Quite often, we find ourselves planning the next big trip, a week long holiday or so in a great destination or such, where we can relax and recharge and take a lot of thigh selfies and food pics to show the world what a great time we’re having.. and starting a vicious circle of envy with those back in the office, toiling away, waiting for their own turn ! I have been one of these persons until recently (well, minus the thigh selfies. almost.), when I gradually began to find this whole “I need a break” process as stressful as the pressures of every day work : The amount of planning, the costs involved, the time and effort going into choosing the right destination, then the perfect hotel, then the ancillary services that go with it. The torrent of information online and in print, all advertising the holiday of a lifetime. After all this preparation, with the holiday dates booked and approaching in my calendar like yet another deadline, I often found myself half drained and exhausted by the time I got on location, and quite unprepared to face the reality beyond the carefully curated brochure photos : the delayed flights. the dirty airports. the smelly taxis. those supposedly “hidden” beaches actually swarming with people. the room without windows in the hotel. The self service hell. Rude people, and even more ruddier machines. Well, thankfully never had all of these in a single holiday – but I did have clusters of these on separate occasions – and by the time I began unwinding a bit and accepting my surroundings, it was already time to pack and go back. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had some fabulous and relaxing holidays through the years, but for me it had started becoming a typical, repetitive experience whose any positive effect on my psyche evaporated within 48 hours. I realized that the problem wasn’t the choice of destination as such : it was rather my skewed expectations, confused by a rolling barrage of augmented product descriptions and insta-filtered dream sequences. Hooked for many years in a world of carefully constructed travel hyperreality, I had gradually entered a stage of self inflicted stupor, followed by a mentally tormenting state of cognitive dissonance every time I was confronted with the relative banality of the actual world. I had become a victim of marketing, a sort of holiday zombie following the herd towards the sound of the sirens to the next destination on the popular checklist, traipsing through minefields of bad karma and smelly breakfast rooms.

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My only ever photo of Disneyland, Florida, 2012

I decided to shift. And within a short period of time, I stopped pursuing idealized perfection, and I embraced the rust, dust and grime of the real world. One soon realizes that we are surrounded with such abundance of points of interest in close proximity to where we are at a present time, where all we need is to keep going semi-randomly, and sometimes turn some of the least appealing corners to begin discovering people, art, history, food or architecture – there’s no need to splash on the film wrapped gratification of a city break. So I started visiting locations here in London that I’d never thought I’d set my foot on. I started to walk a lot, and getting on a bus again, practices I have been snubbing for a long time – and made a habit of getting off at the previous stop or travel a stop further – so I can get the chance to disrupt my usual A to B pattern and explore my surroundings (and should I add, exercise some more in the process, which didn’t harm). One time, I asked someone to allow me to reproduce some photos for a blog post I wanted to write, and when they (rightly so) asked me for a fee, I thanked them and decided to get myself a camera instead : and with the help of friends and manuals, I soon began snapping my own photos. I never looked back.

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Locals at The Forbidden Palace, Beijing, 2006

Soon after, I began looking for new points of reference and soon I was to happen upon some astonishing internet spaces from beyond the veil of my ignorance, where the reality I was so much longing for collided with me in most peculiar ways. I met others, whose work affirmed my new perspective : Darmon Richter at The Bohemian Blog – whose uncompromising dedication to dark tourism and urban exploration defines a new genre of travel. I had the pleasure to travel with him to the most astonishing places an ordinary travel guide would never tell you about (let alone agree to take you to). Or Jacqui, the Agoraphobic Traveller, who overcame mental disorder through her breathtaking Google Street View travel stills, taken from the safety and comfort of her private space – her inspirational story demonstrates how travel is a state of mind, and how the wanderlust within us will always find a way to express itself. Ariel Viera a.k.a. the Urbanist, a storyteller who is revolutionizing the world of documentary and travel with his new daily filmography concept using Facebook Live Video technology, and who has kindly given me an early podium, propelling me way outside my comfort zone – his concept of active rediscovery of a city has been another true inspiration. Rosie at Dotmaker , who has demonstrated to me how an otherwise ordinary walkabout can become an immersive experience through shifting an audience’s focus on a particular theme, and whose astonishing London walks encouraged me to look at London’s urban environment from many different standpoints and develop new perspectives. The metaphysical reflections of Jacques Sirgent , the Parisian author with the undisputed expertise in vampires, sorcery and the occult, who has shown me how to captivate an audience by channeling one’s passion and topical knowledge through urban space storytelling. Nicolas Buissart, whose urban safari through Charleroi’s post-industrial decline became a definitive influence on how to receive the inner city space around me – through relating a declined Belgian city’s intriguing story of abandonment, failed planning, and corruption, he also delivers a message of nostalgia, hope and regeneration, and above all, a re-adjustment of one’s humanity through connecting with those gritty communities.

