Thursday, January 28, 2016

Travel for travel's sake

Making friends with two little boys in Laos
I love to travel. Ever since I was a little girl and was taken on seaside holidays with my family, I've enjoyed the excitement of planning and packing, and then hitting the road. Nowadays I just want to explore as much of the world as I can. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, "I travel not to go anywhere but to go." New places not look and sound different, they also smell wonderfully foreign. I've learned a lot over the years about how to make holidays more enjoyable, mostly from my own mistakes and by talking to others. I've written before about what to pack and how to plan for a trip, but here is my take on a mindset and attitude to adopt when embarking on a trip.

Friendly pooches and divine sangria on a lazy afternoon in Barcelona
Don't overplan.

Being the semi control freak that I am, I tend to overthink and agonize over every detail of the trip I'm making. Of course, stuff like accommodation is important and I make sure that rooms are booked in advance, in order to avoid last minute disappointments. I also try to learn a little of the transportation system in the city I'm going to, so that I find my way around easily. Most cities now have maps that can be downloaded and used offline - a great boon. I usually research places to visit and restaurants to dine at, so that I can sample the local delights. But rather than carry around a color-coded binder of information covering every possible nuance of the trip and trying to get to every item in it, I've learned that it's often more enjoyable to simply wing it. Spontaneous experiences, like ducking into a tiny little bistro that caught my eye in Barcelona and having the best sangria of my life, are what make travel so awesome.

Don't overpack.

Unless you're going on a cruise where you have to dress for dinner every night, resist the temptation to bring everything including stilettos and a few dresses "just in case". If I'm heading somewhere cold, I just make sure I have enough thermals to layer with a few t-shirts and pairs of pants. One pair of shoes and a warm jacket will more than suffice. I bring along a pair of those free bedroom slippers some hotels provide so that I have something to wear indoors. It's even easier if where I'm staying has laundry facilities because it means I can bring even less clothing. I marvel at travelers who manage to travel with just a carry-on bag. I've often wondered what they have in it to see them through their trip. My toiletry bag alone takes up quite a bit of space in my check-in bag, but I'm working towards taking only true essentials.

A leisurely canal walk in London
Hit the ground walking.

Join a tour like one of those hop-on-hop-off buses by all means if you have limited time as it's a great way to see a city in a day. But for getting to know a place really well, nothing beats walking. When you wander along streets and explore neighborhoods that tour buses can't get to, you'll get a real feel of the place. I've been to Hong Kong many times in the past but usually traveled around by car. It was only a couple of years ago when I accompanied a friend who wanted to take lots of pictures of buildings (she's an architect) that I got a glimpse of bustling alleys and gritty lanes that locals frequent. Recently when I went to London, I downloaded a self-guided walking tour along the canals of the city and discovered a green, tranquil haven that I wouldn't have usually associated with this bustling city.

Don't be a slave to technology.

Sure, since the advent of the smartphone and tablet, life is much easier. We can book our tickets and keep track of our reservations online. We use our devices to keep in touch with our families at home. Everyone at the office knows that an email or text will reach you wherever you are, and expects a response immediately. Too often on my travels, I've observed others either glued to their phones or intent on taking selfless, that they forget what's around them. I am able to absorb everything fully when my devices are safely stowed away, and I can happily focus my attention on exploring.

A contemplative little boy in Seville
Watch and learn.

I love observing others. Whether I'm at an airport, a cafe in a foreign city or a park somewhere, I can spend hours just watching the world go by. I'm not naturally an extrovert so I don't normally strike up conversations with strangers easily. But I find that the times I do open up to people, they love talking and sharing their experiences. I've always been struck by the kindness people show, especially when they know I am a visitor in their land. They will go out of their way to help, whether it's with directions or a suggestion for a restaurant. It's usually these sort of encounters that stay with me for years to come.

Don't wait.

All my life I've wanted to travel, and I've managed to go to many places that I used to dream about. I don't have a bucket list per se, but I love exploring countries which offer not only beautiful sights but loads of history, culture, interesting peoples and cuisines. When I have extra money at my disposal, I plan more elaborate trips that cost more, but awesome trips don't have to cost an arm and a leg. When I have less to spend, I still plan to go somewhere nearby that won't cost as much. I'm a firm believer that we learn so much through travel. Not the kind that whizzes you through so many countries in as many days so that you can show off the stamps in your passport, but spending some time in a place and getting to know it better. I know I won't be able to get to all the places I want to travel to in the world. That's why I've stopped keeping a bucket list. But I intend to keep traveling while I'm physically able, because, well, time is running out.

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