I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.
5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, getting pushed around on a NYC subway at rush hour, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.
4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.
When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can. When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but travel has added a richness to our friendship that can’t be replicated. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.
3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.
If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.
2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.
Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and define education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.
1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.
What have you gained from travel?
Airfare is most likely going to be the biggest budget item for your long-term trip, and we at BootsnAll would like to simplify it for you.
When someone decides to go vagabonding and travel the world, dreams of white sand beaches, mountain tops, temples, and the aromas of local cuisine fill the mind. Travelers envision all the people they’ll meet and the things they’ll learn.
But once the honeymoon period wears off and the realities of planning a trip like this come to the forefront, that excitement and eagerness can turn to frustration, particularly when it comes to figuring out airfare, a costly, but necessary part of world travel.
The first google search of “round the world airfare” spits back a myriad of results, from what different travel agents, companies, and airline alliances offer to a few “analyses” of those options.
While there is plenty of good information on those resources, we at BootsnAll didn’t find one that broke down all the options and did so in a simplified manner, so we created one ourselves.
The latest version of the Around the World Airfare Report (which we offer for free), published in September 2014, is the result of months of research, as we created three different traveler personas and shopped three different multi-stop routes, posing as customers.
The goal of the Around the World Airfare Report is to help make it easier for you to decide which option is right for your trip.
Everyone travels differently and has unique wants and needs when it comes to their big trip, and we get that, so we wanted to create a resource that delves into all options, offering suggestions for which companies to begin your search based on what type of traveler you are.
In addition, you’ll find price breakdowns between nine different companies and airline alliances, speed comparisons (how long does it take for each company/alliance to get back to you with a bookable price?), and a frustration factor, breaking down all those pesky rules and terms and conditions in a simplified and easy-to-understand manner.
If you’re planning or thinking about planning a long-term trip, download this free report to learn more about this complicated part of round the world travel.
Once you do, we’d love to hear what you think – what did you like, what didn’t you like, what would you like to see in the next version? Review the report here.
It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.
As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.
For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.
Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.
The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.
Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.
Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country. They were made to feel comfortable here.
The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.
Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.
The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.
A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his work was discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.
Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.
My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.
1) Make travel a part of your life’s education
Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. He that travelleth into a country, before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.
2) Keep a travel journal, at sea or on land
It is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it; as if chance were fitter to be registered than observation: let diaries, therefore, be brought in use.
3) Seek interesting sights, such as:
* The courts of princes (especially when they give audience to ambassadors)
* The courts of justice (while they sit and hear causes)
* The churches and monasteries (with the monuments which are therein extant)
* The walls and fortifications of cities and towns
* The havens and harbors, antiquities and ruins
* Treasuries of jewels and robes, cabinets and rarities
* Shipping and navies
* Houses and gardens of state and pleasure, near great cities
* Armories, arsenals, magazines, exchanges, burses, warehouses
4) Seek interesting activities, such as:
* Exercises of horsemanship, fencing, training of soldiers, and the like
* Comedies, such whereunto the better sort of persons do resort
* Libraries, colleges, disputations, and lectures
* Triumphs, masks, feasts, weddings, funerals, capital executions, and such shows
5) Make use of guidebooks and local resources
Let him carry with him also some card, or book, describing the country where he travelleth, which will be a good key to his inquiry. Let him, upon his removes from one place to another, procure recommendation to some person of quality residing in the place whither he removeth, that he may use his favour in those things he desireth to see or know.
6) Seek varieties of experience, even within a single location
Let him not stay long in one city or town, more or less as the place deserveth, but not long. When he stayeth in one city or town, let him change his lodging from one end and part of the town to another, which is a great adamant of acquaintance.
7) Seek out travel companions that will challenge you
Let him sequester himself from the company of his countrymen, and diet in such places where there is good company of the nation where he travelleth. Thus he may abridge his travel with much profit. As for the acquaintance which is to be sought in travel, that which is most of all profitable is acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors; for so in travelling in one country he shall suck the experience of many: See and visit eminent persons in all kinds, which are of great name abroad, that he may be able to tell how the life agreeth with the fame.
8) Avoid traveling with quarrelsome people
For quarrels, they are with care and discretion to be avoided; they are commonly for mistresses, healths, place, and words; and let a man beware how he keepeth company with choleric and quarrelsome persons; for they will engage him into their own quarrels.
9) When coming home, keep your travels alive with intellectual exercise
When a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries where he hath travelled altogether behind him, but maintain a correspondence by letters with those of his acquaintance which are of most worth; and let his travel appear rather in his discourse than in his apparel or gesture.
