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Rediscovering the Lost Art of Travel in 2019

a man on a bicycle in Mezöberény
Posted: 5/16/2019 | Might 16th, 2019

Seth Kugel is the former Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Occasions and writer of the new Rediscovering Travel: A Information for the Globally Curious, from which this is adapted. I’ve recognized him for years and our travel philosophy dovetails rather a lot. I learn his e-book final yr and thought “If I were ever to write a book on the state of the travel industry, this is the book I would write!” It’s a fantastic guide and as we speak, Seth excerpted half of the ebook for us!

Stenciled in white block letters on a dreary cement wall in Mezöberény, a tidy however fraying city of twelve thousand in the hyperbolically named Great Hungarian Plain, appeared the phrase:


Hours earlier, in the overcast predawn hours of a nippy January day, I had stumbled off the Bucharest-to-Budapest practice to see what it will be wish to spend the weekend in the reverse of a tourist vacation spot. Mezöberény was not simply absent from guidebooks — it didn’t have a single restaurant, lodge, or activity listed on TripAdvisor, one thing that can’t be stated for Mbabara, Uganda, or Dalanzadgad, Mongolia. I did have some information on the city, though, because of its municipal web site: resident József Halász had lately celebrated his ninetieth birthday.

Or that’s what Google Translate informed me. Hungarian is a Uralic language, more intently related to the output you may get falling asleep on a keyboard than to English or German or French. That makes even primary comprehension a challenge, as I discovered as soon as I rushed from the practice to the station’s restrooms and faced the pressing want to choose between two doorways: FÉRFI and NÖI. The authorities had apparently saved a couple of forints by not splurging on stick-figure indicators.

The day had been born cold and gray and stayed that method as I walked by way of the town, slowly getting my bearings, intrigued by the pre-war, pre-Communist houses and the greater than occasional bike rider — there have been virtually extra bikes than automobiles — who waved howdy. However then a winter drizzle took up, causing an abrupt decline in the quantity of cyclists whilst the quantity of wandering American guests held steady at one. To me, a journey day that turns wet is sort of a piece of chocolate I’ve dropped on the flooring: it’s considerably much less appealing, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to throw it away.

It was in the first minutes of rain that I came throughout that stenciled signal on an in any other case residential road. Past the wall, down a cracking, now puddle-pocked driveway, have been a dozen or so plastic barrels lined up like nuclear-waste drums. Past them, perhaps 100 ft from where I stood, was a one-story L-shaped constructing. What was this place? Properly, SZESZFÖZDE, apparently. But what was that?

In the previous days (say, 2009), I might have pulled out an English-Hungarian phrase e-book or pocket dictionary, however as an alternative, I activated international roaming on my telephone, rigorously spelled out S-Z-E-S- Z-F-O-Z-D-E, and tapped Go.

Szeszföde distillery in Mezöberény, Hungary

The less-than-lightning velocity of Great Hungarian Plain cellular service offered a dramatic pause. And then came my reply:


You don’t say.

I might have guessed PRIVATE PROPERTY perhaps, or DANGER—STAY OUT, or MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS, YOU MEDDLING FOREIGNER! However a distillery? A wave of adrenaline washed down my torso as my lips curled into a dumb-luck smile.

Two relatively gruff-looking men emerged from the door, the older one smoking a cigarette and sporting a sweater and work-stained trousers that advised Warsaw Pact 1986 more than modern-day European Union. I waved to them, pointed to the cumbersome Canon 7D hanging from my neck, and then to the building. Previous-school Google Translate.

They waved me in and gave me a tour.

Inside the historic but absolutely functioning distillery, the men let me take footage as they gave me a vaguely intelligible lesson by way of pointing, expressive seems to be, and smartphone-translated Hungarian, on how pálinka — Hungarian fruit brandy — was made.

Those barrels I had seen outdoors, it turned out, have been full of fermenting pear and grape and apple juices. Inside, it was distilled by some means via a looping and tangled system of pipes operating out of tin tanks up and along the walls. It appeared like the laboratory of a mad scientist with a penchant for tacky linoleum flooring.

As they led me around, I engaged in that the majority intrinsic of journey actions: making an attempt to see the world from the vantage point of someone completely totally different from me. What was their life like? Had they traveled? Who have been their mother and father and grandparents? The language barrier that didn’t permit them to reply did not stop me from wondering.

After soaking in each rusty detail and each glint of satisfaction in the males’s tired eyes, I typed, “Come visit me in New York” into Google Translate — laughs throughout — then headed back onto the drizzly streets of Mezöberény, completely elated.

