How to travel like a beginner…even if you’re not one – Part 1

Latte: How to travel like a beginner

The next time you eat or drink something familiar, try and imagine what it would be like doing so for the first time.

I’m about to board an airplane for the first time in almost four months. I haven’t gone for this long being grounded in over four years.

At first, I thought I would go stir crazy or miss airline travel. That never happened. Perhaps it is because I look to travel for novelty and adventure and day-to-day life has kindly been supplying more of both than I either anticipated or, in some cases, relished. But in less than 48 hours, I will once again be plane-bound.

This gives me an opportunity — a boost really — to try something I’ve been wanting to share with you for some time. The concept of “beginner’s mind” or Shoshin in Japanese derives from Zen Buddhism and is often associated with the book by Shunryu Suzuki where he states the famous line, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But “beginner’s mind,” like the quote itself, extends far beyond it’s Zen roots and can be applicable to all of us today.

At its heart is the idea of approaching anything, particularly a subject or skill which you have already mastered, with the openness, excitement and receptivity of a beginner. Beginner’s mind is less about memory — remembering back to your first experience with something — and more about confronting that now familiar experience as if it were completely new to you.

You can try this with any familiar object or experience. Take, for instance the act of tasting your favorite food or drink. Let’s say it’s a cup of coffee. The next time you sip a cup of coffee, consciously engage the experience. What are you really tasting? What is it like? Do you taste the bitterness (assuming you haven’t overloaded the drink with sweeteners)? Can you recall how you first reacted to that bitter taste? It likely wasn’t pleasant. So can you now consciously try and imagine what this sip would be like if you’d never tasted coffee before? Feel the liquid warmth. Be aware of how you swallow. Try to describe the aroma to yourself.

You may be wary of the Zen roots or think the whole notion is New Agey, silly or too esoteric. But try it. Because just the act of trying it will reveal how much we have lost our ability to experience the wonder that daily surrounds us. We have become so familiar with the marvels of technology and of nature that we blithely march through our days unaware of all the experiences that would blow our minds if we encountered them all in one day as a complete beginner.

I plan to do my best to approach air travel like a beginner this week. Likely, work pressures and habits will kick in and the best intentions will yield few results. But who knows?

To be continued…

Food tour of Seattle’s International District

Chinatown on a food tour of Seattle's International District

Hing Hay Park was one of our last stops on the food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown

We started our food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown a few weeks ago with, naturally, food.

Cream puffs to be exact.

Our tour, led by Taylor Hoang and assisted by Rayleen Nguyen both of Pho Cyclo Cafe, departed from the Huong Binh Restaurant in Little Saigon. This Vietnamese dining place is run by Taylor’s mom and is, as we’d soon find out, amazingly good. First stop from there: Saigon’s Bakery and Bubble Tea where we tasted scrumptious cream puffs; light and not too sweet.

Cream puff's on food tour of Seattle's International Disrtict

The best cream puffs I’ve ever had are found in Little Saigon on this food tour of Seattle’s International District

I think some of our fellow guests on the 12-person food tour of Seattle’s International District could have gladly just spent the rest of the day there in cream puff heaven. But onward we pressed.

Time to go shopping on the food tour of Seattle’s International District

From there we visited Lam Seafood on King Street near 12th. If you live in the Seattle area and you want fresh produce or seafood, come here.

Indian Bittermelon on the food tour of Seattle's International District

Indian Bittermelon was just one of many fruits and vegetables we don’t see too often at our local grocery store

The prices are in many cases half to a third of what they are in the grocery stores and the selection, at least for Asian foods, is unbeatable.

Taylor explaining Caro on our food tour of Seattle's International District

Here’s Taylor our guide explaining how to look for and prepare caro root at Lam Seafood

We came back later on our own to shop and stock up on sauces, as well as buy from a huge selection of mushrooms, vegetables and fresh fish.

Fish on display at Lam Seafood on food tour of Seattle's International District

At Lam Seafood, you just point to the fish you want and then point to a sign that tells them how you want it prepared.  Compare the prices here with where you normally get your seafood…

Next stop, Thanh Son Tofu. Even if you don’t like tofu, you should check out the very affordable sub sandwiches and other treats they have in this brand new facility. And if you do like tofu or soy milk, well, this is your cream puff of a place…

Sesame balls on food tour of Seattle's International District

These sesame balls are just some of the tasty goodies you’ll find at Thanh Son Tofu even if you don’t like tofu

Back to the Huong Binh Restaurant for a wonderful soup of wontons, pork, shrimp, squid and quail eggs along with celery leaves, chive and fried shallots in a pork broth. That alone could have been lunch enough, but then came the “main course:” Rice noodles, grilled pork, pork meatball and grilled shrimp garnished with lettuce, peanuts, herbs, onions and a delectable sauce. Oh, and cookies for desert. Delighted and satisfied, our food tour of Seattle’s International District could have ended there.

Huong Binh Lunch on food tour of Seattle's International District

Our first course for lunch at Huong Binh. Delicious.

But wait (as they say in infomercials), there’s more on this food tour of Seattle’s International District!

We headed from lunch down to Chinatown where we tasted dim sum, stuffed buns, barbecued pork and coconut-infused rolls. We learned of other places to shop, restaurants to try and gift items to purchase. By the time we finished, we were full. OK, more than full. Stuffed. And not just of food.

