This is a short guide written for anyone who wishes to travel and doesn’t know how — given the restrictions. Yet, it’s not about travel as a pursuit of the new. Instead, it looks at travel for what it is: the willingness to open up to a “travail” (Originally, the word “to travel” comes from the same root as the french word for work, i.e. “travail”), to a vicissitude, a lived experience that changes you “by turns”.
Having lived in over 10 different countries and traveled to over 30, I have dug into my experience in cities and villages near and far, focusing, specifically, on how we get lost and what getting lost prompts us to find. If you are a seasoned traveler who understands what traveling entails, this guide may not be for you. But if you’ve been sitting at home wondering how can you bring a sense of adventure, wonder, and yes — being lost— to your life: read on.
Tiziano Terzani, an Italian Der Spiegel correspondent who spent about 30 years traveling around Asia, writes that journalism is about the “search for truth”. He shares that for years he was looking for precision, for some sort of accuracy which, ultimately, is useless. Truth, he wrote, cannot be found in facts. It is behind. It is behind the background of facts. And while he speaks of journalism, the same could apply to travel. We travel searching for some truth. Sometimes it’s about the place we are visiting. Occasionally, it’s about human nature. More often, the truth we are searching for is about ourselves.
It is this search for truth that inspires this guide. It is my hope that it will inspire you: to discover the mystery around and within you. Feel free to jump ahead between sections and to try different things at your own pace. This isn’t something that you should pack into your weekend. It’s a guide to make travel — that search for truth amidst wonder—an integral part of your everyday life.
“How do we become who we are in the world? We ask the world to teach us. But we have to ask with an open heart, with no idea of what the answer will be.”
Pam Houston, Some Kind of Calling
Travel to a place whose existence is unbeknownst to you
When traveling to a new place, I usually like to wander.
The rationale: When I started to travel Google maps did not cover many areas of the world (It honestly still doesn’t, not to the level of details of the West). And what do you do when you get off the bus in a place you don’t know and without a map on your phone? You wander. This is best done with a sense of direction — a loose one, like, I’m going to go in the direction of “that building over there”.
When in Bangkok, Thailand, I did this by jumping on a bus and simply getting down 15 minutes later. In Istanbul, I took a boat over the Bosphorus and got off at a random stop — after about one hour. I ended up in a local village where there were no tourists, where I struggled — but managed—to order a salad, and successfully enjoyed a serving of very juicy tomatoes with what felt like too much vinegar for my taste — nothing to do with the touristy food I experienced in Istanbul’s old town, Sultanameth. The point? Get lost.
You can do this by just wandering out of your front door and following a few simple rules:
1. Do not have a plan
If you think that traveling is having a check-list and a planned itinerary (Like, going to the Louvre, viewing the Mona Lisa), think again. What you are aiming for is to be stirred up, to be “turned upside down”. Start early in the day if it makes you feel more comfortable and start by taking the direction you do not usually take. If you live in a remote area, you can do this by car (Again, go in the opposite direction of where you usually would), by bike, by skis, by horse and, of course, by walking. I love taking public transport and letting it surprise me (If you live in a city, take a metro line or a bus that you usually don’t take — see where it leads). Keep going until you’re somewhere you’re not familiar with. Get off by intuition: does the name of this stop/lane call you? What’s in a name? Explore. Trust me: this is available to you even if you can’t venture more than 15 or 30 kilometers from your home. There’s always someplace you haven’t explored.
2. Do embrace the discomfort
Not having a plan, like you would if you were really traveling, means you might run into some “unexpected twists and turns”. For example, you might get really, literally lost. Ask for directions. Look at the shade to figure out where the north is. Follow your own compass. If you get hungry, try getting a snack you usually wouldn’t from a local shop. Think eating something sweet if what you’re craving is salty, or something you normally wouldn’t get. Are you a pretzel person? Tell yourself that all they sell here is fresh fruit, and eat an apple. The truth is, if you were truly traveling, you would put yourself through all sorts of unexpected situations that would not necessarily be comfortable.
In fact, you could be stuck for hours on end on a bus that never stops — and force yourself to withgo drinking water to avoid having to pee. You could find yourself in a country where they’re practicing Ramadan, there’s an embargo, or there’s a food shortage — and you’d have to adjust your eating habits to that. Forcing yourself to embrace the discomfort will force you to embrace something else: the “novel you” that shows up as you do so.
Embrace, and turn your attention to something you can be grateful for. Even if that something is the irony of this adventure you’re putting yourself through and which one day you’ll tell your grandkids about.
3. Let yourself follow a direction but be prepared to welcome the unknown
Having a direction is key. Getting there is not the point.
You want to have a direction to ignite your movement, a sort of compass that you’re moving towards. That compass can also be some sort of goal, like walking 15,000 steps at least. But it shouldn’t be your aim. If you make it your aim, you’ll forget to welcome the distractions.
