The Independent Traveler

It’s dark in the hull of the water taxi. The light spilling through a small opening that serves as a door isn’t quite blinding. I can clearly make out turquoise water, although the spray kicked up by powerful boat engines does its best to obscure my view. Through the light, beyond the spray, and far over the water I can make out the silhouette of a large cruise ship.

My thoughts flash to what it must be like aboard: lavish buffets of familiar foods, theaters playing Hollywood films, spiffily dressed attendents ready to meet your every need with fluent English. No muss, no fuss; daily excursions whisk passengers to the mainland and back again. Everything is neat and tidy and perfectly organized.

Turning away from the water I look around at the motley crew of backpackers who are squeezed together in the small boat. There is the twenty-something couple from Australia making good progress on their around the world trip, a lone 40-year-old Canadian woman heading for some beach time before doing volunteer work in Guatemala, a family of three; independent travelers all.

Most don’t know where they’re going after Caye Caulker or how long they’ll stay. Many aren’t even sure where they’ll sleep tonight. They take the world one day at a time, moving from opportunity to opportunity, experience to experience. They trust in their ability to live off the land, to find accommodations, to navigate border crossings, and sustain themselves anywhere in the world with nothing more than their wits and a small bag of possessions.

Almost as a rule they sacrifice comfort and luxury for time and freedom. It’s a worthy trade. But thrift is more than just a way to make ends meet. Traveling and eating like locals is part of the experience. The roadside cantina serving incredible rice and beans and the extravagantly painted old school buses used to transport people and animals are customary here. To insulate ourselves from these things is to miss something important; perhaps even the whole reason for leaving home.

Squinting back through the portal at the cruise ship, still just barely visible on the horizon, I’m glad for the rougher road we’ve chosen and for the company we keep.

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16 Comments on “The Independent Traveler”

  1. Grant February 15, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Other than digging in with the locals for an extended period of time, this is the purest and most authentic form of travel. The road is for adventure – not luxury.


    • Brian February 15, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

      Luxury is good sometimes. The problem with it is that it is often homogenous, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of travel in my view. If we wanted everything to be the same, we’d never need to go anywhere different.


  2. Ginny Miller February 15, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    The rougher road – oh yeah. We took a four-month leave last winter to travel through Mexico by bus, and have spent every minute since our return to Canada plotting our retirement in two years. Every technicolor memory sustains us – the overnight bus rides, the random encounters, the road-side taco stands and the vivid, vivid colour. Everywhere noise, music and unabashed life. Sure, we had moments of discomfort, loneliness, violent illness and uncertainty. But our biggest impression was of being fully alive, fully engaged, part of the bigger world.
    Our plan is to sell everything and buy an RV in pursuit of that indescribable joy of the open road and the delicious unknown. We live vicariously through your wonderful blog in the meantime.


    • Brian February 15, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Good luck on your plans and thanks for your comments


  3. nadinefeldman February 15, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Hubby and I have decided that we’ll save the cruise ships for when we can’t travel any other way, as his parents did. I would much rather get a true local feel of a place.


    • Brian February 15, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

      That’s our thinking too. Although I don’t know how much cruise ship travel we’ll end up doing. I think by the time we’re ready for that we’ll more likely just pull up a stool at the Schooner Warf Bar in Key West, get some drinks for us and our dog, listen to the music, and watch the world go by.


  4. customtripplanning February 15, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    My daughter and her husband landed in Java yesterday for a month exploring….sounds like they fit your pattern.


  5. baidanbi February 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    The beauty of independent travel these days is that with wide spread internet access you have so many options – from a preplanned high-end trip to a follow the wind budget trip, or my favorite, a mix and match of the two. And while I agree that you generally find more authenticity and frankly more culture at the budget end, the right boutique hotel has its own charm. Therefore for me the real difference between independent travel and what I call “bubble travel” is the conscious choices the traveler makes. You choose where to go, how you are going to get there, where to sleep and what to eat, not the cruise line or the tour agency. And the experiences you have making those choices are often the most memorable part of the trip.


    • Brian February 15, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

      I agree, and I think we’re pretty good at trying to balance all different kinds of approaches. We’re definitely not the kind of people who consider ourselves above a cruise ship or a group tour. I think those things have their place and I can see us doing that if it’s the right kind of trip. And I certainly don’t mind paying more for unique experiences, whether boutique hotels or something else. What I don’t generally like, though, is the “bubble travel” where you’re completely isolated from the place you’re presumably visiting. Too often that kind of travel is synonymous with luxury. In those cases I’d rather not pay more to degrade my experience.


  6. Marcia Clarke February 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    Enjoy every minute of your journey and keep writing, so I can enjoy it too.


    • Brian February 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      Glad you’re enjoying it. Thanks for following along.


  7. earthriderjudyberman February 15, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    You’re right. Traveling and eating with the locals is part of the experience. We had a much better experience when visiting Costa Rica because we stayed – and ate – in the same area as many of the locals.


  8. joe February 17, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    Thanks for the tips. I”m planning the same but would like a travel partner,Help!lol Joe


  9. Betty Londergan February 25, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Caye Caulker is better than ANY luxury ship any time, anywhere — so happy you are having the true Belize experience there!! (Try to find Steve Leibert there.. and give him a hug for me!)



  1. In Defense of Travel Tours | Everywhere Once - June 24, 2013

    […] Independent travel is awesome, and we highly recommend it. But not everyone has the confidence to jet off into the world by themselves. If the choice is between going on a tour or not going at all, please book a tour. Tour travel has its drawbacks, but it is still far superior to staying home. Tour travel is also an excellent “gateway drug” to the harder stuff. It will get you hooked and before long you’ll be mainlining tuk-tuks and street food all on your own. […]


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