This week on “Meet an Indie Traveller,” I’m sitting down with Barbara Weibel of Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel, an independent traveller who set off in 2007 to pursue her passions of travel, writing, and photography and hasn’t looked back. Today, Barbara discusses how she plans her trips and how she scratches below the surface for a richer cultural experience…
1. How would you define independent travel and how do you feel it differs from how most people view travel?
Independent travel is NOT taking a tour or staying at an all-inclusive resort. It’s NOT having an itinerary that schedules every minute of your holiday, leaving little possibility to take advantage of opportunities that may come your way. It’s NOT rushing around to see all the top tourist sights.
Independent travel IS figuring out where you want to go, then booking a flight and maybe the first few days of accommodations, and seeing what happens after that. It IS striking up conversations with locals, taking the local bus rather than the tourist bus, and lingering over lunch for two hours at neighbourhood cafes where the locals eat. It IS being flexible enough to stay a few extra days if you choose to, or to hop a bus or train to a destination that hadn’t even been on your itinerary but sounded intriguing when you learned about it.
How others view travel is a difficult question for me, simply because I am surrounded by other independent travelers all the time. However, I can say that most independent travelers are European, Australian, New Zealanders, or increasingly, Asian; Americans who travel independently are definitely in the minority. For some reason, Americans believe that independent overseas travel is dangerous; when I describe how I travel to fellow Americans, nine times out of ten their immediate reaction is, “You are so brave; aren’t you afraid?”
However, another important factor in this equation is that the average American has only two weeks of vacation, thus the tendency is to stay close to home and cram as much activity as possible into those few days. The sad fact is that independent travel requires the luxury of time, which most Americans simply do not have.
2. Could you tell us a little about your first independent travel experience?
I was 18 or 19 when I first hit the road. I had already entered the work force, selling advertising at one of the Chicago daily newspapers, and it was my first vacation. I threw a tent into my little car and headed cross-country to see the “Wild West.”
I had a vague idea where I was going: Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. I drove like a mad woman, desperate to see as much as possible during my two-week vacation. I remember staying overnight in the panhandle of Texas, seeing the oil wells on the broad plains of Oklahoma, and taking the cable car up to the top of the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Certainly, I must have made it to Arizona, but I can’t recall any details. What I do remember vividly is feeling as if something had ignited inside me. I looked at everything with childlike wonder and my innate curiosity demanded to know more about the things I was seeing. The wanderlust grabbed me, and grabbed me hard. After that first trip, I knew I had to travel, as much and as often as possible.
3. How has your trip planning changed since you first started travelling?
I don’t think it has changed much. I flew by the seat of my pants then and I still do. Perhaps I have commitment issues, but I hate to be locked into ironclad plans; it never has been nor will it ever be my style.
4. What do you feel is the number one travel planning pitfall for first-time travellers to avoid?
Without a doubt, the biggest pitfall is trying to fill every moment and do too much. People return from a trip needing a vacation from their vacation.
5. What is the number one lesson you’ve learned through your travels? How has travel changed the way you view the world?
Rather than changing my view of the world, travel has reinforced my lifelong belief that people everywhere are more similar than different. We may speak different languages, practice different religions, eat different foods, and dress differently, but we all want a safe and comfortable place to live, sufficient food to eat, clothes to wear, freedom, and a better life for our children. I fervently believe that the better we get to know one another, the less likely we’ll want to kill each other.
6. On Hole in the Donut, you write extensively about culture. How would you define cultural travel? Could you offer any tips or examples of how independent travellers could seek out better cultural experiences during their travels?
Culture is an all-encompassing term. It can refer to religion, food, art, music, history, language, politics, government, customs, traditions, etc. But in my opinion, culture is rarely synonymous with the top tourist sites of a country or city.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t visit these iconic sites. The first time I was in Paris I rode to the top of the Eiffel Tower and spent a day at the Louvre Museum; both sites have historical significance. But the majority of my time was spent having dinner with my Parisian friends, walking around neighborhoods outside the popular tourist areas, sipping coffee at outdoor cafes, making friends with the locals, etc.
On my first visit to Paris I immersed culturally by renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel or hostel. Like all Parisians, I brought home fresh bread from the bakery each day and shopped in the local markets for fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. I got to know some of the shop owners and we laughed over my horrible attempts to speak French. I went everywhere via public transportation and never saw the inside of a taxi. Of course, to do this requires slowing down and staying in one place for a while rather than trying to see 12 countries in 16 days.
7. As an experienced female solo traveller, is there any advice you would give to other women who have some reservations about independent solo travel?
I am keenly aware that everyone has a different level of comfort regarding travel, so I would never tell anyone how to travel. Independent travel works for me, but it’s not right for everyone.
Women who want to travel but are afraid to do so may find it helpful to book a tour with a reputable company that allows lots of free time in the itinerary. After the first few experiences, some will become comfortable enough to strike out on their own.
Certainly, choosing a foreign country that is easy to travel in, such as Australia, New Zealand, or even Thailand, is also a good idea when first setting out to see the world. And it is always advisable to inform yourself about the scams that operate in each country, as forewarned is forearmed.
However, having said that, in my 43 years of traveling I’ve only had one bad experience, and that occurred in the U.S. I have never had a problem anywhere else in the world and I will soon visit my 50th country.
Bottom line, travel is not a dangerous activity, so just get out there and do it, in whatever way is most comfortable for you.
8. Following your passions is a central theme on Hole in the Donut. What advice would you have to help others find their passion and live the life they want to live?
Don’t live your life according to the expectations of others. First and foremost, be true to yourself. And for heaven sake, don’t wait until you’re 54, like I did. If you know what you’re passionate about, find a way to pursue that passion. If you don’t, you may look up some day and find life has passed you by. And I can tell you from personal experience, that is a truly horrible feeling.