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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why you should not tour like Piaw

I've been a long time self-supported touring advocate. I am one for several reasons. First of all, I think it's more fun --- being tied to an itinerary never is fun --- having to ride some miles because some other guy wrote it down on a piece of paper never really appealed to me personally, and the days when I had to ride 100 miles on a guided tour despite not wishing to go that far annoyed me. Secondly, it's far more ecologically friendly and economically friendly to the country you're visiting. Cycle touring is extremely eco-friendly. But it's not as eco-friendly when you're supported by a support van with all your baggage, enough gear to fix everybody's bikes, and SAG you as well if you needed it. It's far more economically friendly because by its very nature, you'll end up staying in villages that the big tour groups can't stay at (they're too big), or in the country B&B that only locals get to.

A major side-effect of ending up staying in the country-side is that you have no choice but to interact with locals. This year in Hokkaido, we experienced that as we met fewer and fewer English speakers once we got out of the touristy areas. You get to meet the local culture "up close and personal", and you have no choice but to speak the language. My Japanese improved dramatically as a result.

Finally, it's cheaper. The typical Japanese tours charge $300-$500 a person a night. We were getting away with $50/night. With costs that low you can stay for longer, and still occasionally splurge on a mountain top hot spring. You just can't beat the value for dollar when you're self-supported.

The incident that changed my mind and prompted me to write this essay, however, was what happened in Rausu. In Rausu, we visited no less than 5 B&Bs, only to be turned away, because our party (even Japanese-speaking me) was obviously foreign. It's not that the Japanese are xenophobic (undoubtedly some are, but few xenophobes would get into the hospitality industry anyway), it's because far too many foreigners have showed up without an understanding and appreciation of local culture and norms, and then throw a fit when the family-run Minshuku (B&B or mid-end lodging) serves them food without a menu, family style. Even Lonely Planet writes this about Rebun-to:
A few of the more attractive minshuku here no longer accept foreigners, a casualty of the fact that many foreigners did not understand they had no choice in what food was served. (Lonely Planet Japan: Hokkaido)

I'm afraid going forward I'll have to attach another requirement to folks who wish to tour with me: they'll have to be culinary flexible. Those of you who know me personally will undoubtedly say, "Wait a minute, Lisa's Vegan!!" Yes, but she also comes from Chinese culture, where it is far more rude to make a fuss about the meal your hosts serve you when you're visiting their homes than to just eat it and grin and enjoy it. She's had to break her dietary rules when traveling with me in Europe, because many places in Europe have similar dining provisions (show up at lovely Rosenlaui, for instance, and there's no dinner menu. You can request a vegetarian meal in advance, or you can eat what they make)

I was explaining this to a friend of mine, and he asked about substituting materials. It turns out that in France, for instance, this is considered rude and something only rude Americans would do to a French Chef:
Americans believe the customer is entitled to have a meal his or her way. The French, deeply admiring of the culinary profession, are more willing to submit to the chef---you never hear Parisians asking if they can have it without the garlic, with no salt, or made with lemon juice instead of vinegar---and are brought up to believe that any restaurant meal follows the same script... (From Hungry for Paris)

This doesn't mean that if you're vegan, ova-lacto-vegetarian, or whatever, that you can't tour. It just means you can't tour like me. Not only would you annoy every guest house you stayed at (and you'll triply annoy them if you can't speak the language), you would probably end up not getting sufficient nutrition to keep riding and have a terrible time. If you have many dietary restrictions (and I know people who do), then the Backroads and Trek tours are for you. They cost more, and you'll never have an adventure, but that's what they're for --- you'll be cocooned in your own corner of America as you travel the world, but if that's what you need, that's what you need!

Ultimately, if you don't have the culinary, linguistic, or mobile flexibility (as Mark has observed, I hardly ever avoid something just because I can't ride over it), touring like I do is unlikely to be fun or interesting for you. Worse, you could end up spoiling a location for other visitors who are more flexible with their diet or language, so please don't tour like me if you can't just sit down with your host at a guest house and eat everything.


Alistair (Alix) Howard said...

Fascinating. I couldn't agree more. Well done!

bawa said...

