10 travel tips for the desi explorer

Published: July 19, 2011

You can either be a tourist or a traveler - mastering the art of travelling entails being the latter.

There are two ways to travel – like an invited guest, you can ring the doorbell, enter through the front door and have your host guide you to the prized room of the house while they serve you in their finest china, make small talk and control your experience of the place – or, you can enter through the back door, through the kitchen, see what’s cooking on the stove, set the table, make tea and find your own comfort zone to enjoy the experience at will. The former is a tourist, the latter an explorer and mastering the art of travelling entails being the latter.

So, to all desi travel enthusiasts, before you venture into the unknown, here are the top ten tips to get you into that ‘exploration’ frame of mind.

Disclaimer: If you are one of those insufferable ‘aunty’ types who are only interested in the most soulless part of the city where all the amusement parks and designer outlets are, then please there is no need to travel; all the beauty, culture and bizarreness of a foreign country will be wasted on you – stick to Dubai at best.

  1. Don’t stay with friends/relatives: There is a world of a difference between travelling to meet friends or family and travelling to explore, so be clear on which is a priority. Because, if you travel and stay at the place of some friends or relatives, you will end up spending the majority of the time cooped up inside their house, making frivolous conversation with people from their extended circles, interspersed with trips to places that fit their notion of ‘worth seeing’. Of course if this was the intent then may God save your soul. However, if not, then stay at a cheap hotel or hostel instead and just visit your friends at will.
  2. Expand your horizons: In a foreign country do not be guided by the single minded pursuit to find the tastiest desi food, watching desi flicks at Cineplex’s or connecting exclusively with desis. Broaden your horizons, expand your circle and step out of your ghettos. Interacting with ‘the other’ is the only way to dispel the many stereotypes and biases you may have against them and vice versa.
  3. Travel with peas from the same pod: Never travel with people who are not likeminded, regardless how ‘fun’ they may seem or how much you will save by staying at their chachi’s house. Travelling together requires a different dynamic. So there is a rule; either travel with someone you have lived with before and have a shared sense of adventure and comparable level of energy, or just do it solo.
  4. Be a maverick: Remove the myths, fears and biases you have against travelling solo, and this applies especially to all you ladies. Provided you do the homework, are not retarded enough to stray into deserted places or the dodgy parts of town; you will be fine. You are far more likely to tailor your trip to your taste, meet interesting people and have unusual experiences if you are alone than if you are too busy lending an ear to someone’s whining about how hungry they are, how their spouse/mother/boss ignores them or how they hope their goldfish or baby is fine at home. Trust me, if you do not have someone fantastic to share it with, life is short, do it solo.
  5. Do your homework: Suggested travel guides are Lonely Planet’s and Rick Steves’. They will tell you everything from the most ancient temples to check out, the sushi place you cannot miss, to the secret bizarres for bargain shopping and designer rip-offs.
  6. Leave your worries behind: The only baggage you carry is your luggage. Fundamental to a truly reinvigorating experience is to create distance from your own life, circles and routine and devote oneself to exploring a foreign place. Again, if while sitting inside some Buddhist temple, at a quaint café or while trekking up the Machu Picchu, you are going to be obsessing about your life and relationships at home, stay home.
  7. Take the road not taken: Get off the beaten track. Cannot be stressed enough. Do not get bogged down in seeing the leaning tower of Pisa, the Eifel tower or the London eye. Enjoying such overly hyped tourist sites means you have to brave hoards of (surprise, surprise) tourists, never-ending queues and exorbitantly priced tickets so you can experience a claustrophobic moment of disappointment. It is far better to view them from a distance and explore the non-touristy parts of the city instead, since that is where the real life resides.
  8. Think on your feet: National Geographic’s tagline, “let’s get lost” has deep wisdom in it. As a qualifier this should be taken in spirit, not literally, implying ditch ‘the plan’, be spontaneous and willing to ‘wing it’. Let the place break you a little.
  9. Take your time: Absorption implies truly ‘taking in a place’. This might mean you need to pull up a chair, observe the scene around you, write your thoughts, meditate, and if you find that perfect spot, stick around till sunset. For this to happen, you must let go of the ‘touch and go’ paranoia and explore a place leisurely.
  10. Talk to the people: Talk to your fellow passengers on the train, the immigrant workers selling the trinkets, fellow tourists, waiters, the shopkeepers. Nothing enriches your experience like when you unexpectedly bond with someone who is not of your generation, gender, class, nationality or religion yet somehow a kindred spirit.


