2011-7-12 17:57:55 Lucy
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the 2)ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the 3)bagpipes in 4)Havana. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness—it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the 5)caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
The travel caricature of Havana, of course, is an elegantly aged vision of cigars and classic cars, 6)son and 7)salsa, and 8)café con leche. To 9)actualise this vision, many 10)upscale tourists head for the $120-a-night 11)Hotel Nacional, which features $8 12)mojitos and a lovely terrace looking out over the 13)Malecón and 14)the Straits of Florida. Unfortunately, most Cubans don’t have access to the Hotel Nacional, and—as is the case with luxury hotels in many parts of the world—it tends to create a travel experience based more on the idea of how the city should be than how the city is.
I spent my nights in Cuba just up the street from the Hotel Nacional, 15)shelling out just $15 a night to sleep at a 16)casa particulare homestay in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. I couldn’t see the Malecón from my bedroom, nor could I order room-service rum cocktails, but I did get to take part in the day-to-day home routine of my Cuban hosts. In the mornings I would have coffee with them and practise my Spanish; in the evenings we’d watch the state-run TV station, trying to spot bits of real news through the haze of official propaganda. My host family cheerfully introduced me to various friends and neighbours, and within a few days my little social network had offered me access to underground poetry readings, 17)pickup baseball games, and—on one fateful afternoon—a bagpipe performance at the 18)Asturian Federation in central Havana.
Where I come from in the United States, bagpipes are the pastime of earnest, middle-aged men. In Havana, I discovered that bagpipes are the passion of wicked-smart twenty something 19)Havana University graduates with a deep and soulful love of music. Instead of playing the Spanish guitar and African 20)percussion that distinguish son music, however, these guys were 21)channelling the Celtic rhythms of Spain’s Asturias region. When I befriended those 22)hipster kids and began to learn how to play the 23)gaita (an Asturian bagpipe with a single 24)drone pipe), I discovered a side of Havana that was as authentically a part of Cuba as baseball and 25)rumba. Like the tourists in the Hotel Nacional, I still had plenty of access to son, cigars and salsa—but I also got to see a side of Havana that revealed the complexity of the city and its 26)subcultures.
I’m not saying that you have to hang out with bagpipers if you really want to experience Havana; I’m just noting how spending less money has a way of 27)paying off in original and memorable experiences. And shoestring travel is not just for long trips. Last summer, I travelled to 28)the Czech Republic with my parents. We could have easily 29)splurged on expensive hotels and guided tours during our time in Prague, but instead we bought a three-day tram-pass and checked into a 30)hostel in the city’s suburban Vinohrady district. Even though my parents are in their 60s, the youthful backpackers staying at the hostel treated them as one of their own, and offered travel advice on topics ranging from tourist destinations to experimental theatre to where one can 31)sample the city’s best 32)absinthe. We ended up spending three days exploring various corners of the city on foot and by public transport. We 33)stumbled across 34)standard sights like 35)Stare Mesto and 36)the Charles bridge, of course, but we also happened upon children’s school-jazz performances and a Czech 37)Corvette-club rally. When we stopped into a random pub and used improvised hand signals to order 38)Plzensky Prazdroj and 39)knedliky, we felt as if we were the very first outsiders to discover the joys of Czech beer and dumplings.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and 40)forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at 41)fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and 42)amenities, I invested it in more travel time—and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden 43)itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace 44)serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.