Cultivating a Studied Ignorance

 

I’m one of those people who has to know everything about everything.

I imagine it’s really quite annoying some of the time. I’m always asking questions and bugging people to tell me more about some mundane detail of their lives or an experience they had or their point of view on…whatever.

The fact is, I get a bit panicky if I feel like I’m out of the loop on anything. If there’s some piece of information I don’t have, I figure that any decision I make will be uninformed and therefore not optimal. That little details may be the small crack in an otherwise brilliant plan and I would hate to allow some little hairline fracture of ignorance spoil my victory.

So it’s to this NEED to know, mixed up with a natural curiosity, that causes me to spend a good portion of every day seeking out and consuming information wherever I can find it.

Knowing this about me, I hope you can appreciate how difficult it is for me to cultivate a studied ignorance on the countries that I move to before I get there. And yet, here I am, sitting in New Zealand and I haven’t read anything about the country beyond the Wikipedia entry and anything I can pick up on the streets (tabloids, magazines, etc).

At first this practice made me a little panicky – it was startling to arrive in Argentina, for example, without any idea where the airport was in relation to the main city, how to convert my money, how to hire a taxi, etc – but I’ve quickly grown accustomed to it.

In fact, I’ve grown a bit fond of the practice, and I’ll tell you why.

Think of the kinds of information you can pick up in a guide book. Touristy stuff, mostly. Some basic knowledge collected by god-knows-who, god-knows-when, and a whole lot of opinion to go with the ‘facts.’ You can get a really solid foundation, sure, but the stuff that is not true or only half-true can really hold you back, identifying you immediately as a tourist in the eyes of locals (and therefore someone who can be easily taken advantage of).

When you learn the information from the locals and periodicals that the locals read, however, you learn the REAL deal and pick up the colloquialisms along with the facts, and the facts are much more regional and far less packed with generalizations.

You know which place is REALLY the best place to eat in town, not the place that some travel expert thought was the best. You know where to REALLY go to meet people, not where some writer who hops from place to place thinks is a good place to meet people (I mean, what kind of people do they ever want to meet?!).

This is a tough post for me to write because I always want to encourage as much research and learning as possible, but I’ve found that there can be massive benefits to keeping yourself sealed off from the wrong kind of information and holding out for the good stuff.

You won’t know for sure what you’ve got is good until later, of course, but it’s hard to go wrong getting information from a local rather than a stranger in a strange land.

27 comments

  1. I can definitely relate to this post. 2 years ago today I was in China with a college group for a week. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but everything was planned. We spent the entire semester planning for trip, studying the different sites we would see, etc. etc. After being on such a tight schedule, to jam pack everything in to tiny little time slots (we went through the entire Shanghai museum in twenty minutes), I was exhausted and ready to come home just to relax.

    Then, four months after that, I went to Mexico with my best friend. We didn’t know anything that we wanted to do while there. We just went. And I had the most fun I’ve probably had in my entire life. We followed the ‘Mexico rule’ to find a good place to eat: “if there are a lot of Mexicans (ie, no foreigners) then it’s probably a good place to eat. We asked locals and travellers the best places to go and we regretted nothing.

    When you know everything possible about a location it takes the mystery out of the journey. Then, if you add a schedule to that, travelling becomes a tedious task; not an enjoyable experience.

  2. I can definitely relate to this post. 2 years ago today I was in China with a college group for a week. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but everything was planned. We spent the entire semester planning for trip, studying the different sites we would see, etc. etc. After being on such a tight schedule, to jam pack everything in to tiny little time slots (we went through the entire Shanghai museum in twenty minutes), I was exhausted and ready to come home just to relax.

    Then, four months after that, I went to Mexico with my best friend. We didn’t know anything that we wanted to do while there. We just went. And I had the most fun I’ve probably had in my entire life. We followed the ‘Mexico rule’ to find a good place to eat: “if there are a lot of Mexicans (ie, no foreigners) then it’s probably a good place to eat. We asked locals and travellers the best places to go and we regretted nothing.

    When you know everything possible about a location it takes the mystery out of the journey. Then, if you add a schedule to that, travelling becomes a tedious task; not an enjoyable experience.

  3. I hate to bring up Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” for fear of being cliche (and even me stating my recognition of that point doesn’t make the clicheness go away), but what Mr. Richard said above just reminds me of what Jack Kerouac went through on the road.

