My summer’s coming to an end, and so while the return of school (and essays and deadlines and ughhh) looms over me, I’ve thought that maybe it’s not such a bad idea to do some reflecting. This particular year has been full of opportunity to travel, allowing me to go to ten countries thus far (and I’m now starting my third year of uni!), so it’s been an exciting and wild ride.
Obviously, by no means would I appoint myself an expert at travelling. Each time is a new experience, a different place. Even revisiting a place doesn’t feel the same. But with these experiences come little pockets of knowledge, of realisations and of lessons that really help going forward. It’s very easy to be caught up in myths and ideas of what a “proper” travel experience should look like, but I’m learning that it’s about carving your own journeys wherever you go.
Here are a few stuff I’ve picked up along the way.
1. It’s okay not to plan your itinerary to a tee
I’ve never really been one to enjoy routine, but there is definitely some security that comes with knowing exactly what’s going to happen next. Before I travel somewhere, I always make an extensive plan of what there is to do, see, eat, try – but the truth is, there’s rarely been a time where I fully follow this plan. Not only does planning minute by minute ignore contingencies and variables that are out of your control, but it also limits the autonomy of your experience.
One of my (few) life policies is, to have no expectations. Planning a trip to the absolute second could mean that you start to build expectations of the place you’re going to. It is important to allow yourself space to appreciate a place for what it is and not for what you thought it would be, and so travelling without a rigid plan can really help.
There are so many little things to enjoy in the unplanned. Spontaneity breeds some of the most memorable adventures. I have managed to stumble upon hidden treasures all because I chose to look up (instead of down at my iPhone map).
2. It’s okay to want to do/enjoy “tourist-y” things
I think about my trip to Lisbon. After we checked into our rooms, we strolled around the area, hoping to stumble on a magical street or some sort of incredible building or something. But we didn’t find much; it was all houses, houses, houses, the locals hanging their washing on the window sills of their balconies just like we did at home.
The next day, we decided to go to the main “tourist” place, Rossio Square, and, yea. It felt as though the city opened up. We began to see familiar names – H&M, Burger King, McDonald’s, Brandy Melville, as well as herds of tourists who, like us, were walking around wide-eyed (while simultaneously recording the moments on our phones). My reaction, however, frustrated me: this version of the city was more excitable to me, but–of course it was. I had been sucked into the tourist trap that I so nicely thought I would’ve learned to avoid.
Thing is, it’s okay to want to go and see the “famous” places. The places that have made you interested or curious about the country, the places that you’ll see on postcards and in movie scenes. Don’t get me wrong: wandering around lesser known streets without a plan (as in the first point) is some magical stuff right there, but the truth is that any city you visit is not primarily there for your enjoyment: a city’s primary aim is to provide a home to its residents. There are people living “normal” lives in a “normal” house like yours back home and who clean their clothes with the same detergent as you do. However, when you visit a foreign country, you expect–or maybe want—it to be a completely different world, so you can feel like you genuinely left home.
Which is all well and good, and it’s why certain districts in a place are flooded with foreigners and others don’t have the same appeal. I’ve seen some people discredit others’ travel experience because they didn’t go out of their way to avoid the popular areas, but that’s not necessarily fair. I reckon that it’s about striking a balance between getting off the main road and digging into the nuances of the foreign city, but also allowing oneself the painful pleasures of queuing four hours to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower – and not feeling guilty about it. Both, and all experiences can be valid and informative in their own way.
3. It’s okay to also immerse yourself in the present – it’s just as interesting as the history
Many a time – especially when visiting older cities such as London (London is a 2000 year old city, compared to [modern] Dubai which began to rise up in the 1960s) – I find that what ideally pops up on a visitor’s itinerary are usually monuments, buildings, and similar eternal symbols of a country’s past. You know, let’s go see this age-old castle built in something B.C. or this statue of soldier who lived some centuries ago. I’m a believer in remembering and honouring the past because history makes up much of what a place and its people are today. Sometimes, though, you may end up only having known about a country’s wars and its heroes but nothing about its present state (pun?).
So, I’ve learned that a place’s heart continues to beat, and it’s just as important to find a way to find a piece of its anatomy.
I’ve learned to go to a museum and learn the history of Van Gogh, but then to also go to a small bar on the corner street and have a conversation with the Dutch bartender. To go to the bell tower of the Notre Dame (and fall down the stairs on your way down, have security shut off the area while trying to administer first aid to you while you explain where you feel pain in terrible french), but to then dangle your legs over the Seine river while speaking (some more poor French) with the Congolese immigrant beside you. Or I’ve maybe learned to just people-watch at a Nandos in Melbourne.
4. It’s okay to eat and/or shop at international brands
Speaking of Nandos…
In my Amsterdam post, I’d said something ‘deep’ about how there’s comfort in familiarity, which can be really helpful when you’re in a foreign country and feel lost and maybe even unsafe. Any Starbucks anywhere will almost likely have wi-fi, and when I was alone and lost in some random, slightly sketchy area at 9pm in London without a working SIM card, the latte-making place really pulled through for me.
When abroad, I’m sure you’ve heard –or even said– something of the sort: “We didn’t come all the way here to eat the same fried chicken you have at home.” But this is, I feel, can sometimes be justified. Again, don’t get me wrong. Trying out local cuisine is an important part of experiencing new places and it plays a role in supporting local businesses. However, at least for me, food can be a bit complicated. In Lisbon, I wasn’t able to try its famous pastéis de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts) because, well, I’m allergic to eggs. Same story with a lot of French pastries. So I’ve learned not to feel ashamed or guilty if what I really, really want is to have is some KFC.
5. It’s okay to not see/do everything a place has to offer
Okay so you have three days in a new country, you don’t know if you’ll ever get the chance to return, you must do everything.
But realistically, you can’t, and you don’t need to. Oh, but that feeling of disappointment when you’re on the flight home and you didn’t even go to the top of the Burj Khalifa, you didn’t even get a picture with a koala in Sydney. How do you even explain that you went there? Like, did you really, truly go to Bali if you didn’t take a picture on a swing?
You feel like, in some way, your trip was a bit of a failure on your part.
But it’s not a failure. The mere fact that you are there, breathing the air of a foreign place and looking around and seeing people and buildings and trees who speak a different way of life than you is incredible enough.
Sometimes the stars may align for you to see all that you wanted, but sometimes this isn’t the case. You may arrive only to find that it rains the entire week. You may find that places are further than you thought, so you can’t make it. But all this is not something to discourage. Rather, it gives you a reason to return, and for me, there’s nothing more hopeful than this.
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