Discover hidden worlds in your own backyard

Snail drinking water: a discovery of a world in your own backyard

I ran across this thirsty little fella in Rothenburg, Germany, but it could have been in my own backyard…if I would simply take the time to pay better attention.

How many hidden worlds lie in your own backyard? More than you may realize.

Literally, if you were to pay close attention to all the details of your home or backyard, you’d be amazed by what you find. Xavier de Maistre did just that.

Journey around your own room

In 1790, de Maistre wrote a book, Journey Around My Room. According to Alain de Botton in one of my favorite books, The Art of Travel, de Maistre engaged in a different form of travel. No baggage, carriages or ships to deal with. Simply the decision to observe what was all around him but rarely noticed.

Locking the door to his room and donning a pair of pink and blue pajamas, de Maistre began to see the familiar in new ways, discovering hidden worlds in his own bedroom. De Botton notes that:

… de Maistre’s work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of…South America.

That mind-set is essentially one of being receptive which is easy to do when we encounter the new and exotic. Less so in our own backyards. As de Botton comments,

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new in a place we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.

It starts with actually seeing what you see

Paying better attention and truly noticing the wonder in your own backyard is one way to overcome this blindness. Another is to seek out new places in your own neighborhood that you’ve never visited or observed closely before.

If you live in our near a large city, you’ll likely find many neighborhoods you’ve never explored in depth. Living near Seattle, one such area for me is Seattle’s Chinatown and International District.

This neighborhood is one of those places I normally just pass through on my way to some other destination. Or on the few times I’ve wandered through there, I’ve felt adrift, desirous of some new discovery but usually unsure of what to look for. At times, through no hostility but more a sense of disconnection, I’ve felt like I just don’t belong there.

All this changed for me a few weeks ago.

A glance at an article in our local paper started a chain of events that helped me to discover the hidden worlds in my own backyard so much better. I’ll explain more about this over the next few entries here. But for now, think about what it means for you to discover hidden worlds in your own backyard. It may be a neighborhood you’ve never visited before. Or it may mean opening your eyes — being receptive, as de Botton notes — to what surrounds you every day.

And no, you don’t need to don a pair of pink and blue pajamas to see it.

 

The myth of the unique travel experience

Workers at the Eiffel Tower, a unique travel experience

So what if millions of other people have been to the Eiffel Tower before you. It’s still a unique travel experience FOR YOU especially when you see it in a new way as with these workers silhouetted at dusk.

You travel far off any known tourist map to encounter what you believe will be a unique travel experience. No one there speaks your language or appears to have ever encountered a Westerner before. You learn enough of the local language which, combined with gestures worthy of Marcel Marceau or an Academy Award, get you by.

You come home from this seemingly unique travel experience. You post stories and photos on your Facebook page. Tweet about it. Tell everyone you know about your unique travel experience.

Then one day, a friend sends you a link to someone else’s travel blog. You read about her unique travel experience. Maybe it was to the same place you visited. Or maybe someplace completely different. But the emotions she felt, the wonder she discovered, the authenticity of the culture, the change in her perspective – her very life – it all seems uncomfortably familiar.

In fact, her unique travel experience sounds just like your unique travel experience. The one you now realize may not have been so unique…

Dealing with disappointment

At one point in my life, this realization would have really bugged me. I used to feel that if my trip wasn’t a unique travel experience, then somehow, it was diminished. If I ran into other travelers, especially other Americans, then the “authenticity” of the experience took a hit. It simply wasn’t as special.

I used to also believe that if someone else didn’t say “Goodnight” after I did as I went to bed, monsters would get me in the night. You might be surprised at the effort it takes to ensure that your “Goodnight” isn’t the final word.

Thankfully, I outgrew the “Goodnight” fear around age ten. It’s taken me a bit longer with the obsession of having a unique travel experience.

But here’s what did it.

I’ve come to realize that while a completely unique travel experience may seem to be a myth, the reality is this: It doesn’t matter.

Why?