    I got no sense of real planning when reading through the book. Just a go here, follow this guy, meet these people mentality. There were no illusions in his mind, just the really awesome people and places.

  4. I hate to bring up Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” for fear of being cliche (and even me stating my recognition of that point doesn’t make the clicheness go away), but what Mr. Richard said above just reminds me of what Jack Kerouac went through on the road.

    I got no sense of real planning when reading through the book. Just a go here, follow this guy, meet these people mentality. There were no illusions in his mind, just the really awesome people and places.

  5. I think there’s something to be said about striking a balance between knowledge and ignorance. I’m a compulsive information gatherer just like you – I’m always the guy that “does his homework” on everything I buy, on every city I go into, and so on. I always do my research, so I can find the “best” there is to find.

    However, there has to come a point where you just say “screw it” and make the leap of faith. You have to trust your wits and just go without the research for once, and be open to the real, authentic experience.

  6. I think there’s something to be said about striking a balance between knowledge and ignorance. I’m a compulsive information gatherer just like you – I’m always the guy that “does his homework” on everything I buy, on every city I go into, and so on. I always do my research, so I can find the “best” there is to find.

    However, there has to come a point where you just say “screw it” and make the leap of faith. You have to trust your wits and just go without the research for once, and be open to the real, authentic experience.

  7. @Richard: I couldn’t agree more. There needs to be balance, of course, and in some situations having a hotel waiting for you is the PERFECT thing when you arrive, but more and more I’ve been favoring the ‘take things as they come and roll with it’ kind of approach.

    @Tim: Haha, well, things are cliche for a reason, aren’t they? It totally fits.

    @Brett: Agreed. No need for extremism either direction…do whatever makes sense at the time.

  8. @Richard: I couldn’t agree more. There needs to be balance, of course, and in some situations having a hotel waiting for you is the PERFECT thing when you arrive, but more and more I’ve been favoring the ‘take things as they come and roll with it’ kind of approach.

    @Tim: Haha, well, things are cliche for a reason, aren’t they? It totally fits.

    @Brett: Agreed. No need for extremism either direction…do whatever makes sense at the time.

  9. I am definitely someone who likes to gather information. If I’m interested in anything or anyone, I will research it/the person.

    I just hit Chicago and basically spent a few days walking around the Magnificent Mile and Chinatown. It’s a bit scary to walk around without a map, but it was fun to see a bunch of stuff off of the beaten tourist path.

  10. I am definitely someone who likes to gather information. If I’m interested in anything or anyone, I will research it/the person.

    I just hit Chicago and basically spent a few days walking around the Magnificent Mile and Chinatown. It’s a bit scary to walk around without a map, but it was fun to see a bunch of stuff off of the beaten tourist path.

  11. I really like the way you travel. If I ever do any extended moving around I definitely want to do it the same way.

    Also, I can totally relate about not wanting to miss any information. I spend so much time reading blogs, books and random articles. If there’s something I don’t know, I immediately hit Wikipedia or go to a Google search.

    I think that this thirst for information is a good thing though! I find that I never have a lack of things to talk about with people, I’m sure it’s the same for you as well.

    Great post man hope you’re having a kickass time.

  12. I really like the way you travel. If I ever do any extended moving around I definitely want to do it the same way.

    Also, I can totally relate about not wanting to miss any information. I spend so much time reading blogs, books and random articles. If there’s something I don’t know, I immediately hit Wikipedia or go to a Google search.

    I think that this thirst for information is a good thing though! I find that I never have a lack of things to talk about with people, I’m sure it’s the same for you as well.

    Great post man hope you’re having a kickass time.

  13. My need to know everything about everything (including about myself) is sometimes scary for the people around me. I’m preparing to leave with the same concept – just live it, try to feel it once and not intellectualize everything.
    People often ask me “how you’re going *there*, so what’s going on there right now, what are you expecting, etc.” To which I can just answer “I don’t know, I’ll check that there”. Scary, yes. I completely relate. But fun, feels like discovering the authenticity like a pioneer.
    And I also love the “no illusion” thing Tim mentions.
    We’re pushing our limits, and that’s most probably for the best.