10) Don’t flaunt your travel experiences to the folk back home
In his discourse let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories: and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners for those of foreign parts; but only prick in some flowers of that he hath learned abroad into the customs of his own country.
Originally published by World Hum in 2008
I’ve spent the past few weeks traveling around, catching up with old friends. I’ve been through Paris, London and am now sitting in the Yotel hotel in New York City. As I was thinking back, deciding what to write about – the moments that burned brightest were the meals that I shared with friends. The exquisite home-cooked meal that David and his wife made in Paris. The Argentinian wine and bar snacks in London. The pizza shared with a friend along the Thames. The gregarious antics with a group of friends, while eating a fine meal in a hidden gem in NYC.
Now, in my day-to-day life, I’m utilitarian in my eating – I eat to have energy to get the things done that I need to do. I watch protein levels, healthy fat content and all that jazz. Sure – I want it to taste good, but a meal is simply a tool – one that allows me to do other, more important things.
When I’m out with friends – though, it’s another thing all together. The meal gets intertwined with the conversation and laughter. It’s as if there’s something primal… instinctual about sitting down with others and breaking bread. That if you’re willing to be at the same table with someone, that you’ve unconsciously decided that they aren’t a threat. That you can let down your guard just a bit and allow a deeper connection.
I don’t think the caliber of the meal is utmost important, at least not for me. Sifting back even further through my memories, I can remember great times at varied diners across the country. Then again, I’m not picky and my palette is unrefined. I’m loud and I laugh a lot. But always in the company of great people — friends who make all those meals memorable.
What are your favorite moments while traveling? What burns brightest in your mind?
P.S.> I wanted to share a few of my favorite photos over the last 3 weeks – a bit eclectic, but fond memories.
What?!? You can’t travel through Paris without taking at least one picture of a tourist landmark! (Well – I guess, you can. This is my 3rd or 4th time through Paris, but the first time I’ve seen these landmarks.)
I’m enthralled with urban art and street art. This was a playful version of that – all done in chalk along the River Seine.
Go to all the museums and art installations you want – to me this is just as beautiful. I love the craftsmanship and details that were put into this bike. It caught me off guard – didn’t expect to see it in Paris.
My last night in London – a friend took me out to the Tall Ships Festival in London. The ships were brilliantly lit up, going down the River Thames. What struck me, though – was the feeling of being transported to another time — or at least two times mixing. Yes, you could see the city in the background, but if you allow yourself to imagine in just the right way, you can feel time slip back just a little bit.
Get out there, travel safe and trust your gut
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
For every travel destination, there is always someone with an opinion about why you shouldn’t go there. One person will say “I would travel pretty much anywhere, but never India.” while another person says, “I could go pretty much anywhere but never Mexico.” For a long time Colombia was the place I figured I’d never go.
I’m writing this article from Cali, Colombia, feeling perfectly fine about being here, though practicing a bit more caution than I might normally.
The reason I never wanted to go to Colombia, and the reason many people have “no-go” countries on their list, is because dangerous things do happen and we read or hear about it on the news.
This brings up the issue I’d like to think about today. There seems to be a fine line between staying informed and getting intimidated. My trip to Thailand at the very start of the military coup this spring made me acutely aware of the power of news media. Many readers emailed to ask whether or not they should cancel trips they’d planned to Thailand, concerned that it wasn’t safe for tourism. I don’t watch news at all, but it made me wonder how the media was portraying the unrest. The feeling I got from readers was that the media painted a dangerous and frightening picture.
In an article I gave my account of traveling through Thailand during martial law, a fairly uneventful tale of streets quieting down earlier than usual. It did not feel dangerous or frightening. It’s not to say that Thailand was without issue during that time, but as a tourist I never once felt unsafe.
However, I know that my husband and I tend to err on the side of under-cautious, and occasionally that does get us in sticky situations. We’ve stumbled upon riots before, for instance. I often wonder how many bad situations we’ve narrowly missed. For this reason, I certainly don’t want to be the only voice weighing in on this question.
So I asked a few other travel bloggers or frequent-travelers their thoughts. Are other travelers watching or reading news media, and if so, which news sources do they access regularly?
Various responses I got included BBC’s website, CNN Kids, NatGeo Traveler, The Atlantic, The Economist, and of course some replied that for the most part they don’t check news resources regularly. Other, less mainstream options included StuckinCustoms.com and BatteredLuggage.com. (I found it interesting and worth noting that no one news resource came out ahead as the most frequently accessed. Granted, I asked a small pool of travelers.)
