Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874–1963)
We’ve all heard this famous Robert Frost poem a thousand times, or at least at every school convocation and graduation we attend. Over the last century, this poem has been used symbolically to speak of career paths, political parties, daring fashion choices, you name it! I assure you, this is not another one of those lectures—you don’t need to hear it, and I certainly don’t want it.
This summer, I will be traveling alone throughout Europe and the Middle East. With only two weeks left to plan, I stopped by the local travel bookstore. I had admired this shop from afar—with its innumerable maps and glamorous, worldly patrons—and now I had a legitimate reason to step inside.
I perused the shelves as if I were going through my trip, stop by stop. First, I went to the European section and paused at “France”, “Italy”, and “Spain”. Of course, there were dozens of “definitive” guides to these countries. There were so many books and opinions that I was quickly overwhelmed, and I left without buying a book. I have so many friends who have traveled or lived in these places, I figured I could rely on their advice.
Then I went to the “Middle East” section: two shelves that claimed to represent the dozen-or-so countries of the region. I am stopping in Cairo for a day, so I skimmed the two, clichéd works they had on the pyramids of Giza. I had hoped to find a more comprehensive guide to the city itself, but there were none. These books on the pyramids would not cut it; after all, how hard is it to take a cheap taxi to the pyramids, anyway? The store did an even poorer job representing my main destination: Beirut, Lebanon. There was one, small paperback entitled Syria and Lebanon. Yes, there was only one book for both of those two countries.
So I asked around for recommendations, and I got a troubling diversity of advice. Without fail, every person I talked to who had been to Beirut or Cairo supported my itinerary. Of course, a foreign woman should be careful and aware, but they spoke of my plans casually. On the other hand, people who had not been to these places gave advice that ranged from “Stay in your hotel room the whole time” to “Don’t go there; you could get yourself killed.” These opinions are understandable considering that popular news outlets like to feature only the most dramatic incidents in these societies. Of course, I can’t dismiss the concerns of my family and closest friends; I listen to the same news they do, and I worry that I could become another statistic for the reporters. However, it is difficult to plan your trip when everyone has an opinion, these opinions conflict with each other, and there are seemingly little “balanced” opinions of these a-typical travel destinations. Who can I rely on for advice?
I was also astounded to come across these maps this past week. There is such a stark difference between what is important to “tourists” and “locals” that it makes me sad about what kinds of information is available to different groups of people, and how much is missed by relying upon travel guides and the “familiar” parts of the unfamiliar areas we visit.
Frost’s poem becomes more difficult for me when the literal “road less traveled” may be poorly mapped. How do our travel habits and news media create the “road less traveled”, and how can I get there without so much as a travel guide? What could it mean personally, socially, and politically to defy the wear-worn paths on our planet and create new concepts of “travel” and “destination”? This is necessary food-for-thought for Go Girls in particular—“the bus-hoppers, the backpackers, the fruit cart-riders and everything else.” Personally, I’m most troubled by this because I like to think of our global communities as more inclusive and varied than popular media allows. At the very least, I’m happy that this summer I’ll throw one more opinion into the ring.