Insider: Curiosity & Connection

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Side streets. Quiet lanes. Dusty footpaths.
Food carts. Markets. Maybe even malls.
Places where locals are being… well… local. Running errands, getting themselves to work or school, eating, sleeping. Living life outside of the tourist’s gaze.

Vietnam and Cambodia local woman selling produceI’ve been extremely lucky as a traveler. Working at Backroads for nearly 25 years, I’ve had the fortune of designing and guiding trips across the globe–from Africa (where I lived as a student in the early 90s and much later when my first daughter was born) to Asia (where I spent over 15 years of my career leading trips and living in the off-season). Whether searching for the right experience to include on a Backroads itinerary or simply exploring a new place on my own, two things guide me above all else: curiosity and connection.

Curiosity. I’m the husband and father that consistently annoys his wife and kids by insisting that we walk farther down the trail, up and over just one more hill so that we can “see what’s on the other side.” I’m the son and brother who similarly vexed his family by making them wait at intersections while I urgently ran down each alley in case “it took us someplace cool.” I’m the coworker who often forced my co-leaders to pause while I sampled the odd and exotic foods that lined the local market because “I have no idea what it is they’re serving… and it could be delicious!”

Connection. It sometimes takes climbing the next hill to find the right view… the one that really connects you to a place. You know it when you see it–and rarely is it around the first bend in the trail. Similarly, it often takes stepping outside the flow of humanity and wandering down the quieter avenues to find the space that allows for genuine connection with locals.

Vietnam and Cambodia local manOne of my favorite examples of this took place years ago in Vietnam when I wandered down a short alley to see where it led, even though a local guide had advised me to follow the prescribed route. A local gentleman painting a fence asked me what I was looking for. “Nothing really… just curious,” I replied. Next thing I knew we were sharing tea in his home, after which he granted me access to a 400-year-old Buddhist temple closed to tourists. My fence-painting friend, as it turned out, was the village head, and we’d bonded so much over our mutual curiosity that by the afternoon he’d invited future Backroads guests to sit with him and do the same.

Chuong’s village wasn’t on the tourist map. On the surface there seemed nothing particularly distinctive about it. But our new friendship made something possible that no museum visit or expert speaker or big name tour could have offered: genuine connection to village life in Vietnam. It pulled back a curtain that would have remained closed had I not been curious enough to go below the surface, and Chuong not curious enough to meet me halfway.

The same goes for food. Sometimes my constant hunt for new flavors is about finding a new favorite dish. But often it’s about having an exchange with whoever is pushing that food cart and adding spice to the world. It’s about learning something new, starting a conversation and maybe even creating a fattening new friendship in the process (I’m a sucker for pretty much anything the Thais fry up and toss in lime and chili).

Remaining curious.
Constantly seeking connection.

Travel offers a deeper understanding of the world and I try as often as I can to make the leap from tourist to Insider. And that requires a commitment to always wanting to know and see more. To always asking questions and pausing long enough to listen to the answers, whether they come or not. It’s just as much about the people attempting to provide the answer as it is about what exactly they have to say. And the folks that might answer honestly tend not to be the ones on the main avenue selling trinkets or day tours.

Insider trips stem exactly from the curiosity and connection that’s been at the heart of my travels here at Backroads.

Vietnam and Cambodia local children riding a bike.And this is why I jump for joy about the new Backroads Insider trips! They retain the crucial ingredients that define every Backroads trip: uncompromisingly high standards for accommodations and cuisine, legendary service and a level of activity that makes for an enriching experience. Insider trips take the Backroads experience even further with their truly distinctive ability to connect you with the people and places that make a destination so compelling.

It all starts by being just active enough to wander away from the well-trodden tourist sites down the little side streets to see what’s really happening when locals aren’t trying to sell you postcards. We stroll into a forest canopy to get a view that’s legions beyond the “scenic view” highway pullout. And we meander just far enough past the temple walls to experience what takes place after the ceremony. These are authentic experiences you’d never uncover without venturing away from the crowds and into a realm where curiosity creates connection.


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Christian Chumbley

Christian Chumbley

Regional Manager: Asia & Africa at Backroads
With an anthropology degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Christian has led trips in 20 countries (including South Africa, Botswana, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam) and designed trips in 16 countries (from India to Mexico). Today he’s found his way back to Berkeley, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters, and works as Backroad’s Asia & Africa Regional Manager. Christian says, “I love my job because it gives me the opportunity to return seasonally to my favorite parts of the world and share them with others.” To Christian, who was born in Germany and “raised all over,” the most rewarding thing about traveling with Backroads is “the opportunity for interaction with the locals—people across the globe readily identify with someone riding a bike or walking down a path, so genuine conversations happen spontaneously...the veil is pulled back far more quickly.”
Christian Chumbley

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