Through talking with other travelers and living on the road myself, I’ve realized something that might seem obvious in theory, but a little more out of reach in practice. The most exciting part of travel is discovery. It´s that feeling of awe. Of being overcome with beauty after seeing something for the very first time, a new part of the world, and most importantly something completely unexpected.
Of course you don’t have to travel to experience awe, but I think mentioning this in the context of travel is interesting. Last year I read this article in the NYT by By Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner (a short and sweet, must-read!) about why we experience awe, and how important it is to feel this emotion regularly. A few excerpts I loved:
We humans, by contrast, can get goose bumps when we experience awe, that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.
Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another.
Of course I think you can experience awe just through the tiniest things. I am someone that becomes excited by the most random things, like this funny article at The Onion about a couple verbalizing everything they see at the farmers market! Hahaha! I´ll become completely beside myself over things like: beautiful laundry waving in the wind, a granny’s lovely face as I am out for my morning walk, the way a cup of tea is presented, flowery weeds poking up in the sidewalk. I’ve found my most awe-inspiring moments in travel come through these small finds, and through the unexpected. And that´s where this idea of no research comes in.
I’ve found a lot of people research the crap out of their trips. I´ve been known to do it a little for sure, Googling every image to see what a place looks like, picking up a shiny new travel guide at Powell´s in anticipation, of course these are all part of the travel process and the enjoyment!
But I have found with myself and with others, some of the most memorable moments and connections with others come through doing no research at all.
I’ve literally showed up in a country with just a place to stay (sometimes not that either) and no expectations or plans, and just wander. I sometimes like to avoid looking at a map for the first couple days. And I know this does not make me an ideal travel companion, particularly for the more Type A people.
But what I find in the aimless wandering, with no idea where I am going or what to expect around the corner, are these awe-filled moments. Every single thing I see is mind-boggling! As an extreme example, imagine you’d never heard of the Louvre, and you just happened upon it while wandering around Paris! I mean wouldn’t it have even more impact for you? While of course there is so much joy and fun in the dreaming, sometimes, poring over pictures and reading everything before you go someplace has this sort of meh, result, particularly when there are loads of tourists standing taking the same photo (a crowd I never like to be in just because I hate that theme-park feeling).
After getting lost a lot, next, I love to be shown around town by a local. People sometimes ask, “Why did you connect so much with Lisbon?” And there are a few answers for that. But one of them is that I really knew nothing about the city. I had seen glimpses of it but I literally did not Google a photo, did not read a travel guide. I came here, I wandered, within days I met locals who showed me around ( to secret spots but also to major tourist ones) and I was blown away by everything! Because I had absolutely no expectation!
Another city this happened to me in was Budapest. I had a 12 hour layover, a friend and I took the subway into the center, picked a stop to get out of, we happened to pick the right one, and I was close to tears when I came up out of the subway from the architecture I saw.
Of course after a few days, I like to pick up a map, get recs from locals and other travelers and start reading about what I am seeing. I’ve come to realize to that this is really personal to me because I am a hands-on learner. This is why public school was never a good match for me. I like to experience something first, then study it, then experience it some more. So I understand this is some people´s idea of the worst trip ever and makes me a frightful traveling companion for a lot of people, however if you are up for it, I challenge you to take a day on your next trip to wander with no map and no expectations!
I know this isn´t the only way to travel and obviously if you are traveling around a festival, special event, or to a seemingly unsafe area, research is in your favor, but I do find a little bit of ignorance when traveling can be quite blissful and also cause you to connect with other people. Stop a stranger to ask directions. Talk to locals about recommendations. The biggest thing I learned on the road is how kind people are and how important it was to make that extra step out of my comfort zone to talk to a stranger.
I like to sometimes express my ignorance on a subject, and ask another person, who I consider an expert on it, lots of questions. And sometimes people say, “Why don´t you just Google it?” And I say, “Because this is a way of connecting to another human.” My brother likes to remind me that stories used to be passed down orally. Imagine, your next travel tips coming from the people around you, strangers, and new friends, and your own wanderings and discoveries? It´s just that much more meaningful and might spark a new connection you’d never imagine.
Photo: Lisa Warninger.