Spaniard Joan Torres is the man behind Against the Compass, a travel blog that challenges travellers to explore more adventurously by providing practical information and safety tips for unconventional destinations.
How did you get your start in off-the-beaten-track travel?
Like most travelers out there, my first solo trips outside of Europe started in conventional destinations such as Vietnam, Morocco, etc.
To be honest, I actually had so much fun during those trips. But the more experience I got, the more I realized that those places were not very challenging, and most destinations within the country were just overwhelmingly prepared for tourists, so the experience was not that rewarding for me.
Then, back in 2014, I moved to the Middle East for work and, after a couple of months, I decided to travel to Lebanon, a country I would have never thought of visiting, but most of my teammates were Lebanese, so they sort of triggered my interest for the country.
From having some of the most epic Roman ruins ever just to yourself to all the political-related stuff, and remote Christian monasteries, I absolutely loved everything about that trip, and realized that those countries have a huge touristic potential as well.
Nevertheless, what I liked the most was that every day, I was meeting and hanging out with local Lebanese, people that had no other interest than getting to know you, and that is something which doesn’t tend to happen in mass tourism destinations.
I started traveling to offbeat destinations from that day.
Recent destinations include the remote- backpacking through Uzbekistan, the unusual- staying in an AirBnb in a Palestinian refugee camp, and what some might call downright dangerous- Syria. How does your approach to travel depend on the conditions of the situation? How does it stay the same?
To be very honest, unless it is a very dangerous situation, I don’t really plan much. Destinations like Uzbekistan or Palestine, I certainly know they are very safe, so I don’t do much other than drawing a very rough draft itinerary which in the end tends to be quite different from the actual one.
However, I don’t plan much because I already know that those destinations are safe. But to be fair, not everybody knows whether Palestine or Oman are actual safe destinations. This is what I do when I travel to potentially unsafe destinations:
- Check the latest news, but I don’t make an conclusion based only on what I see in the media
- Make sure I know which regions are safe, which ones are not
- In a country like Syria, I make sure not to announce my trip on social media until I come back
- Make sure travel insurance covers the country. Regular travel insurance doesn’t really provide coverage in places like Iraq or Syria
- Most importantly, I talk to travelers who have been there recently, either bloggers or people I know
If security may be a concern, the best you can do is contact people on Couchsurfing. When I was planning my trip to Afghanistan (sadly, my visa got rejected in 2 different countries) I had already contacted Couchsurfers in all the cities I was planning to visit. It didn’t necessarily mean I would stay at their homes, but I knew I could hand out with them and get some good local advice. Plus, CS speak good English and know all the concerns that may affect travelers.
Where’s a good place to start for newbies interested in going off-piste, travel-wise?
Something I always tell people who wish to start exploring off the beaten track places is that their next destination after the classic Latin American trail is not going to be – or it shouldn’t at least – Syria, Saudi Arabia or Sudan.
Most Latin American and Southeast Asian destinations are very easy to travel: many locals speak English, there is a wide range of tourist infrastructure, availability of tourist transportation and, most importantly, you find tourists everywhere.
On the other hand, in off the beaten track countries, there is little travel information, there are huge language barriers, you may be several days without seeing any tourist, there are no touristic hotels and some countries may have visa restrictions and conflict areas.
The grade of difficulty, however, comes in a lesser or greater degree, Syria being very challenging and Azerbaijan being relatively easy.
Off-the-beaten path first choices
Those countries already see a fair amount of tourists but they all stick to the same few destinations, which means that as soon as you step out of the classic itinerary, you will suddenly be in a truly offbeat area.
Cultural sensitivity and travelling ethically are recurring theme in your posts. What’s a common thing new travellers get wrong?
Fortunately, most independent travelers you meet in non-conventional countries are experienced travelers and experienced travelers tend to be culturally sensitive.
However, tourism destinations which are not that emerging anymore, like Oman for example, receive all types of tourists.
The problem I see in those places is that some people don’t really care about the local culture and habits. For example, Oman is an extremely conservative, traditional country and, even in rural areas, I have seen on a few occasions Western women wearing super tight clothes, which creates a huge contrast for such a strict Muslim country.
Travel by selfie
I am nobody to tell a woman how to dress but Oman is not Dubai and I certainly know that locals don’t like it and, if you really want to enjoy the country and hospitality, we need to be respectful with their customs, otherwise, it is better if you just don’t go.