As to whether or not these media resources effect each traveler’s approach to travel or not, LeAnna of EconomicalExcursionists.com had the following take:
“The truth is, I am not going to choose to go to a place that is in civil dis-rest. Not because the media tells me not to, but because I personally would like to live a few more years. However, there are several places that I have traveled to that some may consider “unsafe” (Russia, Czech Republic, Africa) but I feel that the people who consider them unsafe are uneducated about those areas.”
LeaAnna highlights the benefit in striving for an informed, realistic opinion of a place.
Where might that informed opinion come from? Many of the travelers I interviewed commented that regardless of what media resource they’re tapping into, they’re going look into the media’s claims further and do their own research too. In other words, even when news media is involved in their attempts to stay informed, it’s not the last stop before their opinions are made.
Why take these precautions to go beyond what the media is saying? Heather of jfdioverland.com offers this:
“I try not to let the media influence my travel plans; the media often over exaggerates the issue and most of the time issues are in small areas, rarely the whole country.”
Jason, another frequent-traveling friend said that rather than the news influencing his approach to travel, something quite the opposite is true. His travel influences his reaction to the news:
“I don’t think the news media influences how I travel or how I approach a new place. It’s actually more of the opposite- the more I travel and the more places I visit the more I am able to separate what’s happening in the news versus what’s happening on the ground. People generally just want the same things in life no matter where they live, a home to live in, security, food, education and a better life for their children. So the things that make them unique in the news are not really what make them unique at all. Generally the stuff that you read in the news is in the realm of government, and has very little to do with what the average person’s life is like…I’m no longer scared to go to places that everyone else is scared to go to because I know those places have human beings that are just trying to get by in life, just like we are in [the] United States.”
Over all, while not everyone is so extreme as to avoid the news entirely, there does seem to be a general skepticism of news media- that it is not, on its own, enough. Or even that it is not, on its own, helpful.
Now I’d like to know what you think.
Do you trust news media to inform you realistically about a place? Does it effect your worldview, your willingness to travel? If not, why not? How do you approach news media to keep this from happening?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Five months of extended, slow travel taught me valuable life lessons that I never could have learned from a one week vacation or a weekend getaway. Once I got past the initial lure of traveling to new places (including Guatemala, Taiwan, Australia, and Ethiopia), seeing new things, and doing different activities, the time spent traveling really became a deeper, personal experience; travel became introspective and a journey within to make discoveries about myself and my place in the world.
These are the lessons about life that I have learned after five months of travel around the world…
Be a little nicer to others.
When you travel, you make yourself vulnerable by leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself out in the world. You need help because you normally don’t know where you are, what to eat, and how to speak the local language. People are out there to help you, as long as you let them. You’ll see how people will open themselves up once you show some compassion and kindness.
I once heard a 103-year-old woman answer the question, “What’s the best advice you can give to others on how to live their lives?” She simply replied, “Be a little nicer to others.” All those years of experience and wisdom and she understood that life at the core is made of all the interactions and connections, big and small, that we have with others.
Be nice. Be extra nice. Bring out the best in yourself and others around you.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
You don’t need a ton of money to travel and you don’t need millions of dollars to be happy. If you’re always comparing your net worth to others’ net worth, you’ll never be happy.
Happiness starts from within. If you’re pursuing things that you’re passionate about and give you purpose, you’ll be happier. When you help others for unselfish reasons, you’ll be happier. And when you connect with a purpose that’s bigger than you, you’ll truly be happy.
I’ve met some of the happiest people in some of the poorest countries in the world and I’ve met some of the most depressed people in some of the richest countries in the world. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Living life on purpose will give you all the happiness you’ll ever need.
Fulfilling work, quality time with your kids, “me” time, nutritious meals, regular exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, and meaningful travel are all the ingredients of a healthy life. You can have it all, as long as you make balance your goal.
Sometimes you overwork yourself for weeks without end. You sleep less. You don’t go to the gym when you should. You eat junk foods and load up on coffee. Then you crash. Hard. And your body needs two full days to recover. You need balance every day all the time.
Too much of anything isn’t healthy or sustainable. Balance is essential to healthy living.
Live your life.
Your life is yours and yours alone. Be who you are. Follow your passions. Trust your gut. Don’t compare yourself with others. Stay true to what you believe.
The key is to live. Many people are dying a slow death in a profession they are bored with; others are in destructive relationships; some are using escapes from actually living by abusing drugs, alcohol, TV, Internet, etc.
