How to make your travel experience meaningful
We all travel for different reasons and because of that we all have different experiences even if we travel to the same destination.
The more I travel the more I realise that what I am actually looking for is human connection. I have come to understand that interaction is the key to really understanding a destination.
Here are some tips to make your travel more meaningful:
1. Make time
This may seem appallingly obvious but what I really mean is that you make time to do nothing to let these interactions happen. You will not have time to meet someone new, sit down and talk and enjoy a conversation if you are rushing another meal to speed onto a new destination.
The same goes with experiences in general, it is hard to appreciate the beauty around you if you do not sit and take a breather so try and enjoy the coffee for more than 5 minutes, don't scoff down that meal and leave - luxuriate for 15 minutes, maybe even talk to the waiter, what do they like to do in their spare time? Where do the locals go? What would they recommend to see in their town that isn't touristy?
Or, even better for the avid photographer, where would they suggest getting the best vantage point for a great photograph of that famous monument?
2. Stay in the same location for a while
Staying in one place for a few days allows you the freedom of time, to explore without feeling restricted. It also allows you to meet again with the people you encounter at first and doing so builds reciprocal trust and maybe even a new friendship. It also allows for those really exciting impromptu escapades, you may get invited to a dinner or something really special like a wedding.
While we were in Vietnam we decided to explore the winding roads of the highlands of Dalat. We found ourselves on an unsealed road winding into the hills and happened upon a small, I guess you would call it a, caul de sac where many small children were playing. We parked the bike and saw a sign for 'coffee' we wandered into what seemed like a small wooden shed and spent the next 3 hours sitting around a small table with a woman from a small minority tribe, who spoke remarkable English, and her friends sipping coffee. We were welcomed so warmly you would have thought we had been friends since childhood and it would not have happened if we had not decided to extend our stay in Dalat.
3. Be open
We have been fortunate, living abroad in an Asian culture, we have been conditioned to think some things are very normal such as being approached on the street by people just wanting to have a conversation with us and practice their English. In Australia this sort of interaction would have been strange or downright unsettling.
Remember what is normal for one culture is not the same for another. Many cultures are fine with approaching strangers to inquire about their name and engage in conversation. The same goes with the types of questions they may ask you, in Korea, for example, questions regarding; age, marital status, weight, and exercise and health regimes are not taboo at all.
Try not to be offended, be open, answer the questions with a smile and you may find you will learn much more.
4. Get mobile
Often the 'real' experiences are nowhere near town, here it really pays to venture into the towns and take a little stroll. A great way to do this, if you are in a country where such things are done, is to rent a scooter or motorbike and take to the road to find a small town where you can wander about and meet people.
Some of my favorite experiences to date have been rocking up in a very very small town and wandering around the small houses and having all of the townspeople come out to look at the 'foreigners' and they delight in showing us their musical skills and their babies. I have really loved seeing a different aspect of life far apart from those lived in the city.
5. Don't be scared
Leave your preconceptions at home, not everyone is out to scam you. It may shock you that someone you have just met is asking you to come in for coffee but in many cultures it is perfectly normal. Of course use your intuition, if the situation seems off politely decline or come back with someone you trust.
On a trip to Sri Lanka we had intended to visit a local tea factory but, as fortune would have it, is was closed due to Sinhalese New Year. Our tuk tuk driver wanted to whisk us away back to town but we heard some wonderful music wafting up the hills from the small town below. Dean and I turned to each other and said 'let's go down there' pointing in the direction of a small Tamil temple. We did, and what occurred next is a memory we will cherish forever. At first a small girl came out to greet us, then the men of the community took us into the temple and showed us their rituals and their Gods. After that we stayed and met everyone in the town and we laughed together. We were so touched by the generosity of the people that when we returned to Australia we sent a big package of treats and stationary to them along with the photographs we had taken together. We got a letter in the post a couple of months later thanking us.
6. Be flexible
It may be disheartening when travel plans go array. You may have been really looking forward to seeing a particular landmark or exploring a temple but when you arrive you realise it is closed, for the entire time you are there. Or something goes horribly wrong, or it seems so horrible at the time, but all turns out okay in the end.
Some of our favourite travel memories are forged from these situations.
Dean and friend where traveling through South East Asia, they were making their way back to mainland Vietnam from Phu Quoc Island in the South. They were about to board the boat when they realised they had left their passports at their hostel. In that moment they decided Dean would go back for them and they would meet at the opposite port as soon as he could retrieve them and find passage across. There was not another boat bound for the same route for another day and a half.
Dean managed to get the passports without trouble, got a boat across bound for roughly the same location, some 6 hours off course, and by a combination of body language and the kindness of strangers was able to get to the meeting point 9 hours after they had parted.
Now I don't at all ever recommend leaving your passport behind, it's a horrible feeling, but he would have never seen those paths untraveled by tourists nor learned his own mettle had it not been for that ordeal, which he now looks back upon quite fondly and laughs.
So if something seems to be going wrong at the time, take a deep breath, look around you and see what you can get out of the situation.