We learned so much that day from Taylor that we’d never have uncovered on our own, at least not without considerable time and effort. It reminds me that sometimes a guide can make all the difference in your experience of a place.

Ten Benefits of Using a Guide

In fact, here are ten benefits a guide provides in a new place (or at least did in this situation):

  1. They make you aware of places you’d never find on your own
  2. They introduce you to new people
  3. They introduce you to new food types and sources of ingredients or new products and even ideas
  4. They show you how to use the things (ingredients in this case) you find there that may be unique to that place.
  5. They keep you from getting lost
  6. They vet the good from the bad and show you the best
  7. They make you feel like an insider or like you belong there or have a right to be there
  8. They create a sense of community, with your other group members on the tour and with the people you meet along the way
  9. They increase the number of customers and business for mom and pop stores: You know where your money is going and that it is a good deal. (Unfortunately, with some guides overseas, you are channeled to expensive tourist traps where the guide gets a kickback. Here, the guide does it out of a sense of community and desire to share what is good.)
  10. They show you how to do this yourself next time on your own
King's Barbeque House on food tour of Seattle's International District

Here Taylor explains the various types of roasted meat you can get at King’s Barbeque House on 6th Ave.

And in this case, they also give you a little goody bag with containers for all the food you can’t possibly eat at the time, as well as a coffee press that Taylor showed us how to use at the end of the tour.

This food tour of Seattle’s International District was a wonderful experience that revealed a hidden world in our own neighborhood. It also showed how valuable a guide can be to any place that seems foreign to you…even ones so close to home.

 

Discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood

Discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood like this scene from Seattle's Chinatown

A chance discovery led me to this scene in Seattle’s Chinatown of a store-by-store ritual involving firecrackers and elaborate dances…

How do you discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood? As we saw last time, part of it means being open and paying attention to what goes unnoticed even around your own house or backyard. You can also take this one step further and discover other neighborhoods that you’ve either not known about or ignored for years.

Such was the case for me with Seattle’s Chinatown and International District. I’ve never felt like I really understood the place.

So when I read the Seattle Time’s article about guided food tours in this neighborhood, I was intrigued. What better way to discover a hidden world in my own neighbor than to go with a local guide who knows all the best places?

Taylor Hoang is such a guide. I’ll explain more about her next time and tell you my story of discovering the secret gems of the International District. For now, let me share with you some ways that you can discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood. Let’s look at some reasons why we don’t explore these close-by places and what I’ve learned to do about it.

  • You discount the place because it seems irrelevant. To get beyond that, I tell myself that it may not seem relevant, but how do I know unless I explore it more? Don’t pass by a place and never even give it a chance. Drive through. Or better, get out and walk or bike the area. That’s the best way to discover what might be there that could end up being quite meaningful to you.
  • You never even knew it was there. The food tour revealed places in the International District, some just one block away from streets I’ve wandered along many times, that were revelations to me. One strategy is to look more thoroughly by getting off the main drags and exploring the side streets. Another is, as we’ll see next time, to find a guide who knows the hidden places. Yet another is to read up on the place. Get a guidebook of your own city. Read the local papers and magazines that talk about openings, tours, festivals and events. Or go online and check out these sites/apps:
    • TripAdvisor City Guides with user insights and ratings for key sites in some of the largest cities around the country…and around the world.
    • Here.com (or even Google Maps) which may not give you tips on sites to see, but shows points of interest and even street-level views of certain neighborhoods.
    • Sosh.com — This social networking site provides great insights and connections for a few major cities including Seattle.
    • Vayable.com — Probably the best of the bunch for finding local guides, Vayable offers access to people who know their neighborhoods and key sites in major cities all over.
  • You don’t know the good from the bad. This one is tougher. You almost need a guide or recommendations from locals. So do what we often do. Build on your connections. Meet a nice shop owner or person at the local museum. Ask where they’d recommend for lunch. Once there, ask the waiter about good places to buy food or other items. Once there…you get the idea. Sure, you’ll get subjective responses. But these are still more informed than your own limited knowledge of the place. Besides, they give you “next steps” for further exploration and you never know what that will lead to…including the simple delight in meeting all these new people along the way.
  • You feel like an outsider. Especially in ethnic neighborhoods, you can really stand out. Great. It’s good practice for traveling abroad. And in many cases, it helps you empathize with how people in these neighborhoods must feel interacting with the majority culture around them. Plus, you may quickly discover that your own curiosity and excitement about the place is contagious. In most cases, people respond well when they know you’re genuinely interested in the neighborhood where they live and work. Talk to a few locals, get some next step recommendations and soon you’ll feel like a native (or at least comfortable enough to continue).
  • You don’t know what to look for. You can simply explore and see what happens. I did this once in a park next to Seattle’s Chinatown and International District. I had no plan, just an hour to kill waiting for my son at baseball practice. But then I heard a sound like gunfire and I went a few blocks to discover a ceremony going on complete with dragon dance and fireworks. So just exploring may open up opportunities. Or make a quest: Look for a certain kind of food or product or type of store. Seemingly silly “games” or “treasure hunts” of your own making can help you discover hidden worlds within the hidden worlds in your own neighborhood.

So give these a try. But most of all, follow de Botton’s advice and simply develop an attitude of receptivity, being open to everything that comes your way. You may soon discover more hidden worlds in your own neighborhood — literally and figuratively — than you ever imagined.

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.