You need to choose to live your life. That choice begins with trusting yourself and moving forward with your heart.
Love the journey.
Life is not a race, so enjoy the journey. Each step you take and each personal connection you make hopefully gets you closer to your truest, most authentic self. When you value the journey more than the destination, you are grateful for each step and blessing. You realize that failures exist not only as small lessons, but also as opportunities for mercies to come through. And you are present in every moment.
When you let your heart lead the way, you’ll be on the path towards realizing your dreams. Sometimes what we want isn’t what the world says we should want, what our parents say we should want, or what our peers say we should want, but your path ultimately is the product of your choices.
Stay the course. Listen to your heart. Let the love flow.
Love the journey and you’ll be on your way.
For more about Cliff’s travels, visit his website: LiveFamilyTravel
Have you ever wanted to leave civilization behind and embark on a multitude of journeys where you simply live and explore?
That’s exactly what Lisa Alpine did.
At 18 years old, she left sunny California for the rainy streets of Vienna and beyond, Europe. In Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman, she recounts 14 stories gathered from her next 28 years of traveling.
Each chapter of the book encapsulates a complete story, set in a different year, spanning the arch of her life from 18 years old to mid-fifties. You would expect changes in her traveling viewpoint. But, other than a new love of B&B’s and 1000 thread count sheets, her love of adventure and finding herself in quirky situations never vanishes.
Deeply personal stories, they read more like imaginative fiction than non-fiction. The writing occasionally glosses over parts where I’d like more detail, but once you become accustomed to her newspaper-like style, the stories flow easier.
As a single girl in her 20′s, she travels the world, game for any new adventure. She spends a week with a Amazonian native and her three young children deep off the Amazon river. In her thirties, her young child gets passed around a remote tribe, held high above their heads. She licks a Monet to sample what art tastes like. She gets charged by an amorous dolphin who loves her polka dot bikini, his attention infuriating his harem.
Winner of many awards, including Best Travel Story of the Year 2014 Solas Silver for Fish Trader Ray, Lisa has an undeniable gift of seeing the good in people. And she has an enviable talent for making friends in unlikely situations. Add to the mix, her unshakable curiosity about the world and need to travel.
She sounds like a perfect traveling companion: unflappable, up for anything with an innate ability to attract a ride to her next destination. She’s the person who laughs instead of cries when things don’t go according to plan.
Her stories made me want to revisit New Orleans and taste the food she sampled that I somehow missed out on. Her persistently optimistic view on people makes me fight my impulse to tuck my bag closer into my body and eye my surrounding humans with distrust. She inspired me to embrace spontaneity and saying “yes,” instead of my knee-jerk “no.”
Luckily for me, I had a chance to ask her about her unique views on travel.
That the world is an inherently good place filled with kind and generous people who open their hearts, minds, and lives to wandering strangers. (Despite what you read in the newspapers!)
I also trust my intuition and in the rare circumstances where I didn’t or don’t feel safe, I leave without excuses or guilt.
Hearing adventure stories from older women in my life when I was a teenager. I dedicated Wild Life to several of these adventuresses including my Grandma Lucy who lived in a mining camp in the Atacamas Desert in Chile in the 1920s. Of course, many years later I went there—the highest and driest desert on the planet— and stared at the full moon. It is a very mysterious place.
Also, I was an explorer from birth—always curious about what was around the next bend. Even as a baby I would crawl off to find bugs or wander down the street eating sour grass as I scooted along. The old lady’s koi pond a block away was a big draw. My mom called the police several times when you couldn’t find her baby girl.
Books also lured me to dream of exotic places and fed my craving for foreign-ness—the unknown—the colorful: Arabian Nights, Green Mansions, Bitter Lemons, Nobody’s Girl.
I have known since childhood that life is a gift. Freedom is a gift not available to everyone, sadly.
One of the greatest insights traveling has offered me is the opportunity to befriend people who have suffered due to loss and wars. My story “Rada’s Bloom” in Wild Life is an ode to a woman who lost every family member in Auschwitz and yet survived with a loving, generous, non-judgmental nature. If Rada can smile and embrace humanity after that hell realm—I can be fully appreciative of this wonderful life I have been given.
“Smile and the whole world smiles with you” is my motto.
Many times my travels are inspired by a book. I had to go to the Amazon after I read Green Mansions. Ditto for Israel after I read Exodus. Or I hear about a remarkable place from another traveler and it awakens an urge to see this place with my own eyes.
