Photograph by Shannon Switzer Swanson
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A young girl on Indonesia's Toropot Island collects sea urchins in the shallow water near her home.

Photograph by Shannon Switzer Swanson

Planning an Uncharted Trip When the Internet Has No Answers

Use this guide to enjoy your own truly off-the-beaten-track adventure.

After two flights and a long ferry ride through green islets, I am bumping along a red dirt road in a shared taxi with Hello Kitty images painted on its sides. We’re lurching into valleys covered by dense foliage, slowly climbing back up to beautiful overlooks, and teetering on each precipice before dipping into the next valley.

I’m not alone in the taxi. I am sitting with a fish trader I just met and attempting to draw a fish I’m hoping to find. The trader says, “Yes, yes, me, I have,” as he points to my drawing. I’m ecstatic; I’ve been searching for the royal blue tang, popularized by the film Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory, for the past few weeks. But the blue tang has been elusive—absent from the more trafficked reefs of Bali, the largest export hub for aquarium fish in Indonesia. On a hunch, I have made my way to Banggai Island in Central Sulawesi. The trader and I continue communicating by drawing, sprinkling in a few words of Bahasa Indonesia and English as we bump along toward his coastal village.

Communicating is challenging yet invigorating. All of my senses are firing. I’m alert and aware. I’m learning and exchanging. I feel I’ve inched beyond tourist to traveler, with a keen interest in how things work in this new-to-me place. I am meeting residents on their own terms in their own homes, not at a hotel or hostel built for my needs.

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Fishermen leave Bone Baru village and head to the outer Banggai Islands to collect aquarium fish.

Flash back to a few weeks earlier, when I was partaking in banana pancakes and Bintangs at a surf hostel in the middle of Bali’s ever-growing tourism scene. This, don’t get me wrong, can be nice—for a short while. If you’re like me though, the charm of a tourist-catered vacation wears off quickly and you’re itching to get off the beaten track.

It can feel intimidating to jump off the ever-revolving tourist circuit, where things are straightforward and familiar, but the effort to push beyond your comfort zone is worth it. And you don’t need to be searching for a certain species of fish to make it happen.

Here are tips I learned the hard way, traveling as a photojournalist and social ecologist to places without tourists offices or hotel strips.

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Two fishermen take a break at the surface of the Banda Sea before diving deeper to catch aquarium fish with their small handheld nets. The writer pauses below to capture an underwater photograph of the process.

Prepping for Adventure

Before you go anywhere, pack a hearty dose of humility. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Traveling for fun is a privilege not everyone can enjoy. In fact, it’s possible that travel is unattainable for the very people you will encounter while on your off-the-beaten-track adventure. Keep this in mind. As visitors, we are going into someone else’s home, where they will remain long after we’re gone. We must be respectful; we must be sincere. If we aren’t, no one will enjoy the process.

It can also be helpful to don a pair of rose-colored glasses and be ready to take things in stride. Mostly, traveling has shown me the beauty and kindness of humanity; however, sometimes you run into a bad apple. When that happens, try to make sugar out of vinegar and move on without unleashing your frustration on anyone else you interact with that day. Humility and grace go a long way in making your uncharted travel more enjoyable.

Getting Off Track

When leaving the tourist circuit, it’s important to have a general plan, but it’s just as critical to leave room for serendipity. Have a goal in mind but remain nimble and flexible.

It can be a challenge to find the right balance, but this is how I prepare for an off-the-tourist-map trip. In this case, I was traveling from Bali to Central Sulawesi in search of blue tang, but you can use these guidelines for your own trip in another part of the world.

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Fishermen and their families gather around a local home to share stories of their day.

Step 1: Get To a Big City

This is pretty much required if you are arriving by plane. Spend a few days enjoying this larger transit hub before striking out to areas with less infrastructure. Use this time to get to know people and think over your objectives for the adventure that lies ahead.