  14. My need to know everything about everything (including about myself) is sometimes scary for the people around me. I’m preparing to leave with the same concept – just live it, try to feel it once and not intellectualize everything.
    People often ask me “how you’re going *there*, so what’s going on there right now, what are you expecting, etc.” To which I can just answer “I don’t know, I’ll check that there”. Scary, yes. I completely relate. But fun, feels like discovering the authenticity like a pioneer.
    And I also love the “no illusion” thing Tim mentions.
    We’re pushing our limits, and that’s most probably for the best.

  15. My balance is pretty much this: I plan the first week after landing and then let the rest go by serendipity. It sucks not having any sort of knowledge when just getting to a place, but after the first week or so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is around you and other things to do.

  16. My balance is pretty much this: I plan the first week after landing and then let the rest go by serendipity. It sucks not having any sort of knowledge when just getting to a place, but after the first week or so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is around you and other things to do.

  17. I like going somewhere and just hitting the ground running, then there are no rules, no ‘plans’ and you can pretty much see the real side of things vs. the touristy stuff.

  18. I like going somewhere and just hitting the ground running, then there are no rules, no ‘plans’ and you can pretty much see the real side of things vs. the touristy stuff.

  19. I’ve only ever had the rushed travel experience. I think our group did 15 countries in 21 days, traveling western Europe. And it’s funny even when I thought I was just going to chill with friends in Taipei they felt they had to take me to every famous building, park, and night market in the city. I didn’t do the planning, but apparently they were planning for months in advance on all the places they were going to take me. We’re conditioned how to treat tourists and how to act like tourists.

  20. I’ve only ever had the rushed travel experience. I think our group did 15 countries in 21 days, traveling western Europe. And it’s funny even when I thought I was just going to chill with friends in Taipei they felt they had to take me to every famous building, park, and night market in the city. I didn’t do the planning, but apparently they were planning for months in advance on all the places they were going to take me. We’re conditioned how to treat tourists and how to act like tourists.

  21. Hmm, I’ve gone both ways–studying up quite a bit before I go and just going. It’s a whole different trip either way. I have to say that leaving in ‘ignorance’ can mean not seeing the ‘must see’s’ and doing the ‘must do’s.’ So occasionally people ask me something like, “Oh, did you go to the top of the Eiffel Tower?” and I say, “Um, no.” But chances are, I had some other experience that was completely riveting to me and whose value cannot be conveyed through a tourist checklist.

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  23. You are totally right on the tourist guide stuff.

    When I travel somewhere, I usually don't even read wikipedia. What I do is I meet some local people there who can host me. These can be people I met before in another country or at an international minded event. Or people I know through those people.

    When I did my balkan trip last spring, I just stayed with 'locals' in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia&Herzegovina. It's the coolest way, and actually the only way, to absorb and savour the country ;)

  24. Yes, there's quite a bit to this.

    The other thing about guidebooks (e.g. Lonely Planet) is that their (and their writers') incomes depend on a place being visitable. If it's not visitable, no-one will buy the guidebook.

    This leads to a large amount of airbrushing. My favourite is Phnom Penh, where I live. Lonely Planet et al typically say things like, “it is not as 'wild west' as it used to be” and “it is true traffic has got a little heavier in recent years”.

    The facts are (as any resident could tell you) that Phnom Penh has horrendous street violence (the latest is a wave of unprovoked brick attacks against foreigners), and the driving is the worst in Asia – totally unpredictable & rule-less, quite heedless of the existence of the other person. The cost is a huge toll in human life & limb daily.

    Quite a few foreigners fall victim to crime & traffic accidents here every month. To some extent this must be due to the self-interested pressures exerted by Lonely Planet – which has never discovered a place that isn't safe & welcoming, or at worst has minor flaws.

    So these guidebooks not only channel you into tourist-style grooves, they can be dangerous.

  25. Great post, but I don’t think this applies just to travelling. I can read so much about a new hobby or sport, that I think I have it all sussed before I even start. And when I do begin, I’m just waiting for the feeling that experts have promised me I will have rather than enjoying the moment.

    My new goal is actually to read and research less. I’ll never be in danger – I couldn’t possibly arrive somewhere new and not know how to get to my accomodation like you – but I am determined to let myself have experiences uncoloured or predetermined by someone elses.

    Too much research can simply be a form of procrastination and fear.

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