Why the idea of a unique travel experience makes no difference

  1. The very term “unique” implies some kind of comparison. And comparisons, at least of experiences, rarely help or add any value. What do you ever gain by comparing your trip to someone else’s?
  2. The fact that others have similar emotional responses to their trips that you had to yours isn’t a downer. It’s a cause for celebration. How cool is it that deep down we share a common humanity that enables us to enter into a mutual experience? If you see your unique travel experience as a form of community and not a competition, it enhances rather than detracts from the experience.
  3. Discovery is personal. This is one of my pet maxims about travel. You can visit some place like Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramid, places millions before your have seen, and guess what? It’s still a discovery for you. It is and always will be a unique travel experience because there is only one you. Others may have similar responses, but they’ll never be exactly the same.

So enjoy your unique travel experience. Or rather, don’t even think about it as such. Think about it as a meaningful experience. To you. And if others have had similar ones, great. That just gives you one more topic you can enthusiastically dive into with that couple you share a train compartment with on your next trip. Because it is likely you share so much more.

 

Get the most out of a guidebook

How to get the most out of a guidebook: Rosserrilly Friary

Only one guidebook out of a half dozen or so for Ireland mentioned this hidden gem we had all to ourselves (and the sheep and the cows)

How do you get the most out of a guidebook?

In today’s interconnected world, you wonder if the guidebook itself is becoming an anachronism, a throwback to a time when people read actual newspapers and a social network usually involved a potluck. So I’m less concerned with the medium in which the information is presented – books, printouts of PDFs, downloadable e-books, podcasts, phone apps or live access to Web sites while traveling. The question to me is this: Is the content of value to the traveler?

I know of some travelers who say no.

The case against guidebooks

Those who oppose guidebooks say that such aids:

  • Prevent or at least hinder personal discovery
  • Lead you to the same places everyone else goes and reinforce stereotypes
  • Err on the side of the safe, tried and true international hotels and restaurants rather than local ones, or, when they do come across an indigenous find, they ruin it by telling everyone. That hidden gem then becomes as private as a Royal Wedding.

How to get the most out of a guidebook

I agree with those points to some degree. But to me, it all comes down to how you use a guidebook. Here are some thoughts on how to get the most out of a guidebook (the written kind of guides; we’ll save the subject of live tour guides for another time).

  • Realize that all discovery is personal. Just because a million people have been to the same place before doesn’t make it any less meaningful for you the first time you go there.
  • Use the guidebook as a starting point. Use it to identify places and events that sound interesting to you and to avoid those that don’t. The primary value to me of a guidebook is that it saves me time. Think of it as a filter, not the final word on what to see.
  • Don’t settle for just one perspective. I always go to the library and check out as many guidebooks as I can. I’ll usually end up buying one or two to take or photocopy (or more recently, download onto a Kindle or my smart phone), but I only purchase the one that most aligns with my style, needs for this particular trip and travel sensibilities. Look over several and find what works for you.
  • Focus on both the similarities and differences. Most guidebooks will overlap 80-90% in what they cover, at least in terms of the sights to see. That 90% will include the popular, touristy places. But read carefully for the other 10%. In the details listed in only one book, you often encounter some of the most interesting finds, places you’d never discover on your own.
  • Cast your guidebook aside once you get your bearings. Guidebooks serve well to provide you with background, an initial orientation and some possible places to consider you might never find on your own. But once you get there, you’ll experience more meaningful encounters through talking with locals and other travelers and making your own discoveries.

All of the above points matter, but here’s how I get the most out of a guidebook and why I use them: They prime me for openness.

That may seem counter-intuitive because if anything, you may think that guidebooks close you by pointing you toward the same old sights and foisting someone else’s perceptions on you. But to me, by having a greater background and familiarity with the popular sights and even other people’s opinions courtesy of the guidebook, I’m actually free to look around more on my own without worrying about what I might miss.

What about you? How do you use guidebooks? Or do you? Do you just show up and wing it? Has your use changed over time? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts on what works for you.

Best travel advice ever

The best travel advice: stack of books on Peru

Read through these, learn what you can then forget it all…

Okay, maybe this isn’t the BEST travel advice I ever received, but it ranks up there with don’t drink the water, pack light and never accept marriage proposals from strange men in Nigeria.

I could throw in, “Don’t dine near cats in Greece” but only my friend Ed would fully appreciate the value of that insight.

