I’m climbing a Spanish mountain in 96-degree weather behind Jordi and Adria from Barcelona, who are setting our ridiculous pace.
Karolina from Lithuania and Jo from Sydney are sweating and panting with me as we try to keep up with the boys. We’ve just hopped off of a two-euro train from Balaguer to Sant Llorenç de Montgai and our eyes and legs are set on some Catalan flag in the (very, very) far away and (very, very) upwards distance. We eventually reach the top, sunburned and overheated, where I am able to look down over the mountain I climbed and see the colors of the nearby lake and the now-tiny buildings and surrounding mountains. The entire sweaty journey was worth it. I am on top of the world in Spain, eating freshly picked sun-ripened apricots with four of the nicest people I have ever met.
When I return to Barcelona five days later, about a two-hour bus ride away from this hike and where I lived on a medicinal garden for seven days total, none of the locals have ever heard of Balaguer. “Are you sure you are pronouncing it right?” I assure them that I am and point out its location on a map. “Hmmm. Never been there or heard of it.” Our conversation is in perfect English because just about everyone I meet in Barcelona speaks English fluently or close to it. In Balaguer, I am a bit horrified to learn that my intermediate Spanish is not enough…. most of the locals speak Catalan. I teach myself enough words to be able to correctly order patatas bravas and say thank you, thank you, thank you when they arrive.
Every new country or city I go to, I learn new words, try new foods, and meet new people. I do not think this would be possible if I did not travel the way that I do — with an eye on adventure, not a guidebook.
Every time I travel my mantra is the same: Take the less traveled path. Go the way most others wouldn’t.
Last summer, I spent two months traveling through Europe. About thirty of those days were spent completing work exchanges–I provided some sort of labor and was given food and shelter in exchange. When I told my friends and family what I would be doing the reactions were mixed. Some people were excited, others were scared (sorry, Mom), and many were perplexed. Why go to Europe just to visit and work in unheard of towns like Balaguer, Helmond, and Klosterneuburg? Why stay at an apartment in Budapest rather than a party hostel? Why AirBNBs instead of hotels?
Because the road less trodden by tourists is always, always the better one to me.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy some of the more touristy thing. I loved wandering into the many shops in Barcelona I’d seen friends flaunt purchases from and visiting some of the breathtaking Gaudí buildings, but I avoided Las Ramblas and instead asked my AirBNB host for a beach recommendation that landed me on a secluded strip of the Mediterranean near some of the best gelato I’ve ever had. In London I visited Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, but I also purposely got “lost” in the underground and got off at a random stop to see what I might find (a beautiful wall mural and the sweetest old taxicab driver who gave me a history of his London).
Participating in work exchanges gave me a true taste of the culture in the countries where I worked — Spain, The Netherlands, and Austria. And staying at AirBNB or hostel accommodations gave me direct contact with locals. My hosts consistently introduced me to their favorite restaurants, shops, bars, and experiences that trumped the touristy choices every times. I also met new friends while I worked and wandered into unknown places. A man I met on a walking tour in Nice met up with me again in Barcelona and Vienna and was more than happy to accompany me to Slovakia for the day when I decided that might be fun. I found the best potato dumpling I’ve ever eaten at a tiny grocery shop down a winding street in Bratislava. I found a woman crying after a breakup in my hostel in Budapest and suggested drinks — we ended up at a mostly unknown Turkish bath getting free deep tissue massages. A woman I met in Iceland is now one of my closest friends on the west coast.
If I had stuck to hotels or a set travel itinerary, I never would have had the experiences I did. Met the incredible people I met. Everywhere and every time I travel my mantra is the same: Take the less traveled path. Go the way most others wouldn’t.
I have never once been disappointed.