Step 2: Make Friends and Ask Questions

In the age of smartphones and apps, we rarely look to people as beacons of information in our day-to-day lives. To be successful in planning uncharted travel, you must talk to people. Even if you don’t speak their language, there is always a way to communicate. Be creative and be respectful.

Find someone who can answer your questions. While in Bali, I asked my contact—the head of an aquaculture facility who I’d met while working on an aquarium trade project—numerous questions to help shape the next portion of my trip.

For you, it could be anyone—the family running your homestay, a vendor you meet on the street, or a tour guide. This requires putting yourself out there and being ready to make friends and gather information. For me, I was asking where I could find fishermen collecting blue tang, but your questions could include where to find the very best Indonesian coffee or the most unique and distinctive Indonesian cuisine. You could ask about places where visitors rarely travel. The key is to discover pertinent details about what you’re interested in learning, doing, or seeing.

Step 3: Buy Your Tickets

Once you’ve gathered your information on the ground, buy your tickets. That will keep you from staying in the transit hub too long. I find that buying tickets ensures I don’t end up staying in the transit hub forever. It creates a deadline, so you can mentally prepare to hoof it. In my case, I bought flights to get from Bali to Central Sulawesi.

Step 4: Take It Step by Step

After landing in the city of Luwuk, I had to make my way out to Banggai Island. I’d written down basic directions from my Indonesian contact, who told me, “There’s a slow boat or two fast boats. If you take the two fast boats, you also have to take a taxi in between the boats. If you take the slow boat it takes longer, about nine hours to Banggai.” I had a general sense of what I needed to do, but the details remained vague until I actually arrived at the harbor.

Don’t let this worry you. There’s always an answer, and you’ll be surprised how willing people are to help point you in the right direction—as long as you ask in a kind and respectful way.

Step 5: Adapt and Stay Aware

Once I made it to Banggai Island and connected with the fish trader, I thought I would spend time with him in his village and see blue tang there. However, I learned he travels five hours to another island to collect the fish from his fishermen. I had to regroup and make new plans to head to the outer islands with him and his son.

I had spent enough time with the fish trader at this point to trust him, but this kind of action should always be considered carefully on a case-by-case basis. When navigating these newly formed relationships, you must remain aware, listen to your intuition, and try to understand people’s motivations.

You also must be ready and willing to compensate the folks who help you, which can be a nice gesture whether or not they ask for compensation. This can be in the form of local currency or gifts. Having gifts on hand takes a bit of forethought, but they do not need to be extravagant. It can be something small from home, such as a hat or t-shirt, or something more substantial, like a leather wallet or specialty food from your own culture. Gift giving is a nice way to facilitate a two-way cultural exchange, rather than just a one-way sampling.

Step 6: Enjoy the Perks

In the case of this trip, my reward for getting off the beaten track was finally getting to see and film fishermen collecting blue tang for the aquarium trade, but some highlights of my trip were a by-product of my initial goal.

One day I went with the fishermen to a nearby island and spent all day free diving among stunning coral and watching the men harvest clams and spearfish grouper. We later collected coconuts, drank the coconut water, and ate freshly grilled grouper out of the husks. Over this meal on an empty white-sand beach, I learned about the fishermen’s way of life, culture, customs, and dreams. To this day I can still see, smell, and taste this memory.

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A child on Toropot Island runs across a plank walkway between homes raised on wooden stilts.

Rest and Reflect

While traveling off the beaten track can be incredibly rewarding, because of the high level of awareness required and the new things you’re encountering, absorbing, and processing, it can also be exhausting.

Know your limits and when you need time to rest and reboot. My most ugly moments as a traveler—such as yelling at someone out of frustration—come when I am utterly exhausted. Avoid this scenario by building in time to rest.

Taking time to reflect on your interactions is important too. Whether you prefer to journal, write songs, or create art, synthesizing what you learn along the way can be the most rewarding part of your adventure. It can reveal how your thoughts and impressions have evolved and can help you capture tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way.

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