The so-called “best” advice came to me from another friend, Ty, when I was in grad school preparing for my first trip to Asia. He had spent some time in Hong Kong and similar places, so in my eyes, that made him an expert on the region. But his advice applies no matter where you go. And that advice is this:

When you’re planning a trip, talk to as many people as you can who have been to that place, read as much as you can, learn as much as you can.

And then forget everything.

What makes this the best travel advice?

His point was that it is easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information you can take in before a trip, especially today when just about every place you will visit has been documented by travel advice Web sites and bloggers. So visit these Web sites, read the books, look at the photos, watch the videos and talk to everyone you know who has been there.

When you do, you’ll start to discern patterns and uncover topics and places of interest to you. But before you reach that point of over-saturation, stop. Just stop. Put the whole trip, as much as is possible, out of your mind. And then you’ll discover an interesting aspect about our brains.

Your subconscious brain processes far more than you realize. So when I say, “Forget everything,” in reality, you can’t. The important points will stick and when it comes time for your trip, the things that stood out as you were absorbing all the advice earlier will come back to you.

Don’t throw out the guidebooks just yet

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer, where appropriate, in taking guidebooks, printouts/notes or downloads with you on your trip. You’ll want to refer to those for the details once you’re onsite. But for now, read, learn and absorb and then as they say – at least in the movies about New York gangsters – “fuggedaboudit.”

I followed this advice a while back for a trip to Peru. I went to the library, got all the books I could, skimmed through them to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and then put them aside. I did review them again shortly before the trip and took some of the best ones with us, mostly on my Kindle. Just knowing they were there was enough to let me not obsess about having to remember it all. It made for a far more enjoyable experience.

Try it. It may not be the best travel advice ever, but you’ll find it not only helps you in the anticipation phase, but also adds value on the trip when the sights trigger nuggets of insight you read or heard about earlier.

And it sure beats the heck out of dining with cats in Greece…

 

Unnecessary trips and why they matter

Untanum TracksSome of the best journeys are the ones you don’t need to go on, the seemingly unnecessary trips.

I’m referring to the unplanned, spontaneous kinds. The ones with no worry about reservations or itineraries, no concern for what you’ll see or do. They are the trips that just happen, not out of necessity, but just because you can.

Don’t get me wrong: I love planning trips. Oftentimes, anticipation is one of the best parts of travel. However, along with the preparation and forethought can come unnecessary expectations of the place you’re visiting, the people you hope to meet or the ones with whom you’re traveling (including yourself!).

Sometimes the unexpected trip is better: You just show up and take whatever comes your way.

The value of unnecessary trips

My family and I did this a while back. We knew we had to be in Ellensburg, Washington on a Saturday for my oldest son’s performance at the State Finals for high school musicians. That was the “necessary” trip. However, we stayed overnight and took off Sunday morning to hike a nearby trail (Untanum Creek Canyon) I had once heard about.

The only planning consisted of making the decision the night before to go there and then asking for directions the next morning. The rest was a spontaneous, totally unnecessary trip on a gorgeous day that included crossing over a suspension bridge, under some railroad tracks (pictured above), hiking along a creek past beaver dams and seeing a herd of bighorn sheep on the walls of the canyon that surrounded us.

Untanum Creek Canyon

Would the day have been any different had we planned it out and made it an intentional destination rather than one of many unnecessary trips? Who knows? But by not thinking much about it before we got there, it added to the surprise factor of the day. It made our explorations feel like more of a discovery despite the dozen other people on the trail. These were people who clearly planned out their adventure more than we did (the backpacks were a good indicator…).

Fishing on the Yakima River near Untanum

Unnecessary trips and living your life

I’ve recently been reading Paul Theroix’s book, The Tao of Travel. He doesn’t address unnecessary trips per se, But the book does contain quotes from his own travel tales and insights from many other traveler writers over the years. One quote of his I read last night applies here:

“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”

When you incorporate little surprise trips within your daily life, both are enhanced. Sure, you have to carve out the time for even the short trip. But too often I find I use lack of time as an excuse to do nothing.

Instead, this recent family hike reminded me of how much room there is in this world: room in my schedule if I make it so, room in the places around me to explore and room in my life for growth and possibility.

When I consider it this way, maybe these small, spontaneous adventures – these so-called unnecessary trips – aren’t so unnecessary after all…