For me, it is all about culture, landscape, food, architecture, and people – although not necessarily in that order. When I travel, my priorities change from day to day. But this is exactly why I travel. It puts me in situations I may never have imagined and spurs me to do things I thought I never could. It also provides me with new perspective on life. Most importantly, I suppose, through travel I have learned that people are generally kind and – despite its many pitfalls – the world is a fairly safe and basically good place. I never cease to be impressed by the “kindness of strangers.” Many have become friends. China is a country that has never really gotten under my skin and yet it has begun to touch me. I am very aware that it is the people I have befriended who have made this happen. In the end, one of the most central aspects of travel is learning to connect with people.
We all learn about other countries through films, media coverage, books, etc., but actually experiencing new places and people first-hand is a very different thing. Stereotypes and expectations have to be set aside. I find that the best way to get a good sense of a country is by adapting to its culture, pace, language, etc. As soon as I started travelling, I realised that I needed to learn at least the very basics about the cultures of the countries I was going to visit. I always make sure that I have key words and phrases to use – however poorly I may pronounce them. It is easy, and a very good idea, to laugh and smile a lot; this usually goes a long way in winning people over. And, of course, I always try to show great respect to people I meet. All of these small efforts ultimately enhance my experience and help me connect with those I encounter.
I enjoy being an explorer. I have travelled to few places (and yet, more than most people – I am fantastically fortunate) and feel compelled to return to almost every country I have visited, so that I can delve further in. The first time I go somewhere, I tend to do too much, afraid that I may not have a chance to return. When I am, fortuitously, able to visit again, I attempt to cover less ground and probe more deeply. Slowly, all too slowly, I am learning to experience new places by taking the time to just be. Travel is a voyage of discovery – not only of the unknown but of oneself. This voyage has become an inevitable and inseparable part of my life.
What I most savour is wandering, getting (a little) lost, and exploring neighbourhoods that are off the beaten path, so that I can get a sense of how people live. At times I feel as if I must look like a gawker to those who inhabit these communities. However, it is my endless curiosity about people that leads me there; I look for differences from, and similarities to, my own life experiences. I’ve been to Paris three times but have only visited museums there twice. There are so many districts, streets, parks and gardens, restaurants, cafes, markets, etc. to explore. It’s certainly not that I avoid museums, but in new cities I venture in only if there is something that I really want to see. At heart, I would rather spend my time meandering and observing, interacting with and learning about other people.
I have learned that travel can ground you in the present, if you are able to immerse yourself in each moment of your day-to-day experiences. These experiences can take you outside your comfort zone but they also make you face yourself – both your strengths and your weaknesses – and push you to adapt and to manage all manner of new exploit.
Of course, one of the best ways to get to know a new place is by eating there. Food. Glorious food. I adore it. I am almost always willing to try new and different flavours, textures, meats, vegetables. I like to eat and I like to eat well. I am always in search of the best local food. But enjoying a cuisine is not the same as understanding the customs of a country with regard to its food. I have learned not just about different dishes, but also ways to order and eat them. In restaurants in China, for instance, at first I would shyly try to catch the attention of the wait person but eventually I adopted the body language and tone of voice of the local customers and I too, brazenly and loudly call out “fuwuyuan!” (waiter!).
When ordering from street-food carts and small stalls, which in China and Southeast Asia are often devoted to one type of food, one has no choice but to order what they make. When I go into a restaurant with a menu, only to find that it has no English translation or photographs (menus with photographs are actually common) I’ve learned just to look at what others are eating and point – I want this, I want that. I always try to learn the rules of eating in the countries I visit, by either asking people I have befriended or watching others. In China, for example, only a foreigner uses a spoon to scoop up food from a communal dish and put it on his/her own. The Chinese just take their chopsticks and eat directly from the central dish, with little ceremony. If there are bones, they are discarded (or sometimes spat) on the table beside the individual’s plate.
I am always on the lookout for the new, and the familiar, in this vast landscape of food. But natural landscapes spur me on too. As much as I adore city life, and am a city girl by nature, I also have a strong urge at times, to get away from it – often far away – from people, from concrete and glass, from the confines of our man-made world. The arts have always been part of the inspiration for my globe-trotting. As I have had the luxury to travel, I have learned that whether it’s the craggy and volcanic terrain of Iceland; the karst mountains and river-ways in Guangxi Province, China; the wats that are slowly being enveloped by Cambodia’s natural landscape; the Canadian prairies; or the desert of the American Southwest, the natural world is a stunning place and it calls out to the artist in me. My favourite way to see the world is with my camera in hand, so that I can capture both the vast views and the smallest details of my surroundings. These often magnificent landscapes are impossible to describe in words. Therefore, I will let the following photographs say it all:
There is also a darker side to travelling in developing countries (something I never considered until I visited Southeast Asia); one encounters quite a bit of poverty. How do I deal with poverty and other tragedies I witness in some of the places I have travelled to? I have seen people on the street (often missing limbs) begging. Sometime they are with their young children – or they just send their children out for the day to do the begging themselves. Do I ignore all of this? Acknowledge those on the streets who beg, with a nod of my head? Volunteer briefly somewhere? I have done the first two. I’m ashamed to say I have not done the latter, although I have thought about it, often. I feel I have no choice but to try to shut it out and make an effort, instead, to buy as locally as possible, in shops where I know people work extraordinarily hard, long hours. I also visit NGOs. Still, I cannot forgive myself for remaining outwardly indifferent to those in need. As a Westerner and a First World traveller I have faced this often in China and Southeast Asia. It is worth noting, though, that I’ve also had the same experience in North America.
