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, well, 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 even 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.
Update: December 11, 2016
I still do this, to a certain degree. When I’m moving to a new place for several months, I like to step into a situation with as few preconceived notions as possible. That way I can learn from the people on the ground, rather than from people who are writing travel guides but who are themselves outsiders (or who are insiders writing travel guides for outsiders).
That said, I’ve been doing more quick-trips these last two years, and when I step into a place and know I only have a few days or a week, I’m more inclined to do some initial reaching-out to see what I can learn ahead of time, or at the very least set up a coffee meet with a local so I can pick their brain soon after my arrival. I’m still playing with this, because I want actual, non-commercial information about a place, but I also recognize it’s easier to get that kind of info when you’re living there, rather than just stopping through.