What was so great about this moment? Positive, the szeszfözde was a neat little story for associates, and in my case, value a number of paragraphs in the newspaper. However wasn’t it only a dirty enterprise making native hooch in a town that even most Hungarians would classify as the middle of nowhere?

a man smokes a cigarette at the Szeszföde distillery in Mezöberény, Hungary

It was an awesome second as a result of I found it. Not an earth-shattering discovery in the sense of a remedy for AIDS or a previously unknown species of poison-spitting neon frog the measurement of a pinky nail. However it was 100 % sudden, 100 % real, and 100 % mine.

Discovery was the lifeblood of travel, at the least for those of us who shun tour-bus teams and all-inclusive resorts. We used to go away residence figuring out relatively little about our vacation spot — perhaps with some highlighted guidebook pages denoting main points of interest and local tipping etiquette, an inventory of ideas culled from well-traveled pals, or articles copied and pasted right into a Phrase doc. For the formidable, perhaps a notional really feel for the local historical past or tradition gleaned pre-trip from a historical novel.

Beyond that, we have been on our own.

Paper guidebooks frozen in time helped us alongside, as did pamphlets and paper maps from tourist info cubicles and ideas from a lodge concierge. Earlier this century, Google searches in internet cafés also lent a hand. But otherwise, there was no selection: You determined what to do with your personal eyes and ears, by wandering, by initiating human-to-human contact. Ideas came from hearing fellow travelers’ tales over hostel or (non-Air) B&B breakfasts, getting into a shop to ask directions and ending up in a conversation with the proprietor, or catching a whiff of recent bread or scorching chilies and following your nose.

In fact, all that also happens right now — however provided that you actually exit of your method to make it happen. Not solely is almost each place in the world documented to inside an inch of its life however that documentation — which comes dressed as both reality and opinion — is overwhelmingly and instantly out there, because of pervasive know-how. That’s great for many issues in life — medical info, how-to videos, shorter commutes. However don’t we journey to break our routine? To expertise the sudden? To let the world delight us?

If we do, we now have a humorous method of displaying it. We pore over online evaluations for weeks, plan days right down to the half hour, and then let GPS and the collected knowledge of the unwise lead us blindly. We imply nicely — no one needs to have a romantic dinner go mistaken or to get lost and miss out on a “must-see attraction” or to danger chaos by failing to maintain the youngsters entertained for 3 minutes.

But isn’t that just a digital version of the old style group tour? Nicely, virtually, besides that on the bus tour, you truly get to satisfy the individual whose advice you’re taking.

One of my most ironclad guidelines of travel is that this: the quantity of visitors a spot receives is inversely associated to how good locals are to those guests. Mezöberény, as far as I knew, had acquired precisely no overseas tourists ever. It was the anti-Paris, and this distillery the anti-Louvre.

People who inhabit the still-plentiful tourist-free swaths of the planet are typically not only simply nicer however extra curious. They say a bear in the wild is simply as scared of you as you’re of it. I say individuals in places the place outsiders not often go are simply as interested by guests as guests are about them. The question isn’t why the distillery staff invited me — a camera-toting, gibberish-talking stranger — in for a tour, it’s why wouldn’t they? If it have been me, I’d be considering: “What is this odd foreigner doing outside our szeszfözde with a camera? Wait till I tell the kids! And by the way, isn’t it about time we took a break?”

More importantly, is it attainable that stumbling upon a dank distillery may be just as thrilling as a tour of one of the world’s nice monuments? Did the surge of emotion I felt when the word distillery popped onto my display match what I felt once I first glanced up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

In all probability not, although I keep in mind the distillery moment fairly exactly and barely recall what I felt at the Sistine Chapel. Why? Because although Michelangelo’s prophets and sibyls and biblical re-creations are a number of trillion occasions lovelier than rusty pipes in a concrete constructing reeking of fermented fruit, I had seen them before in pictures, heard professors speak about them, and skim other travelers’ accounts as I sought the greatest occasions to avoid crowds.

That’s why I consider it is time we rediscover journey and recognize the value of what an overdocumented world has taken away: the delight of making issues occur on your own.


Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally CuriousSeth is the former Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Occasions and writer of the new Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious, from which this is adapted.

On this e-book, Kugel challenges the trendy travel business with a willpower to reignite humanity’s age-old sense of adventure that has nearly been vanquished in this spontaneity-obliterating digital age. You should purchase the guide at Amazon and provides it a learn.

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