Monday, April 28, 2014

See Less, Live more

Post by Josh

I grew up obsessed with the ancient world, building castles and cathedrals out of whatever I could and taking classes on Greece and Rome and Harappan India whenever I could. When we were setting up this trip, Hammad and I laid out several anchor destinations and built our route around them - Angkor Wat, India, Istanbul, Rome, Egypt, Machu Picchu, and Aztec Central America - all places with famous ancient cultures and impressive ruins. This is what gave our blog its title of Ancient Roads. And we are now a bit more than halfway through the route of our travels, having seen more than half of our anchors, and they were all pretty cool. The most recent, Egypt, lived up to its awesome reputation and was chock full of ancient roads.

These places, however, have not been the coolest part of the trip. Sites with lots of tourist hawkers, entrance fees, overloaded infrastructure, and sketchy guides have been the most aggravating things we have seen. And even if an ancient site is standing in pristine condition, all it is is mute stone. It may be a beautiful place, but it does not have much meaning without the stories and histories that let us know why it was built and who lived there. It is impossible to understand what is important in what we see without outside information. Guidebooks and signs help, but only if you already have some background information.
What is most interesting is dealing with actual, living people. And they don't even need to be in a mythic ancient site. We had more fun and learned more hanging out with the Östlunds in their Stockholm living room than wandering through the breathtaking but impassive fields of Bagan in Myanmar, where nobody could answer the 'why' questions we asked. Our time in Budapest was made by the wily Brazilian and Telluride friends we had there more than the gorgeously preserved architecture and excellent museums. And in Egypt, our experience with the Pyramids was frustrating and lame compared to touring a much less impressive temple in Luxor with a good guide we met through CouchSurfing.

We've been using CouchSurfing consistently in Africa, and it has made a world of difference. It makes it harder to set our own agendas and see all the sites recommended in the guide books, but instead we get taken out to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt for a weekend or invited to an Ethiopian wedding - things that we would never get a chance to do if we were still staying in hostels and trying to figure everything out on our own. We get to live with and like locals, which is much more the point of travel. See fewer tourist destinations but see them with more explanation  so they can truly come alive, and spend the rest of the time in an Addis Ababa cafe, full of expressive Ethiopians and Kenyans as Liverpool tries to regain the lead from Chelsea. Now this is real and quite unexpected cultural experience.

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