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.
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