Open up to what shows up: are you meeting dogs and horses along the way? Can you stop and have a chat with someone who’s walking in the opposite direction? How about observing the shape of the trees or of the clouds? If you’re in a big city, could you make notes of the artist’s studios and small markets you go by? Of the schools?
4. Imagine yourself living the life that you’re exploring.
How would your life be if you actually lived in this neighborhood or village? Would you regularly be running in the park you just crossed? Would you maybe sign up to volunteer at that association you’ve just walked by? Would you hire a community garden like the one you’ve seen?
Let yourself imagine a different life — one that is different from yours and as uncorrupted as possible by any judgment, stereotype, or fear you might have about the place you’ve ended up in. Note down —in your memory, or on a notepad— the wishes, insights, and revelations that come up.
Here you are, traveling. Where’s that bringing up for you?
Go do something you usually wouldn’t
Even with all of the restrictions, there certainly are things you can try that you usually wouldn’t. You know that epic moment, when, during your trip abroad, you were suddenly serenaded in public or invited to pretend you were a chicken going around a fountain in a village in the north of Benin (Yes, both did happen to me!)?
It’s the beauty of traveling that each culture has an ongoing love affair with an activity that may not be your favorite, but that can open your eyes to new subtleties.
Having spent years in Norway, Ireland and Venezuela, I can tell you that the Irish have a love for words —whether sung or spoken— that’s hard to beat. And Norway’s competitive spirit slides on snow faster than the swiftest of its skiing champions. In Venezuela, you’d be lost at a party if you can’t pirouette to the sounds of salsa. And in Benin, you could be invited to a funeral every week. It’s considered almost better than a wedding.
It’s not the “what” that counts: it’s the “why”.
Traveling means opening up to the wisdom that different experiences create community in different ways and bringing to life different parts of you.
Now your turn: which part of you do you need to reconnect with?
Is it your voice? Travel by taking singing lessons.
Your hands? Start a pottery class or some DIY project.
Put yourself out of your comfort zone, and then show how you are doing it: to the new community you found.
Have a family member design an experience for you
Are you in lockdown and can’t go anywhere? As long as there’s someone else there with you, you can ask them to create a travel experience for you, by simply adding rituals and rules you don’t know and won’t be told about. This is a great way to “travel” with kids, from inside the comfort of your home.
One thing about traveling that is often confusing and yet eye-opening is coming face to face with the fact that, as humans, we live by a set of very arbitrary rules which we consider “normal”. All the time, we are wearing a pair of glasses that color our reality, yet we fail to see the glasses. It’s like a fish swimming in deep water: does it know water exists?
You can exploit this knowledge and ask your family to design a day governed by different rules.
These can be as simple as switching meal times (Think that in Norway people have lunch at 11 a.m. and in Spain at 3 p.m.) or adding a number of rituals (For example, singing a song or having to wash your feet before meals), or as sophisticated as asking your kids to create language rules for one day (For example, the local language would never respond to the word “You”, which would mean they’d have to ignore you if you said “Can you pass me the water?” instead of “May I get some water?”. Everything would have to be phrased in first person).
Admittedly, some of these can be harder to pull off than others, but the trick is to have the rest of your family design a day for you that is ruled by rules you don’t know about. They could play with silence, distance (Increasing or decreasing distance from one another), rituals (For example giving kisses on the cheeks instead of hugs), jokes and topics of jokes, tone of voice, directness, ambiguity or any other.
What this will create for them is a game, and for you, it will force you to observe things through a different lens and to reassess that which you take for granted.
The key is to feel: what unnverves you? What would you “bring home” from this new culture? How do you deal with not knowing how your meals are going to be like?
Do a travel meditation
Where have you traveled before?
Revisit your travels by simply sitting and following your trips in your head.
You can do this following the map (Starting from a certain location and going first south, then east from there) or following a timeline (Going backward in time).
Give yourself at least 45 minutes and try to tune in to the feelings: can you feel the warmth of summer? Can you feel the pain on your calves while you’re skiing downhill? Do you remember being frustrated by the smell of a certain food or by a long queue? What was the frustration really about? What sort of energies are you tuning in to? Are your memories mostly of the “fun” or the “trouble”?
Journal afterward, trying to focus on the lesson you can draw from the various scenes, people, and memories that have come up.
Immerse yourself in music and art from a certain place
Check out My Analog Journal on YouTube or Spotify or search for playlists from a country you’ve never been to and know very little about. Spend a day listening to music from there and observe how it makes you feel.
Is there a longing in it? Is it celebratory in a way that’s unfamiliar to you? Does it ooze warmth and proximity or does it linger on silence and stillness?
Bonus points for finding a movie from that same place and watching it in its original language. Both Indiepix and Indieflix have great selections. Do not try to understand. Do not try to assess, evaluate or judge. Try to simply observe. What do you see? What relationships take center stage? What’s different? What’s new?
Tried any of the above? Let me know in the comments!