Farheen Hussain

A development activist based in Lahore. She is also training to become a documentary filmmaker.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • BushraS

    Great read Farheen. You have addressed most of the problems desi tourists have, due to which they miss out on getting the most out of their travel. Recommend


    guess will be packing these tips too for a great adventure this year.Recommend

  • Sj

    Very appropriate.. these are exactly the suggestions any traveller must bear in mind. And please add that ‘experimenting’ with local cuisine is the heart and soul of the experience so please don’t take canned ‘qorma’ with you!Recommend

  • Maria Tahir

    Its a great article for all those travelling to escape :) there are a oot of those who prefer comfort to getting sick on some local disease by ‘getting lost’. Capitalist corporate traditionalists get a lot of flak and are extremely unfashinable at the moment but hey they are human too. there is a reason why ‘touristy’ places are ‘touristy’: popular. because its worth it. i want to see the eiffel tower, i want to see pyramids, and trust me ill be happy whether im sitting and having coffee at the top of burj khalifa, exploring disney world or shopping at kissakhwani: been there done that. lets not create a class of forced adventurists who will go get all filthy and get trapped in obnoxious situations just because its a real experience and off the ebaten track! Recommend

  • Saim Saeed

    Great advice. Out of interest, where have YOU traveled?Recommend

  • parvez

    For the type of travel you have written about there are certain factors worth considering :
    1. The colour of your passport makes a world of difference.
    2. One should not be constrained by time.
    3. If you have a tight budget it becoms difficult.
    4. Age is a major limiting factor. Most travellers are young, most tourists are old.
    Your blog post was fun to read. I hope you would write on local tourism and travel by road within Pakistan, the plus and minus points.Recommend

  • http://blog.ale.com.pk Ale-Xpressed

    Excellent guide for travellers.

    I hapenned to visit Turkey last year on a 2 week trip and did almost everything you ahve put into the to-do list: rent a car from a random service, drove 2500KM on unknown roads, took the wrong turns, went to cities and towns and villages I had never heard off, randomly ordered food from the menu if the name was interesting, spent hours on the street with corner-shop-guys and it was fun, too much of fun.

    I came back with exciting information which I could never have learnt through books. Actually, I could nto find the information even searching online – so looks like there is stuff out there to learn, which si accessible only when you get down and experience it.

    Try this:

    Memories from Turkey 2: The curious case of Pakistan

  • http://www.aamerjaved.com Aamer Javed

    1 hits the spot.Recommend

  • Tanoli of karachi.

    Good subject i travel once N.Y to FLORIDA u.s.a i will rememberd forever in my life its like
    a old english movie morgan freeman traveling through in land for seach of happiness.Recommend

  • Ash Chak

    Tip # 11
    If you are ‘exploring’ out of Pakistan make sure you don’t let any one know that you are from Pakistan, coming from Pakistan or going to PakistanRecommend

  • Farheen

    Thanks guys for appreciating :)

    @ Parvez: I wrote this article since I’ve noticed a stark difference between how most desis travel compared to most of the other travelers from the rest of the world. You know we tend to always cling on to the familiar even in a foreign country, never let go of the stereotypes, are never too open to new experiences, cuisines and cultures, mostly suspicious and skeptical of everything and i think all these mental blocks come in our way of having a truly enriching traveling experience.

    @Saim: Recently I traveled in Europe and for the most part alone.

    @ Ash: on the contrary, MAKE IT A POINT to assert your nationality, you should never be apologetic for who you are. Infact I am so inspired by the 24 year old Moin Khan whose making an solo journey from San Francisco to Lahore Pakistan on a motorbike, because he wants to give Pakistan positive publicity. Check out his page http://www.facebook.com/ADAmoin?sk=infoRecommend

  • nice!

    Nicely written, Farheen!Recommend

  • http://ykhan.wordpress.com Yasser

    That is some tips, excellent post.Recommend

  • ZS

    loved it, a very inspiring piece!Recommend

  • http://none.moc BP

    “desi explorer”, that would be an oxymoron right? You can either be a native or an explorer.Recommend

  • Amjad

    @Ash Chak: I don’t understand why ET prints such mean comments from Indians. I would much rather say I am from Pakistan than from India! Most importantly I know what I look like and I prefer to look Pakistani than Indian. I have travelled in Europe and North America and people are genuinely pleased to hear about other places in the world and show an interest in my homeland. Moreover, it gives me the chance to showcase the positive in my beautiful country.Recommend

  • Kashif

    two thumbs upRecommend

  • khan

    very nice article Farheen…. i haven’t been able to find like minded partners, and reluctant to travel alone(thought it would be boring) but will give it a second thought… . Recommend

  • Nazi

    Like it !! STrongly agree ! very strong advices ! Recommend

  • Rahim

    Very Informative & useful … Recommend

  • Great Jaat

    Excellent article ! Thanks for sharing.Recommend

  • http://www.maxwellscottbags.com Freddy

    Great tips! I reccomend investing in some quality luggage if you’re away for the long haul – leather is particually good. There is nothing worse than travelling (particually on your own) and having your luggage bag break!
    I completely agree with point no.1! I have made this mistake before to try and save money…honestly would have rather spent it! Recommend