Posted June 25, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Backpackology 101

My Guidebook Says You’re a Twit (But Good For You)

It was in my Kyoto hostel’s kitchen, whilst I finished my breakfast, innocently leafing through my guidebook, that the instigator first addressed me.

“So you’re one of those, huh?

I glanced up to find a befreckeled, pear-shaped Canadian guy winking at me over the communal table. He was gnawing on a granola bar.  I hadn’t noticed his arrival.

“Excuse me?”

He pointed his snack at my book. “Lonely Planet. The Bible!” he cawed.  “Why do people need that? I see all you guys with your noses buried in the damn thing!” He snorted a laugh and beamed at me with his bulbous, red cheeks. He looked like a doll that’d been stuffed with too much cotton, and I hated him.

“Oh… Yes,” I obliged, and retreated to my toast and jam, shutting out any of his further attempts to force a conversation.        

I’m not usually so petty, but this sort of idiocy drives me absolutely potty, and I can only control my eye-rolls for so long. To me, this doughy goblin embodied a whole minority of insufferable, proselytizing, ‘hardcore’ backpackers who believe they’re on trips that transcend the merit of anyone else’s. Indeed, these guys are special and their journeys are fraught with profound enlightenment and lofty exploration that you simply cannot wrap your doddling, mouth-breathing, little head around. Which is awesome. But they hate guidebooks. They fucking hate guidebooks. And they want to tell you all about it over the next twenty minutes.

They lower their voices as they part their dreadlocks, explaining how following a guidebook dooms you to plod like sheep through the major tourist hubs, Disneyfying your experience of the country, and rendering your trip commonplace and trite. They reveal how they overcome this by traveling strictly on the word-of-mouth suggestions of other backpackers, as well as locals. Then they grin into the distance, the clever, new-age Magellans they are, because without the burden of a guidebook they are now ‘off the beaten track,’ ‘blazing new trails,’ and having a ‘local experience.’ If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sat through this tragically misguided performance, I could buy Bangladesh. All of it. Or at least I could buy a couple sweatshops. Which I would exclusively use to produce more guidebooks.

The irony is that whenever you run into these types of travelers, it is almost unequivocally in a crowded tourist hub.


Because when you ask a bunch of fellow travelers where you should go, your answer will most likely be a place where a bunch of fellow travelers frequent. There are certainly hidden gems out there—and you’re sure to find them covered in full by the leading guidebooks. Lonely Planet in particular covers the most off the beaten path and obscure places imaginable. Their Pakistan guide even covered Mastuj!

It all boils down to providing yourself with information—regardless of where you get it. If you have a guidebook filled with relevant maps, history, cultural contexts and insights, bus and train schedules, and alerts on local scams, what’s stopping you from also heeding the advice and recommendations of fellow travelers and locals?

Hmm? What’s that, sausage-breasted Canadian?


As travelers, we all desire to forge our own paths. We seek that which feels authentic and intimate, a connection with the country that feels uniquely our own. What prevents us from finding this isn’t our guidebook—it’s our sad, waddlesome sloth. “Blazing your own trail” requires hard work and creativity. You have to ask yourself what you’ve always dreamed of doing and seeing, instead of asking another backpacker or a local. If you’re a die-hard foodie, skip the ruins of Rome to learn the poetry of pasta in Bologna instead. Animal junkies could go help rhinos at a refuge in Kenya. Culture vultures can chew betel nut with jungle tribes in Borneo. Alcoholics can go to Russia. Often the paths we ply wont be glamorous, but pursuing your passions and following curiosity is always more memorable and enriching than seeing ‘the thing on the postcard.’

Your guidebook merely exists as a tool to help you do that.

Whatever you decide to do and however you decide on doing it, the only important thing is that you get up and get out there. Take a leap. Have an adventure. And cough up the $25 for a Lonely Planet. You’ll find it’s worth every penny, I promise.


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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.