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A Water Tower, Charleroi, 2017

Today, there’s nothing more valuable to me than this absolute realism in travel, and the people who can bring you in contact with it and relate real stories – sometimes, it’s stories you thought you didn’t want to hear, about places you didn’t know existed, and involves people you wouldn’t normally mingle with – but isn’t all that part of the archetypal definition of discovery? Isn’t that tantamount to ordering beyond the set menu? (No, actually ordering outside what’s in the menu – which makes it even better !) I am now exclusively tapping into this new travel philosophy, based on high quality content that can reflect an impartial, personal viewpoint without the need of an airbrush, or the aid of marketing and advertising agencies. It’s what I am also trying to relate through my own London walk Brutalism for Beginners : to encourage different perspectives for the inner city, through a better understanding of the urban landscape we’re surrounded with, as well as the social and technical conditions that created it. And yes, many have walked on London’s wild, non-touristy side with me this year.. since the walk’s inception, I have been out with people who are also looking for a new take on things, who want to avoid the crowds and the queues at major sightseeing sites, and who want to hear something new from someone who’s keen, genuine, knowledgeable and passionate – without coming up precious or authoritative (and that’s precisely who I try to be generally, and not just when I’m on a guided walk). And guess how excited I am when many of the people who join my walks have no precise idea of what these are about 😉 It’s the right audience, with this kind of blue sky, no expectations posture that opens the mind to new views, to the pleasantness of simple human interaction, and yields the best results for the well being of our souls.

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Landscape near Bergerac, 2018

Beyond my own site and blog as a medium to showcase my views about how I currently enjoy the world around me, I am always on the lookout for great community driven review sites – especially those smaller, cleaner ones, with an image of non-affiliation and the furthest away from any sort of controversy. You can imagine that I’ve already stopped believing in sites that hand out Certificates of Excellence and mount Oscar-style award ceremonies – as soon as I noticed that practically every place I went to had those same green and gold stickers on their windows, basically turning almost every tourist place, every service on earth into an ever thinning amalgam of star rating excellence, and turning any semblance of authenticity into another commodity. Most travel businesses have stopped trying to offer you a real experience : their ultimate aim today is to extract a positive review, this appears to the new currency of the travel trade. I am almost longing to experience finding a hair in my borsch, having an argument with the restaurant owner and negotiating a cheese platter as compensation – like it happened to me in Warsaw in 2001. And you know what? Point in fact – in October 2017 I had the best, and most memorable travel lunch of my entire life in the community hall of an Armenian church somewhere in the mountains of Bulgaria. You guessed it – they had no certificates or stars on their wall, just maps of their homeland, religious icons and photos of old men dancing in traditional dress. Their cutlery didn’t match, and I had to stand up and get my own drinks from their fridge – but I will remember the few brief hours I’ve spent in this place forever, and that was despite the complete lack of reviews : You just got to trust the views of the like minded persons who will show you such places, rather than the flat consensus of thousands of persons you have absolutely nothing in common with, and who have turned the entire travel industry into a grey 4.5 star experience.

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Shrine to Vladimir Putin in a restaurant, Sofia, 2017

Enough with the rant. As for our next family holiday? It’s a very little organized road trip to Normandy in northern France. All I got is a ferry ticket to Cherbourg, so I will skip the pain with excessive planning and airlines for this once. I am prepared for a variety of overnight options, including (but not limited to) pitching our own tent, staying at someone else’s home, a full blown water park resort, a tippee, and also a tree house.. I have put some Xs on the map, but I am in no way confined by them – and anything that needs to be pre-booked to visit, is probably not worth visiting at all. And what’s more, I have checked with like minded people and collected information that’s strictly relevant to us and our interests in that region – they will be our informal travel guide, and a very broad one at that, to keep the excitement going !

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Monumentalized MiGs, Eastern Europe 2017

DISCLAIMER : This is not a paid or sponsored post (I don’t do those). This is about sharing personal views, and about friends and colleagues I admire and people whose views I trust.

all images © explorabilia

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