Most of my trips have just happened out of the blue—I met Lloyd Cottingam at a nightclub in San Francisco while dancing to Zydeco music. He invited me to work for him at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
I said “Yes”. I usually say “Yes” without thinking about it first.
Spontaneity led me to discover my love of New Orleans and all things Southern. And that leads me to my stories. “Two-Steppin’ and Pussy-Poppin” is about my nine-year annual trek to volunteer at the Jazz Fest and all the crazy people and events that happened to me there.
Recently, I wanted go to a country I’d never been before; was inexpensive (not on the Euro); and had an undeveloped tourist infrastructure: Albania!
I spent a month wandering there. What a delightful people and the countryside is gorgeous. The food is delicious and organic. There is outstanding hiking in the Albanian Alps; pristine white sand beaches on the Adriatic & Ionian Seas; intriguing Ottoman, Greek and Roman ruins; and nary a tourist in sight. A first rate travel destination, and it is safe!
Maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this information…
Instead of landing in a new country and hitting the road, I like to settle down a bit and meet people.
A good way to do that is to volunteer for a short period at a bookstore, or an orphanage, a school, an archeological dig, etc… Of course, there are organizations that can set this up but they usually come with a high price tag. Instead, put a shout-out through your social media connections.
I did this before I went to Albania. One of my writing students had a church group member who had moved there 20 years ago and become a missionary. She connected us via email. The missionary visited my website and noted I also teach dance. She invited me to teach her youth group a salsa class.
What a hoot! Not only did I hear eye-popping stories from the missionaries of their tumultuous times in Albania— but I really like Korca—the town where they live.
My son, Galen, has also traveled on many one-to-two year trips and always ends up helping people. He worked at an orphanage in Cambodia and volunteered at the Christchurch Earthquake Relief Center in New Zealand. None of this was planned but he just said “Yes” when the motorcyclist in Cambodia gave him a lift while hitchhiking and invited him to his orphanage.
Galen went to New Zealand, planning to go tramping, but landed in Christchurch just two days after a big quake destroyed much of the city. He decided on the split second he would find a place that needed his help, so instead of hitching to the mountains, he went into town and asked around. The three months he spent volunteering led to life-long friends, many invites to visit remote regions of NZ, and real job offers.
Which leads us back to being spontaneous and saying “yes” and not over-planning your trip so that when the opportunity knocks—you invite it into your life.
And it will change you and make you a fuller, richer person who can give back even more than you have received.
Laura blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she writes about why book reading is a dying and valuable skill, next to traveling.
Some writer once said; “There are only two stories: man goes on a journey; or stranger comes to town.”
Some other writer said; “Those are the same story.”
The quotes above have been attributed to writers as diverse as Dostoevsky and John Gardner. Despite their flippancy, there’s an undeniable verisimilitude there – a sense that yes, we are constantly stuck (or liberated) in the same tale, time after time: the same quest, the same novel.
True in a way, but every single perspective is unique and new and completely unknown to science. I’m lucky enough to teach writing at a small New England college, and every week I’m reminded of the newness of experience – when I read a student essay about the first time they traveled to Europe, or went abroad for a semester, I’m completely absorbed, even though I’ve read those types of essays before. But each view is unique, each experience individual.
But – taking into account the anonymous quotes at the beginning – there is this sense that all writing of a certain kind can be reduced to commonalities, to large scale, Way-Out-In-Space-Google-Earth perspective. In this sense, I would offer the following: all writing is travel writing.
Travel writing is fun to read, hard to write. Good travel writing does two things simultaneously; it takes the reader on a vertiginous journey through narrow mud-walled towns, or along alpine goat paths, or through bustling marketplaces; and it also marks the internal journey of the writer, the transformation that takes place. And while we love poling down some jungle river the color of tea, or palavering with herders in some felted yurt, if the author isn’t taking us on the interior journey, we are bored.
Leonard Michaels has this to say about stories in his essay ‘What’s a Story:’
The problem with storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belong to art.
Transitions versus transformations is a good way to look at it. Both words start with the prefix ‘trans’ which comes from the Latin and simply means ‘across,’ but have different meanings. ‘Transition’ comes from the Latin transire, which means to go across, hence over. It has cognates in trance, transient, and other words, which overall create an etymological pastiche that brings to mind rootlessness. Transform, on the other hand, while it shares the same prefix, is rooted firmly in the word ‘form,’ which means shape.
‘Transformation’ means to change the shape of; literally, to become another form.
