There are two kinds of tourists: those who carry travel guides and those who follow the ones with travel guides. There’s also a third group: those who get off the beaten track. But in my brief encounters, I have found that this lot has read many books. They are not tourists; they are travellers. They wander and drift but they know where they are headed. Sometimes.
Some guides are more like travel books. You read them for sheer pleasure—even if you have no intention of going there. I bought the Bradt Travel Guide—Burkina Faso, but not because I am ever going to visit the godforsaken West African country, sixth from the bottom in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Mali maybe, if for nothing else, then at least for the joy of telling my friends, “When I was in Timbuktu…”
Such guides are not just books for tourists and travellers; they have literary merit. And, yes, they also tell you where to stay and what to do.
Over the years, I have acquired all kinds of travel guides: some because they make an excellent read (Bradt’s Eccentric London, for example), some I bought (and whose pages are still flagged with colourful Post-its) before embarking on a vacation, and a few others because I tell myself, perhaps one day I will go there (the Madagascar guide).
When I travel to a city I have never been to before, I try to read a bit about the place, and also carry a guidebook. On a trip to China—my first—some years ago I took along a guidebook to Beijing and a Mandarin phrase book. This despite the fact that I was with a small group of journalists, we were escorted everywhere, and our hosts spoke fluent English. There was no reason for me to carry the two fat books. But old habits are hard to kill.
I carried the 440-page DK Eyewitness Travel Guide—New York on almost all my trips there except the most recent one. We would open the book over breakfast and choose the day’s destination, make a note of how to get there, look at the subway map at the back of the book, shortlist interesting places to eat, and so on. Legs aching, we would sit on the steps of the museum, read how to go to the next destination, ask someone for directions to the nearest station, and yes, remind each other to visit the toilet before marching out again.
On my last trip to the city I had my newly acquired iPhone, loaded with travel apps recommended by friends, family and various websites. We checked the weather on The Weather Channel app before setting off in the morning, got directions to the nearest subway station, googled a museum’s website for the closing time, found a Wi-Fi spot from where we could call home on Skype, located a store to buy a tiny remote-control helicopter, had a great time playing with the Urbanspoon app (shake it and it suggests a restaurant nearby; shake it again if you want a different cuisine, or price range), and also got the number of a Blues bar to make a reservation for the evening. With an iPhone, you are never lost.
It’s a small world: When travelling, do you rely on guide books or smartphone apps?
This was the summer of last year. Since then I have downloaded the Lonely Planet Mandarin phrase book for $10 (around Rs470)—it also speaks the translated phrase, Translate It (a language translator) and a currency converter. Yes, I am dreaming of another trip to China.
I will also download SitOrSquat, because when you gotta go and there’s a long queue in the nearest Starbucks, you are in serious trouble. So you tap this iPhone app to locate public washrooms in your vicinity. Some also have user ratings. SitOrSquat has received good reviews and though it showed just two public loos when I searched for my location in New Delhi (I may as well run to the nearest tree because they were 5 miles apart), I still think whoever thought up this app should be given a prize for public service.
So you might ask, why should anyone buy a guidebook when you have a hand-held gadget like the iPhone, and you have topped it up with a bundle of travel apps downloaded free or for a small sum?
Two reasons: One, the joy of reading a good guidebook, and two, to borrow a line from Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org