I love independently exploring the world because of all the unique, authentic, and awesome experiences and adventures I'm able to privately enjoy whenever I do. But, I'm also terrible at planning things, I deplore spending untold hours researching my destinations (it ruins all chances of being truly surprised when seeing places for the first time), I abhor dealing with rigid, inflexible schedules and other people's agendas, which eliminates group travel of any kind, and the only language I really speak is English.
So what's a girl to do? Enter, the FIXER.
Basically, a fixer is someone local you hire to act as a translator and guide -- and often driver --who helps you gain access to places and people you would not be able to see on your own.
Traditionally, fixers operated primarily in the realm of news organizations, NGOs, and the like, facilitating access to whoever or whatever they needed, and helping them move safely around a country.
But not anymore. These days, fixers -- a.k.a. local guides -- are the lifeblood of independent travelers and small groups who want to have their cake and eat it too.
Sure, there are plenty of places in the world where it's easy to just show up -- no planning, no problem -- and authentic experiences and awesome adventures abound.
But it takes a combination of planning, insider knowledge, language skills, luck, and being in the right places at the right times for truly immersive experiences to happen. This is true anywhere in the world, but especially when visiting far-flung destinations, "developing" countries that lack significant tourist infrastructure (or any infrastructure for that matter), countries with strict laws and cultural nuances that can make winging it impossible, and/or make you vulnerable to real danger or susceptible to being scammed.
For example, I traveled through Tunisia with a working journalist, which meant having coffee with local politicians, visiting the homes of famous artists, stopping in barely-there towns far, far, far off the beaten path where I was able to interact with and take photos of men and women who would have never have spoken with me otherwise, and accessing sites I didn't even know existed.
It took a gaggle of fixers (I lost count at 11), countless bribes, and four and half hours to get me out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, across the Congo River (a five-minute boat ride), and into the Republic of Congo. Can you imagine what would have happened had I attempted the trip on my own? I'd probably still be there.
How does one procure a fixer?
In many ways finding a fixer is like dating, but instead of looking for love, you're looking for someone you can trust with your life... and who won't ruin your vacation (which I guess is also a lot like dating).
Depending on where I'm going, I'll either:
1. Search for small, local operators on the ground where I'm going who work with reliable fixers and will either put me directly in touch with one for a fee, or are willing and able to help plan an independent itinerary using their stable of fixers. This generally nets the best results but can be very tricky to pull off in countries where there is a language barrier, and/or communicating in general is difficult (e.g., inconsistent access to Internet, etc.); or
2. I'll search for a travel consultant stateside who has excellent contacts or connections where I'm going and will act as a facilitator between the local operator and/or fixers and me. Sometimes this is someone who specializes in certain regions or types of trips, or it may be a consultant with whom I've spent years building a relationship so she (in my case, Ellison Poe) truly understands what makes me tick and what I want out of my trips, and is willing and able to make it happen even if outside the scope of her normal services; or
3. I often end up tapping consultants from other countries to help me with travel to entirely different countries. For example, when I was getting nowhere fast trying to find a driver in Venezuela and book a return ticket from Gran Roques to Caracas, not to mention having no idea how to safely tackle the country's insane currency exchange system without getting my ass handed to me, I turned to a travel consultant in the U.K., because no one in Venezuela would return my calls or emails, and no one in the U.S. had a clue; or
4. Confer with journalist and photographer friends, expats, and other travel writers and travelers who like me, have built up networks of friends and contacts around the world and are willing to share the information I need to at least get me going in the right direction; or
5. I'll google something along the lines of, "I want to go to Chad alone" and take it from there.
The irony of traveling independently with a fixer is that in some cases you spend so much time together by default (e.g., when I went on an approximately 4,000-km road trip through southern Ethiopia and he was also my driver), you kind of end up on vacation with him or her, which makes finding one who truly understands what you want out of your trip and how you like to travel essential.
Personally, I like to be on my own as much as possible, but I also want someone to whom I can turn to give me the lay of the land, answer questions, grease whatever wheels need greasing, deal with any bribes and legal crap that has to be dealt with, help mitigate risk to my person, and facilitate photo taking where I'd have no chance of doing so otherwise. But I don't want to feel like I have to sightsee, eat meals, or talk to him or her all the time -- which is the whole reason I am traveling alone in the first place. It can be a tough order to fill, but when I find the right person (or people), it means the difference between a great trip and an amazing one filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
What are your tips for making the most of independent travel? Comment below or find/follow me on Facebook for more conversation.
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