If you wish to travel for inspiration and growth, to get a heart fix, to explore not only physically but culturally and socially, you landed on the right blog entry. 2017 became my year of venturing into the unknown by myself, so I made this short list of guiding principles, based entirely on my limited experience, for a proper soulful immersion of every destination.
1. When choosing where to go and for how long, take quality over quantity.
Don’t pressure yourself to be in too many places at once, merely dipping your foot in the water. I say, plunge in deep when you can, it’ll be a much more meaningful experience. That way, you can embrace the culture and stay long enough to discover its beauties and quirks.
2. Get some perspective.
I start my trip with a proper orientation from a viewpoint while holding a map. It helps me intuitively navigate through and organize a better sense of direction. I often take a hop-on hop-off bus for introduction and for knowing which places to prioritize. I suggest staying on for one round before getting down to know which places you want to just get a glimpse of and which places you want to linger on. The human / audio guide also offers a better understanding and appreciation of the venue’s culture and economy from its geography. So far, I’ve done it on my last five locations and I can’t imagine ever exploring a new setting without it!
3. Avoid taking too much time in touristy places.
Long lines, over-crowding, expensive food & souvenirs, an artificial encounter. It often masks you from the REAL soul of the city, giving you a less accurate experience. If you want to genuinely appreciate a setting, though, you must be ready to sacrifice comfort and certainty for it. Be prepared to get worn out, perplexed, frustrated. You must often take the long, arduous route, but you shall be enchanted by the vibrant photographs, the precious memories, and the indescribable fondness of the heart.
4. Like a child, welcome your curiosity.
You may have a detailed itinerary but allow time to let loose and wander. Take the scenic route, if you want to admire nature’s beauty. Stumbled upon an intriguing alleyway? Passed by a pleasant-smelling deli shop? Let your sense of wonder take you inside, outside, over, under, and around, and you’ll soon realize that it is those off-beat moments that make the best parts of your trip.
5. Do something ‘normal’ for a local, foreign for a tourist.
Don’t just eat and go where the locals eat and go, do what they do, too. Go jogging / attend a yoga class, bike around the city, visit a company HQ. It’ll be like opening Pandora’s Box and finding in it colorful ideas, inspiration, and perhaps a different way of doing the same thing. A few fond memories: a 3km afternoon jog along Bowen Road toward HK’s Victoria Peak, a drop-in at Impact Hub (a co-working space) in Seattle, a volunteer stint at Culture Summit 2017 in the Bay Area, a night at the sports bar in DC. Blend in, immerse yourself. It’s loads of fun.
6. TAKE THE SUBWAY.
Unless you’re old or you have a leg problem. I dedicate a separate entry for this because it rightly stands alone. Why? You will learn all kinds of things when you take the subway. See all kinds of things. Smell things you shouldn’t smell. Meet all kinds of people, observe their body language, eavesdrop on their conversations. You inhale more of the soul of the city. You understand more about their daily lives. Take New York and its filthy train stations in which the locals spend the bulk of their time. By simply taking the train along with them, and perhaps because the population was so diverse, there was a sense of belongingness I wouldn’t exchange for a pleasant seat in a yellow cab.
7. Leave room for uncertainty.
Don’t over-plan down to the last detail, because then you think you’re making the most of a trip but you’re actually missing out. So, sign up for things in which you don’t know what to expect (but practice good judgment when doing so, I’m not preaching one to be irresponsible here). Over-estimate the time you allot. Do something you would never do in your home country (again, while practicing good judgment). Staying in hostels used to be unthinkable, but, thanks to a limited budget and no company to share a room with, I was left without a choice when I did it the first time. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. The free pizza (and breakfast! and random sweets in the fridge!), the warm environment, the conversations you’ll never forget, trumps a fancy but dull hotel experience.
8. Put your Walter Mitty on.
Pay mindful attention to what’s in front of you. Rid yourself of distractions. If you’re with company, find time to be alone, or at least, find time to be quiet so you can take in a place’s sights and sounds. When you’re exhausted, take the time to sit down and people-watch. When you stand before mother nature’s vibrant expanse, retreat in solitude and offer up a prayer. Use your five senses, draw observations and piece them together. Find out: ‘what makes this place what it is?’ Question, ‘what is it teaching me?’
9. Get lit.
Appreciation from a tourist’s point of view is normal and expected, but reading literature on a location’s history and other people’s experience of it (often in the form of creative non-fiction) enhances it further more. It allows you to make connections and draw conclusions in ways you couldn’t otherwise. For instance, to kill the time waiting on the New York subway, I looked up a few of the best essays ever written about New York City and came upon E.B. White’s fantastic piece, which led to a better cultural understanding and an open mind toward the facets that made The Big Apple an attractive city full of contrasts.
10. Make conversation.
This is what I love most about traveling alone, the free time and space that leaves room for company. Practice asking questions, discover what makes people interesting, observe the nuances in their speech and actions and write about them. Allow a part of them to rub off on you in a good way, and vice versa. After all, it’s not everyday that you walk in the shoes of the locals and understand the context they operate in. Upon opening up to strangers, I found a movie soul-mate, with whom I shared the interest of Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino. I understood the oppression in Brazil and the rich propaganda of Latin American pop music. I earned myself a free cookie out of a lively conversation with an eight-year-old.
11. Leave a good bit of yourself whenever you can.
That includes warm greetings, compliments, gratuities, a pleasant smile or a helping hand–your gift to that part of the world. It can make someone’s day completely, it can just be a small drop in their love bucket. The point is, you have done a simple human thing to make it a better place. It’s easier to be kind to strangers, so put that innate human quirk to good use.
2018 shall be a year of even richer travels. I wish the same for you.