Getting to the Ultimate City Guide
This past week I was in Mexico City for work. My approach to the trip was filled with apprehension as I had never been there and much of the word of mouth and news of Mexico City was on the side of "express kidnappings and other non-cheery events. I pinged my Twitter friends and a couple people responded that they had been to Mexico City in the past year and offered great insights and advice (mostly not to hail taxis on the street and the usual advice for large cities (stay in busy areas, etc.)).
I did not have a lot of time to explore, but I really did enjoy my trip there. But, I was really not well prepared for the trip (mostly because it was rather last minute in a rather busy stretch of other non-related work).
The second day of my trip I felt far more comfortable as I had walked around my busy neighbohood getting a feel for it as I searched for food (there were many options, but I wanted local food not Korean or Argentinian). Walking around there were many offers for taxi rides, table dances, and flat-out prostitution offers. I had a fairly good shield of ignoring the individuals, but some were quite persistent. I found the early morning helped ground me a little better and found the buildings and architecture similar in a way to Bastia, Corsica. This tiny bit of grounding helped connect me to some understanding and provided a connection.
Most travel guide work better for me after I have been some place and preparing me for things I want to discover the next trip, than for preparing me for the first trip.
Trip Preparation and Pre-mapping
The trip was not the only trip I was not well prepared for, my trip to Berlin in Fall 2005 was much the same. But, with the Berlin trip I read and had many travel guide and nothing was really sticking (it too was in a busy travel and work schedule).
The travel guides really do not work well for me as I have nothing for the information to stick to. I have no reference point of familiarity for the information to adhere. Once I gain a foothold of perspective and foundation the information about a place starts making sense. All it takes is a drop of knowledge and the ripples of understanding and familiarity start taking hold.
What I really seem to need is that core grounding point. I have tried Google Earth and other satellite enhanced mapping systems (I am increasingly a fan of Microsofts Live Maps for this as its 3D models are quite helpful), but they still need some level of reference for the info to stick. Information combined with some 3D and 360 views of areas would help. Once I have a point I can hold onto I can then easily expand the knowledge.
The small bit of understanding makes unrolling surrounding areas and deeper understanding easier. For me the thin connection to Corsica helped put the architecture in context. This bit of context is like a Google Map showing an area then pre-loading other near and related information to unpack and apply quickly.
Personally, I like to have cultural understandings of things that are fixed and malleable. Fixed are things like phone systems (GSM) and ease of getting wifi or solid internet access, along with usual cost. Malleable are things that have options like places to eat, things to see and do, etc. Cultural components, like taking many photos in a neighborhood is something I like to understand, do people think a white guy (I was one of a handful I saw in my couple days) taking pictures of buildings and building details is a threat to them? Does this make me a sure target? Is it culturally improper?
Finding Guides that Fit Context
One of my issues is I am often traveling from a business context and need the fixed information. I find the Economist City Guides really good for the basic worklife understanding. I also have cultural (often sub-cultural) interest along the lines of use of technology, food, street art, local information design, social interaction patterns, etc., which seems to come from shared personal experience rather than printed resources.
I think my optimal wish it to have an immersion guide experience prior to traveling, based on the location I will be staying. Then once I am in a location have information rolled out based on context, such as time to eat the food options based on my interest and level of adventure with which I am comfortable. Unrolling understanding and background based on surroundings for where I am and what is around the corner (literally and figuratively) would be fantastic.
This is a familiarity I now have with Amsterdam and parts of London. Some of this familiarity came from having a personal guide take me through those cities nearly 20 years ago. This provided me with an understanding of layout, core elements (transportation systems, cultural understanding, food, etc.), and comfort with a feel for the cities.
Most of the time I am ready for my first trip after going to a city once or have a fellow traveler guide me through their understanding of the city along with a local resident.