But both in my own country and while travelling, I have, on occasion, attempted to engage, and even bought a meal for, some of the impoverished people whom I’ve met on the street. I have been glad when I did so, that I did not simply turn my head, and instead chose to connect, however briefly. Confronting these issues and our own discomfort with them is not easy; it takes time and effort. I now feel compelled to volunteer in a community in need, when I return home, and may consider joining a service-based trip to an impoverished region somewhere in the world, in my future travels.
Everywhere I go, I have had to learn to embrace the differences and the cultures and not feel guilty about being an outsider who clearly comes from a wealthy country. However much I have learned in seven months in China, or three weeks in Italy, as a visitor I will never do more than scratch the surface. The truth of the matter is that despite having made friends who live in Beijing, Xingping, or Kunming, or befriended the people who sell me baozi or coffee daily, I am and always will simply be a tourist. I attempt to connect, but the cultural and linguistic differences often make it difficult to truly do so.
I have a friend who takes tours when she travels. She has asked me several times to join her, and says that tours take you to places you might not otherwise easily see. I enjoy travelling on my own for the very same reason. There are many benefits to independent travel. I set my own pace, schedule, and itinerary. I eat what I want, whenever and wherever I feel like it. I decide my daily activities and go with the flow as each day unfolds. I can stick to my plan for a particular day, but I may just as easily deviate from it and do something different. I choose whether to take a day or night train, or bus, or whether, instead, I want to fly somewhere. Although I’ve never gone on a tour, I suspect that I have more opportunities on my own, to chat with locals and even other travellers, than do people on tours. Guided groups may be logistically easier, but really they are just another, and to my mind more limited, way of seeing the world. The fact remains that however one travels, solo or with a group, we are all tourists.
Many friends and family members tell me I am brave to travel solo in places that are so foreign to my Western cultural upbringing. I don’t think I am particularly brave; this is simply what I want to do. And by travelling on my own, I have learned some important things about myself.
My voyage of discovery has led me to many places and has changed me in a number of ways. I have learned to manage with less and laugh more. By travelling on my own, I have had to become more outgoing and sociable, and my many adventures (and even misadventures) have left me feeling confident and adaptable. In essence, learning more about the world and how other people live, makes me feel like my own world has expanded. I would like to think that I am more easy-going now, although I don’t know if family and friends would completely agree with this: after all, I am who I am…. But having survived my many travel mistakes, from being bitten by a dog in Laos, to several brushes with travel scams, I now feel that I’m just not as troubled when things go wrong. I have learned that there is no point in being stressed out; when you go with the flow, things have a way of working out perfectly fine.
For those of you who are beginning to feel your wanderlust grow beyond being satisfied by a long weekend here, or a two-week vacation there, I offer just a few tips that have helped me in my travels.
- Plan, but also try to go with the flow: When I plan a short vacation overseas, I tend to over-schedule. Create a skeleton of a strategy first, and firm up the more important logistical details before you leave on your voyage, but always make sure you allow for flexibility. You will discover, by speaking with locals or fellow travellers, that your expectations and goals may change.
- Set your budget: You do not need infinite funds to see the world but you do need to know what you can afford. Your money will carry you farther if you travel in places like Southeast Asia. It will, of course, run out much more quickly in North America or Europe.
- Pack lightly: I travel with very little – I have been away from home since the beginning of August and travel with a carry-on bag and a day pack, and this includes a camera with three lenses and a travel tripod. Washing items by hand is a simple endeavour and, depending on where you find yourself, it costs very little to have your clothes cleaned for you. Remember, if you need anything else, you can always buy it.
- Be adaptable: Travelling for a longer period of time can really take you outside your comfort zone. Depending on where you travel, chances are transportation will not run like clock-work. Each new environment provides different challenges and no two places are exactly alike. Consider the situation, stay calm, and adapt accordingly.
- Eat well and remain open-minded: In most of the world, food is a central link to culture, tradition and family. Do not be afraid to try food that may be utterly foreign to you. Ask locals, such as guesthouse employees, taxi or tuk tuk drivers, where they eat. Consider taking a cooking class. I have done so in the past, have learned a lot about why a cuisine uses particular ingredients, and have thoroughly enjoyed myself.
- Do not be afraid to venture off the beaten path: But also, don’t ignore more heavily explored areas. There is good in both, and keeping your eyes and heart open to each will allow you to connect to a place and people.
- Respect the local culture.
- Learn a few words of the language of the country you are travelling in. This will carry you a long way! Ask questions of locals and other travellers. When given the chance, most people will be glad to have a conversation with you – even if you end up using a sign language of sorts to communicate.
- Establish a routine: Visit the same restaurant, cafe, fruit stand as often as you can – even daily, if possible. You’ll get to know the people there. It is always a pleasure to become an honourary part of the community, if only for a short while.
- Stay connected with friends and family. It will make travel easier for you. Today, long distance communication is easier than ever, via email and Skype. At times these modes of communication are a life-saver!
- Trust your gut.
- Pace yourself and allow for downtime. It has taken me years to figure this one out.
- Have fun! Learn! Maybe you can even blog about it!