When I traveled to Georgia, I had also seen people partying in the middle of the Caucasian mountains (in Svaneti), in a trekking trail, with speakers and very loud music. Again, they can do whatever they want but if I go trekking to the mountains, I don’t really want to listen to other people’s parties at 3,000 meters. For that, I just stay in Tbilisi.
Anyways, if we really want to preserve the local culture and keep things genuine, people should stop behaving as they would back home, which is what is currently happening in places like Thailand.
Many travellers avoid unconventional destinations due to travel restrictions and government warnings. How can travellers mitigate risk whilst exploring the world?
There is nothing you can do about travel restrictions, but you just need the motivation to go through all the hassle of gathering all the paperwork and paying the required fees.
When it comes to government warnings, however, travelers should know that the information provided by the different embassies and governments is truly exaggerated – like absolutely twisted.
For example, Iraqi Kurdistan is a super safe destination with very low crime rates and there hasn’t been a single terrorist attack since 2014, and it was a one-time event.
The FCO advice says avoiding all but essential travel in Kurdistan, yet, they claim that the USA is absolutely safe to go, a country where in just a few years, there have been more than 200 mass shootings.
Some countries, nevertheless, can be dangerous but there are always ways to mitigate the risk. It is very long to explain but essentially, you need to do a fair amount of research, figuring out which areas are safe to go, and most importantly, talk to travelers who have been there recently, either bloggers or people you know directly.
Contacting people on Couchsurfing proves to be very useful as well, as the different profiles are fully aware of the situation in their respective countries, so they are aways willing to help travelers.
Then, each and every country will have their own peculiarities.
Even seasoned travellers run into surprises on the road. Most are wonderful, some not so much. Can you describe a travel situation that caught you off-guard and how you handled it?
To be very honest, I have never had any bad experience, or bad surprise like you say.
I mean, I got arrested twice, in Lebanon and Kazakhstan, but I wasn’t caught off-guard, basically because I had entered forbidden areas, and I was fully aware that getting arrested would be a likely thing to happen.
Actually, now I am thinking that the reason I never had a problem is due to the local’s kindness. I can’t count the times I found myself in the middle of nowhere without a place to stay but in those barely visited places, you may find kind local who will offer a home.
In the post ‘Is it Ethical to Travel to Saudi Arabia as an Independent Tourist?’ you write: I don’t travel to judge governments and I don’t go for beers with presidents. When I travel, I visit places, meet regular people and learn about their culture. Are there any places you wouldn’t visit?
As long as I do not risk my life and integrity, there isn’t a single place I would not travel to.
In my opinion, if you are respectful and travel with the sole objective of learning, moral and political issues shouldn’t be a barrier.
You’re probably sick of hearing it, but being a travel writer sounds like a dream job. If life=work, how do you balance the two?
It is important to highlight that I am not really a travel writer, but a blogger and marketer.
A travel writer makes a full living from selling their writing pieces to media outlets, whereas a blogger publishes the content on their own platform and sells products and services to the readers they attract.
Getting paid to travel is my dream job, yes, but only because I love it.
What I am trying to say here is that travel writing is not ”the dream job.”
It can’t be the ultimate dream job because blogging involves a massive amount of work, perseverance, tenacity, a lot of patience and being willing to spend several months far away from your home.
Many friends from back home tell me how lucky I am to travel the world, but I am pretty sure that they wouldn’t like this job, not only because they are not into backpacking but because I actually work more hours than with my previous corporate job.
What are some hidden challenges that travel bloggers face?
Moreover, the worst part of blogging is that sightseeing becomes your actual job and occasionally, this doesn’t let you fully enjoy the place, as you need to be taking notes, photos from many different perspectives and, basically, you are just thinking about how you are gonna tell the story.
It also happens that sometimes I feel tired and I don’t really want to travel, or take photos, but then you feel the pressure that you need to include a certain place in your travel guide.
To be very honest, I love travel blogging but sometimes I envy those people who have non-travel-related online businesses, because they can travel around the world without any pressure.
For the last year and a half, I usually find a base where to work from for 3-4 months, and then I take 2-3-month trips. Then, when I am traveling, I work for a few hours early in the morning, and then I dedicate a full day for work every 2-3 days.
Where are you headed to next?
I just arrived in Ukraine and, for the next few months, I plan to travel around this eastern region, visiting Moldova, Belarus and probably a bit of Russia.