We do not do bicycle tours but all our travelling as a family has been "self", with rarely an itinerary planned in advance. Most of our friends look at us in horror, for even visiting Washington and NY "with no tour plans" with 2 small kids was considered suicidal.

Our touring is mostly public transport or driving if in Europe and deliberately staying in all the smaller places. Culinary surprises are a part of the fun.

On the other hand, I am glad that most of humanity enjoys pre-paid-hotels-tours-visit 5 monuments kind of travelling, as it leaves much more space for people who are genuinely bent on spending time sitting on a village bench watching the world go by if such is there fancy.

I was in Japan this summer and want to go back for a much much longer holiday.

Piaw Na said...

How do your kids do on culinary surprises? A lot of kids don't take well to food they're not familiar with.

Jill said...

This is why I've travelled so little in Asia since finding out I have coeliac disease (which means I have to follow a lifelong gluten-free diet). I had studied Mandarin for years with the intention of moving to China when I finished my job, but the fact that soy sauce usually contains gluten combined with the Chinese cultural intolerance for dietary needs that differ from the norm make that all but impossible.

It's not about wanting to be cocooned -- I enthusiastically try new foods, both as an eater and as a cook. It's about needing to control one specific thing about what I eat. Being in Asia is painful because I get angry about being considered impolite just for having a disability.

This has been the only severely negative thing about not being able to eat gluten, and it doesn't begin to counterbalance the positive side (namely that I am in good health and even able-bodied again after ten years of watching my body deteriorate). I cannot even describe how grateful I am for that, and yet still food flexibility is a painful thing to give up.

Piaw Na said...

It turns out that Japanese food in Japan uses far less soy sauce than you might expect!

Jill said...

Yes, when I was in Toyko I ate wonderfully when I went out with Chinese friends who had lived in Japan for decades and were able to talk with the serving staff and determine which of their dishes were suitable for me.

Sadly, a little soy sauce (if it's made with wheat) will make me ill. I cannot just turn up at a ryokan and eat whatever is put in front of me unless I want to risk spending two days unable to get out of bed.

If there were some way I could cook for myself it would be fine. I have only occasionally found such situations. (I haven't looked in Japan, as I mostly gave up on Asia after finding out the cultures usually had norms that meant that people thought I was being rude for being coeliac)

Jill said...

Yes, when I ate with friends who are fluent in Japanese I had a variety of wonderful food that hadn't been modified for me at all (they just spoke with the staff and worked out which dishes I could and could not eat).

But I can't tell by looking what it is, so I am permanently excluded from places where you're expected to eat whatever is put in front of you. I'm angry about that.

Piaw Na said...

It helps to speak the local language. I probably wouldn't have had any problems if I had to avoid soy sauce or gluten, but yeah, adventure trips really require that you know the language or be prepared to eat whatever, and frequently both.

This isn't a slur on people who can't do adventure trips. A wheelchair athlete, for instance, could easily be stronger than I am on my bike, but he wouldn't be happy on my trips, because we climb fences, push our bike over mountains on hiking trails and so forth. That's not a reflection on whether he can do any kind of touring, but he probably would be very unhappy on one of my trips!

bawa said...

Piaw: i read your blog regularly, always find it entertaining and informative, but I never saw your question. Even if it is a bit late, here's the answer.

Even as little toddlers kids were getting all sorts of food- whether they liked it or not. This is the way I was brought up - in N India, but with Malaysian-Chinese-South Indian food (you will now guess where my mum is from!)

The older one is very adventurous and the younger one more classic in his tastes, they both learnt very quickly that rejecting any food meant going hungry! as I never offered an alternative, and children are not stupid. The weird thing is that many foods "grow" on you as time goes by.

Evidence of the pot luck they will enjoy

Piaw Na said...

I'm impressed. And as a result of the site overhaul yesterday, I've exposed the comments feed RSS, so you can subscribe to that to keep track of new comments. I aggressively moderate spam, so it's actually OK to use that feature.

For a roof on head said...

Although your views are based on touring other countries with base country as American.

They apply very well to touring within India(with or without bike) which has seen spurt of sameness across culinary experience.

Although the standards are not as high as europe but smaller places are just the same. They will not have your fav coffee/tea but just provide what they know best.

I came around to see awesome video of your descent from one of the Passes in SWI. Great effort there.
Thanks for sharing your experience.