About Me

My photo
Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

More than the Sum of One

“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.” 
                                      ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Looking for Adventure
A few days ago one of the many travel-related groups on Facebook asked the question "What was the ONE trip that changed your life?", and it started me to thinking. 

Is a single trip, a single voyage, something you can look at as a complete work of art, or do you view it as simply as another page in a lifelong coloring book of adventures?

While I can readily see many situations in which ONE trip could, indeed, completely change your life -- winning a massive jackpot in Las Vegas; being told by your spouse that they want a divorce in Central Park; being proposed to while boating at the base of Niagara Falls, etc. -- my personal thoughts and approach to travel are much more aligned with the idea that each trip changes you in its own ways, some small, some large. Some in bits and pieces, others in major ways. But looking back at my 2/3 complete life (I hope) and designating any one voyage as the ONE which made a difference? Not so much. If it's an event that would change your life regardless of locale, then it's not the trip that changes you, it's the event. Each expedition is a page of my life, colored in by the textures of the places I've been and experiences I've had
Tourists see, Travelers watch

And that's the key, I think. Differentiating between things in your life which are a direct result of traveling or the destination, versus things which are simply impactful no matter where you happen to be. 

For a trip to change my life it has to be something about the trip itself that is the significant change, otherwise it's merely happenstance that I'm not home at the time it occurs. If my spouse asks for a divorce, does it really matter whether it's in Central Park or the kitchen table? No. 

Winning the lottery at home has just as much impact to my life as winning a massive jackpot in Vegas, though perhaps some of the romanticism is missing. But the long-term effect on your life is essentially the same. 

If, God forbid, you are hit by a car, the result is no less severe in Rome than it is crossing the street down by the neighborhood 7-Eleven or vice-versa. (Okay, insurance-wise it might, but that's an entirely different topic.) But you're still injured and in pain, and still facing a recovery period. WHERE is occurred is less important that the FACT it occurred.
It's a matter of small changes, not big ones

Fundamentally, the way a trip impacts your life -- the way it changes you -- is through the experience and understanding which you've accumulated before coming home. If a single ship voyage convinces you that cruising is the ultimate rewarding experience and you live for the cruise, then, yes, it changed your life. 

If a cup of coffee in a square in Mexico City convinces you to dedicate yourself to finding that next great cup of coffee, then, yes. 

If you've lived in the cute little Route 66 town of Shamrock, Texas your entire life and a drive over Amarillo gives you the blinding realization that you love to explore new places….yep, you're there. The ONE trip that changed your life.

But judging on the whole, looking back perhaps with a different perspective than I would have voiced two decades ago, my life is a tapestry, not a photograph. Photographs freeze a moment in time, while a tapestry tells a story.

My friend James living it up
I've expounded many times on the difference between being a tourist versus being a traveler. Indeed, MANY people have expounded upon this, not the least of whom is travel-maven Rick Steve's. We, and many people, share the philosophy that merely touring something is a passive approach. To really get the flavor of a place you have to dig in, metaphorically as well as literally. Though my wife and I have certainly participated in "tour groups" -- mainly defined as large busses of people arriving at a pre-set display of local furniture making skills or some sort of historic display or district -- we make the best of it and usually wander off on our won. Don't get me wrong: there are times when such trips are worth more than the price of admission, and that's when you know you've got a particularly good tour operator at the helm. (Two immediate examples come to mind: a large bus tour group to the Mayan ruins at Tulum in which we genuinely learned a bit about the culture and were able to see something which we could not, otherwise, have journeyed to in time to return to the ship; and a separate trip in the Sierra Madre to the town of Capala -- also a voyage we could not have done on our own.)

Stop, look, see
(This also pointedly excludes smaller travel groups. We've had several extremely useful small-group tours with between five and ten participants. This is a small enough group for individualized questions and attentions. Plus some flexibility on timing and interests. In one instance we were given a private tour of Vancouver at the end of the tourist season -- after a last-minute cancellation, we were the only people on the tour. The driver essentially looked over his shoulder, shrugged and asked what we wanted to do.)

One of our favorite tours, however, are the hop-on hop-off busses that now line the streets of nearly every large city. They are often the very best way to gather a reasonably quick overview, clicking off those destinations along the way you'd like to get back to and explore in more detail. Then, returning to do exactly that is what constitutes -- in my mind -- the difference between a tourist (who will get off the tour, look around, then take another guided trip) from a traveler (who will take a cab back to that neat little street corner she saw during the tour and stop in a local pub for a pint).

Indulge in the local cuisine
Moving back to the main topic (as my longer-term readers know, I tend to wander from topics, but will eventually get back to them given enough time), it's those quiet moments in the pub or the coffee house or the shop or the vegetable stand or wherever that can really make the most profound impact on the traveler. Those times we interact with the locals, when we make it clear we're here to learn something about them and their way of life, that are the most rewarding. I certainly don't mean from a condescending standpoint. Heaven forbid, that's exactly the OPPOSITE of what I'm saying. I really, honestly mean asking questions -- learning  something about how a dish is prepared; why a thing is done the way it's done; the thoughts that go into a particular work of art; of the attention given the design in a particular fabric and does it have a significance? These are things you learn from. And by sitting and watching the things around you. A cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of wine, while sitting at a little table on the sidewalk can feed you volumes of information as you saturate yourself with the local vibe. 

Burying your head in a laptop or iPad robs you of that input, reduces your visit to a "stop".  Kick back and watch the world go by and you learn a bit about how that world works.

And that's why I have trouble with the concept that a single trip can be the ONE that changes your life. If we view each time out as a source of a new adventure, the addition of a new set of experiences, then there are only rare occasions when a single, solitary trip can be the ONE which changes your life.

But for me, each time I head out the door is an opportunity to explore, to learn, to experience. Even if I'm heading to a familiar destination, I ask myself what I can do to enjoy it and get something out of it that I might not have gotten before. 

(Last time I went to Phoenix for business the two other guys I was with agreed we would look up "interesting" places to eat rather than the standard business-traveler default of hotel restaurant or the nearby Black Angus. After a little exploration over two nights we ended up at Chino Bandido and Haus Murphy's, two genre-bending eateries that in no way you would find on the regular beaten path. It was our way of making sure the trip was not a generic recreation of something readily available in our home cities.) (Though I was startled to discover that both had been visited by Guy Fieri, the Food Network host. Those kind of odds are, well, odd.)

So, really, when you get down to it no ONE trip has been the one that glaringly changed my life. It has been changed by a mosaic of different experiences over a lifetime of travel. Each one has fueled a thirst for more. I've been atop mountains, under the sea, in the midst of large cities and alone in the desert. I've slept in trailers on the Tundra, and luxury hotels in Las Vegas. Ridden high speed rail in France, and plodded along on a tour bus an Sinaloa, Mexico. Each time I've learned a bit and, as a result, grown as a person (I HOPE!). Each time it has filled in a section of a page of my life's coloring book.

And that's the adventure, at least as far as *I* can tell!

Yes, there are exceptions of a single trip changing the lives for many people, and you might be thinking of one this very instant -- and if so, good for you! How did the trip change you and why? I'd love to know. 

Part of the adventure, not the entirety

No comments:

Post a Comment