It’s really no coincidence that we retreat to the countryside to regain our sanity and duck away to farms to manage our health and try to not be fat anymore. We recuperate in the middle of nowhere because it’s a peaceful way to bring ourselves back to reality, by forgetting what we assume to be real life and wearing our most comfortable and unflattering items of clothing.
Get yourself far enough away from the big city lights and things become charmingly distinct. If you’ve been dwelling in the city for a while you might feel like you’ve stepped back in time but it’s kind of cool. While it’s certainly longer distances between places that know how to mix a good cocktail, no one actually gives a shit because they have time to drink their morning coffee sitting down. Or you’ll often find that internet speed starts to decrease – or diminishes completely – but people are okay with that because they’re doing their weekly grocery shops in the farmer’s markets growing in their own backyards. So it’s hard to say who the real winners are here.
Without a doubt, people’s mentality is different in the country. Not relying on the luxuries of Siri or the convenience of McDonald’s must be satisfying. I haven’t lived in the country for 11 years now but I still remember when my happiness was found in other, more wholesome things, like going to sleep listening to the sound of frogs, or having my friends show up on my doorstep unannounced without it being weird. You’ll find that people are rooted with a deeper sense of community because they actually have the time to love thy neighbour – or just help get escaped animals back in the paddock.
All this has a lot to do with why hospitality is so highly valued in small concentrated populations, and in turn has made people a lot more sincere and welcoming. With exception to those guys who run at you with guns and tell you to get off their damn property, strangers are more likely to say hello to you as you walk past them in the street, or the bush, and you’re less likely to think they’re going to steal your belongings.
And this is why there’s so much to be said for not only touring the landmark-riddled urban empires of the world, but checking out some of the backwoods too. Because your understanding of a place and its culture is shaped by the interactions you have with its people. Interactions that are a lot harder to come by in the rat race of a city where you’re often just seen as a source of income.
In the places where tourism has less of an influence foreigners are seen less as business transactions and more as guests. You’ll find the town folk are much more open to a good yarn in the local pub or a long chat at the local taxi stand. They’re genuinely interested in who you are, where you come from and what the heck you’re doing in their neck of the woods.
As hard as it is to use the word ‘authentic’ these days without sounding like a complete wanker, visiting the countryside and doing countryside things with countryside people really can feel just that. Friendly locals in small populations love sharing their stories, their traditions and importantly, their food. Get talking to the right local and don’t be surprised if you’re invited back to their home for a meal or something lovely like that. And if, like myself, you’re not that good at talking to strangers, then pre-organise your interactions with strangers by getting on Couchsurfing before you arrive.
Places to eat, things to do and paid-for accommodation in these places tend to be localised and totally backpacker-price friendly anyway. In fact, the cost of food, beer and accommodation are usually mere fractions of what you’d pay in cities. And the money you save on these things can set you up for other useful things, like car or bike hire – because you’ll need these to get around to feast your eyes on all the stunning scenery and possibly somewhere to feast your mouth your next meal.
From the UK’s Lakes District, to the hillsides of Slovenia, to the provinces of the Philippines, or the villages of Papua New Guinea, there’s a universal truth in the hospitable nature of people who don’t dwell in the cities. So next time you’re thinking of booking a trip, consider choosing the sticks over the smoke. Go and experience what it’s like to not take things for granted and get by on the basics, walk naked outdoors and go to sleep in pitch-black darkness – in different ways, in different places around the world.
And I will leave you with this metaphor I’ve just made up: Society is like a fire, the sticks is where it all began, the smoke is the suffocating outcome.