) that come with completing a college degree.
But I hadn’t really seen Mexico until I was led around Mexico City, and its surrounding areas, by a native whom I befriended in New York.
I hadn’t understood the unique subcultures and all its vibrancy, disparity, strife, and depth until I was in the throes with people who navigated it daily. Snorkeling in cenotes is amazing, and drinking shots lit on fire is something I’ll forever hold dear (my liver might say otherwise), but what I still hold with me today was the sense of community that is so tightly woven into Mexican daily life. This took form as family dinners and food preparation, the regularity of physical contact, and the art of singing and dancing.
The handsome 20-something I was staying with shared his room with his grandma, who slept in an identical twin bed next to his. When I inquired how this might make seeing women, or having privacy in his budding age difficult, his response was a mix of surprise ... and sadness for me.
“I love my abuela more than anything," he said. "This is something you Americans don’t seem to comprehend. Why would I want my grandma to stay somewhere besides the safety of our home? Any Mexican girl would understand this, and appreciate that family comes first.”
So, I learned that being sexiled by your 70-some-year-old grandma wasn’t even on the scale of being problematic.
As a result of the cultural subtleties I tuned into when incorporated into someone else’s daily life, my experiences at the markets and taquerias were layered with observing my up-and-coming surgeon guide giving the children who asked for money quick check-ups and pieces of the spicy mango we'd bargained for earlier. From monuments to mosaics, he proudly recounted histories of war and art that have been splattered throughout the city.
I left Mexico not with a biting hangover and a bad sunburn, but with a sense of wonder about what lies ahead. I thought about power and privilege, kindness and love.
Maybe through my memories of accessibility, adventure, and friendship I've at least started a conversation about different approaches to travel.
Individual limitations and comfort should be honestly acknowledged before somersaulting into unknown territory. But if you know yourself and trust your judgement, I hope my words whisper, “Go.”
ABOUT THE GUEST POSTER:
Chloe F is a passionate world-trotter in her early twenties. Born and raised in France, she's had many opportunities to travel ... and many more to make incredible connections with fellow humans (and animals) all across our globe. Her experiences include studying frogs on secluded waterfalls in South America and chasing whales along the coast of Mexico.