Travel for me is the most thrilling and also occasionally risky thing I love to do. Balancing my high expectations with the challenges a great trip can entail is hard.
I like to travel in a way that makes me feel free; out on an adventure and exposed to new cultures, places, and people I haven’t seen before. I thought about what makes travel work for me and identified seven philosophies that guide my way:
Don’t plan everything
Less certainty, more magic. I think rushing from one "must see" highlight to another is a recipe for missing the best stuff. So I make space — and accept a little risk — with the knowledge that great things typically occur when I’ve put myself the furthest out there. Magic doesn't come to life if I don’t leave room for it... and it barely ever happens when I’m on a path someone else (or a guidebook) has prescribed for me. When I explore, I am rewarded.
Be true to myself
Yay, Paris! There are so many museums to see. But is that how I like to spend my time at home? As important as it is to broaden my horizons while travelling, if I go too far into what someone else thinks I'm “supposed” to do, and not what I really love, I end up exhausted and typically unfulfilled. Five museums in a week? Not for me. Instead, I work in the things I love — an early morning run on the Seine, a bike tour, playing chess in the park, pickup soccer on a patch of dirt. Example: I’ve been to Versailles twice but never inside, because a day on the grounds away from the crowds is far superior to me.
I too struggle with the impulse to overpack. The vast majority of travelers I see err on the side of bringing too much over too little. And when we do, we choose the certainty of being bogged down over the possibility that we may need something we forgot — and that the forgotten item will actually matter enough to offset schlepping it. I tell myself to bring the important stuff, but take a chance on going lighter on something replaceable, and pick up what I leave behind wherever I am. This is one of the main reasons I started Bluffworks, to create clothes that would pack well and wear better, so I can carry less. My favorite item to buy en route: local luggage. Think of bags made out of old rice sacks, or a cool vintage suitcase from a second-hand store. The world carries stuff, and probably has a solution for the extra bag I might need, wherever I am.
Local feels better
I hate being in a tourist cattle call. Escaping this is often a matter of geography. If I’m only around the most visited destinations, there isn’t a lot of local life. It’s like Times Square in NYC — we New Yorkers tend to avoid it as much as possible. But all it takes is a train ride or a long walk away from the crowds... maybe with a less specific destination in mind, to get a feel for local life and culture. Second, it’s also a matter of time. If I’m always in a rush to see the next thing, I know I’ll miss the amazing stuff right under my nose. Chatting with the waiter over afternoon coffee is what leads me to the small bistro around the corner that ends up being my best meal of the trip. By the way: my approach is to just ask. People won’t help if I don’t ask for it, and in my experience, it makes all the difference.
Eat on the street
The only time I’ve ever gotten sick from local food was one night in my 20s. After having too many beers in Calcutta, India, I drank a liter of local water. Suffice it to say, it didn’t end well. But other than that, after all my travels and two years of living in Asia, I’ve never gotten sick from food on the street. This is how the locals live and eat. I look for places with a line, where I can see what they’re preparing, and easily avoid situations that don’t look right. To me, eating within a culture is a fully immersive experience, and consistent with the reason I travel. A decent percent of the world eats fish for breakfast. We can too.
A little connection goes a long way
When I lived in Vietnam, my Vietnamese ended up being pretty good, but in the beginning, even when I could only say a few words, just trying to communicate multiplied my connection with people 100-fold. Those moments hanging out with the old ladies selling pho soup on the street, when I'd self-deprecatingly make fun of me and my wife, the old ladies would roar with laughter. I learned that when I put effort into better understanding or being able to communicate, it pays me back ten fold. And it doesn’t have to be big. In my 20s I found that going into a shop in Paris and sing-songing “Bonjour!” instead of just saying it like a normal hello made the lady behind the counter welcome me — despite my otherwise crummy French.
Explore the end of the road
One of my favorite feelings when traveling is being completely free. It’s hitchhiking down a desert road in Morocco, or riding a bike in Panama to an unknown destination. For me, travel has always worked out in the end. To build my confidence, I think about of all the layers of possibility; my fallbacks if things go wrong. For example, late at night in Panama in a town with no hotel, we headed to the bar. Maybe someone there knew of a hotel? Maybe we could sleep in the bar? Maybe someone would let us to stay with them? And that’s what happened. All I had to do was dust off the scorpion on the floor (for real!), and the spot was ours. Complete with outhouse, the whole nine yards of rural living. There are always layers of possibility, and I can’t think of a time where I had to call on my last option. I try to be safe, but at the same time not worry too much; there’s always another bend in the road.
In short, I say buy the ticket... request the time off... pick an amazing destination. But then let the journey unwind, as it will. You’ll see more, learn more, do more than you would sticking to the "must see sites" that everyone visits. And once it starts to work, the momentum builds: you’ll be more confident with what you can accomplish, and more comfortable that it usually all works out in the end.
What’s your approach to travel? I’m always interested to hear how others take on the world.