Stories can provide us with both of these experiences. Good literature can take us on a journey, a quest, and we can be ‘transient’ for a bit while we read. But great books transform; remake us in some new shape. Books help us redefine our interior landscape; our moral and spiritual superstructures. Recently, I’ve been paging through two Paul Theroux classics; Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania. And while Theroux can sometimes be criticized as a cranky old man, he is a master of balancing the personal with the external, giving the reader hearty glimpses into his own personal transformations and journeys and quests. It’s a balancing act to be sure – we want our sub-continental marigold merchants but also want to know our author and how he or she is like us.
Reading his old classics compelled me to pick up Theroux’s newest travel book. The Last Train to Zona Verde, which came out last year, is about Africa. Theroux has written about African journeys before – Dark Star Safari was a bestseller – but this book is so much better, for reasons I’ll explain briefly. Africa, in Dark Star, is the backdrop to Theroux’s usual thoughts on travel and people and himself, but it lacked – for me – that edge that good travel writing needs. I liked it fine, but Zona Verde seems to me to stand against the times in a way that’s edgier, angrier, more insistent and interesting. In Dark Star, we hear a lot about how Theroux is writing an “erotic novella” during the trip. But in Zona Verde, we are given a much different impression of why the septuagenarian novelist and travel writer is absconding to the land of lions and giraffes.
Theroux tells us early on that of the reasons for going to Africa, “The main one was physically to get away from people wasting my time with trivia.” He then goes on quote at length from that other great wanderer, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in ‘Life Without Principle;’ “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things…so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” Right; hello, Facebook newsfeed.
This sense of separation Theroux is looking for – and is willing to travel the remote regions of Africa to find – is central to our understanding of self, particularly in the age of iPhones. “To travel unconnected, away from anyone’s gaze or reach, is bliss,” Theroux writes, and particular attention should be paid to his word-choice; ‘unconnected’ is perhaps a direct reference to the ‘connectedness’ that the internet provides.
Theroux gets right to the point as he relates his adventures with the !Kung in South Africa. “Travel in Africa was also my way of opposing the increasing speed of technology – resisting it and dropping back, learning patience and studying the world that way.” That patience, he believes, is exemplified by the !Kung. Theroux likes them, though, that much is clear: “And I was thinking, as I thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: the best of them are bare-assed.”
Part of getting out and about in the world – part of any real journey – is that vital separation from what we expect at home; annoying details, obligations, and trivial matters. Once we start traveling, the triviality is blasted to bits and we’re mercifully released from the impingement of pop culture and domestic concerns; we’re happily returned to a state of wonder and curiosity.
One of the things about travel – both in the world and within ourselves – is the opportunity to explore regions that we’ve never been to before. “But there is such a thing as curiosity, dignified as a spirit of inquiry,” writes Theroux. It is that spirit that allows us to wonder, to imagine, and to be the best bare-assed specimens we possibly can.
If ‘stranger comes to town,’ and ‘man goes on a journey’ are in fact the same story, then the common theme is that of movement, of adventure, or getting out there in a new place, or meeting new people. The common theme is simply walking out the door.
Books that change us – books that transform – are in essence travel literature. As I get older, I’m less and less interested in the distinction between external and internal travel, as I think real travel, or adventure, never exists in singularity – real travel, real writing, and really great books take the reader on both the external and internal journey, and when I come back to the real world after reading such a book I’m not quite the same as I was before. I’m a bit dusty and road-worn.
Here’s a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare’s, and spirited them home as souvenirs.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven’t seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the ensuing 220 years.
I mention this because I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of eBay and similar online shopping venues — you don’t have to travel to a place like Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of souvenir t-shirts, which said things like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes,” or “Farting is my way of saying I (heart) you.”
In one sense, it seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a t-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida (“I’m not a bitch, I’m ‘Miss Bitch’ to you”). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once cradled Shakespeare’s butt.
Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they’ve seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta’s New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate into boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. The implication here, of course, is that buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).
Although it may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it’s easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed WalMart.
If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one’s home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a given Japanese girl’s bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask — each of which represent her father’s past trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia, and all which were purchased at Narita Airport.
In pointing out the global-historical foibles of souvenir-seekers, I don’t mean to position myself above the madness. Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.
I’ve found, however, that bringing these items home and putting them on display has taught me an interesting lesson. Whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don’t evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as the beat-up, navy-blue “Bruin Track & Field” t-shirt I wore in both countries.
Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.
Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I’d wager that “it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”
In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.
Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant placemats, to pressed leaves, to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.
2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.
Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectables, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this newfound loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.
3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.
In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.