In Pulp’s caustic 1995 anthem “Common People,” singer Jarvis Cocker delivers what has to be one of the best lines in any pop song: “Everybody hates a tourist.” Ironically, I bought the album when I was visiting London as a tourist. I’d never heard of (or heard) Pulp at that point, but our tour guide (it was a high school class trip) told me that they were the best Britpop band to date, better than my beloved Boo Radleys, he assured me. He had great taste; the album is fantastic and “Common People” became a dance party classic (this same tour guide took our entire group of high school juniors, seniors, and chaperons (teachers and parents) to a screening of Trainspotting, which had just come out in Great Britain. Many of the students and chaperons got quite upset, but for me it was kinda sorta life-changing (I was 15 or 16). Later, in Heidelburg, Germany, this same tour guide took a small group of six or seven of us out to one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, and laughed about the whole Trainspotting incident. He said he told our teachers that it would be an important “cultural enrichment experience” for us, but in reality it was just a great movie that he thought some of us would like to see).
I realize that this is a long, overly-personal lead-in to a book review, but Clean Breaks, from Rough Guides, embodies the spirit of the trip I discussed above. Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith’s travel guide is not so much about how to avoid looking like a loathsome tourist, but about how to engage in the real culture of the place you are visiting while getting to know the real people who live there. In this sense, the book is not for everyone, but if you want Disney World or Las Vegas, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble figuring out what to do. However, if you’re interested in, say, hearing the desert music of Mali, or volunteering on a ranch in Brazil’s Patanal wetlands, or fishing for prawns in Kerala, then Clean Breaks is a great starting place for you. As the authors put it in their introduction, a “clean break” is essentially “about minimizing your environmental impact–on your journey and at your destination–by choosing carefully how you travel and the nature of the place you choose to stay at.” To that end, the book concentrates not just on eco-friendly hotels and restaurants that specialize in locally grown food, but also on the type of adventure trekking and activities that put you in real contact with the real people of the place you are visiting. There’s an emphasis on bicycling and walking, guest houses and natural parks, and volunteering.
Again, the adventures in Clean Breaks are certainly not going to be every tourist’s cup of tea, but they aren’t all exactly uncomfortable either. I’m lucky enough to have actually experienced a (very) small fraction of the 500 trips suggested, and can attest to their awesomeness. Taking The Ghan train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, for example, was a highlight of my young life, as was visiting a glacier in the Otago province of New Zealand. And did I mention that there are lots of pretty, pretty colorful pictures and maps accompanying the book’s 500 suggested trips (with key info like email addresses and phone numbers, of course). While Clean Breaks‘s emphasis on “ecotourism” did seem a bit suspect to me at first–just another marketing ploy, perhaps (I’ve attacked the rhetoric of “going green” in the past”)–the authors’ intentions and tone seem wholly sincere. They acknowledge, for example, that terms “such as ‘responsible,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘ethical’ are becoming . . . overused (and abused) by websites and tourism companies looking to ride the green wave,” and their repeated emphasis on localism and action over passive “sight-seeing” is admirable. And even though most people will never have the money and time to complete the 500 trip wish-list that Hammond and Smith present here, the book still makes for a great fantasy. Good stuff.
Clean Breaks is now available from Rough Guides.