07 May Mindful Travel: 10 Tips for More Meaningful Adventures
“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
– G.K. Chesterton
When I was headed to Paris for a week after having been there briefly once 25 years earlier, I asked a friend for some travel tips. He had lived there previously and knew the city intimately.
“Besides the obvious—the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, etc.—what should I see and do? What’s essential not to miss?” I queried.
This was his reply:
“Just walk. Along the quais along the Seine. The Quartier Latin. Yes, the Isle de la Cite. Of course the gargoyles in Notre Dame (up high). Just walk. Le Marais is a very cool quartier, too. Hang out in the Tuileries garden and watch people feed pigeons. Jardin du Luxembourg as well. Just walk. Eiffel Tower at sunset or moonrise (and climb it, of course). Just walk.”
I took his advice. And perhaps fully for the first time, I learned what mindful travel is about.
When I visited France last, I had been to more than 50 countries and all 50 U.S. states in my nearly 50 years. A passionate traveler, I often feel like I’m on a quest to see and do and taste and explore and experience as many places as humanly possible in the all-too-limited time I have on this far-too-big and captivating planet. I want to get to all those “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” and then some.
And yet, as I am continually learning, that approach to travel is one that merely skims the surface of a place, like a water skeeter that flits across a lake, barely getting its feet wet, knowing nothing of the depths below, focused only on where it is going in a hurry.
For many travelers who have limited time and funds for exploring, it’s tempting to cram in as much as possible on a given trip—or in a given life.
In Paris, I chose a different approach, one that cultivated mindfulness, and it has changed the way I travel, for the better.
Rather than hit every museum and literary landmark initially on my list, I decided to dispense with “the list” and wander, as my friend had suggested. I let spontaneity dictate my daily itinerary, rather than a packed agenda. And I found surprises and enchantment around every corner.
Each block, it seemed, held a patisserie or chocolaterie whose windows were filled with artfully displayed tartlettes and macarons and hand-embellished truffles. Cafes were ubiquitous, with sidewalk tables optimal for observing patrons and passersby. Along the Rue de Rosiers in the old Jewish quarter, I watched an orthodox man in a dark suit, tall hat and earlocks buying a kosher pizza. Wandering among the graveled paths and fountains of the Jardins des Tuileries, I snuck a photo of an elderly gent lying prone on a park bench beneath a leafy tree, his face shielded by a copy of Le Monde. I took the Metro to Chateau Rouge in the 18th arrondissement, the heart of the West African neighborhood at the base of Montmartre, and jostled my way through the noisy, pungent street market evocative of a scene from Dakar or Freetown.
At every turn, I surveyed, smelled, stopped to taste, reflect, ponder and delight. With little plan other than to walk a different slice of Paris each day, I found myself wholly present in the moment—which is the essence of mindfulness.
A mindful traveler is bent on discovery. To be mindful is to be curious and interested in whatever is revealed. And to accept it for what it is, rather than to pass judgment or seek to squeeze a destination or its people into preconceived notions or expectations.
Since my revelatory time in Paris, I have tried to make mindfulness my focus in all my travels. And in so doing, I have found another dimension to “adventure travel”: that carefully observing from without effects transformation within.
Here, then, are some principles to incorporate into your own travels to create a more mindful engagement with the places and people you encounter.
10 TIPS FOR MORE MINDFUL TRAVEL
1) Pay Attention
This is the heart of mindfulness: wholly inhabiting the moment, with all your senses, to notice what is happening around you. It’s easy to become distracted while traveling, thinking ahead to the next detail or logistic. Rein that impulse in to experience every instance fully.
2) Do One Thing at a Time
This makes it possible to give your full attention to whatever is at hand. Look ahead, not down. Avoid the temptation to consult your phone or edit photos or post to Facebook while you’re waiting for your order at a café or riding a train to your next destination. Use the time to absorb the scene before you or strike up a conversation with the person next to you.
3) Do Less Overall
Rather than try to fit in every sight, explore fewer things in greater depth. This is the mantra of the “slow travel” movement. Leave some unscheduled time for discovery, or even for doing nothing. By cutting back on what you “must” accomplish, you’ll gain more intimate knowledge of the places you visit while adding margin for serendipity—stumbling upon a street market, a chance invitation to a local villager’s home, birdsong that beckons an unscripted walk along a nature trail. It’s often the unexpected mini-adventures that are the most memorable part of travel.
4) Make Time to Reflect
By adding some margin, you’ll have time to engage in contemplation. Many of us travel precisely to encounter the unfamiliar and be changed by it. If you allow time to journal or sketch—even jotting down snippets as you go, rather than whole narratives—your memories will be stronger and the impact more powerful when you return to your recollections at a future date, from the context of your “regular life.”
5) Don’t Chronicle Everything
While journaling and taking photos are important to many travelers, don’t let the compulsion to record consume you or insulate you from being wholly present. If you are seeing the world solely through a lens or are more concerned with sharing every vista, monument and meal on social media, you lose the fullness of the moment. Try leaving your camera behind occasionally, or embrace the challenge of an unplugged vacation where you’re in touch only with your environs and yourself.
6) Focus on the Local
It should go without saying that travel means an immersion in local culture, but that’s not always the case. Whether it’s chain hotels or restaurants that cater to Western palates, it’s all too easy to “stay home” while going abroad. Make a deliberate effort to choose accommodations that nationals use, get recommendations from locals for favorite restaurants or bars, attend a spiritual ceremony at a neighborhood place of worship, carry a phrasebook and make a friendly overture, however halting, in the local language. All such efforts are appreciated by local people and are more rewarding than the insular experience frequently offered by conventional package tours.
7) Savor Authentic Food
Food must have a mention of its own. Few aspects of travel are as gratifying as enjoying new or distinctive foods. Whether it’s a quest for the perfect French croissant or Italian gelato, or something more adventurous like sampling the wood ear mushrooms and sliced lotus root I tried in China, or quaffing chicha—the homebrewed corn beer of the Andes—on the Inca Trail, food and drink are central to travel. While you may find McDonalds and Starbucks around the world, eschew them when you travel in favor of what’s authentic to where you are.
And take your time. Few countries hurry their meals as much as we do in the U.S.—in most places, meal times are as much about conversation and community as they are about sustenance, so surrender to the more relaxed dining pace most countries favor. Ask for menu recommendations. Chew slowly and taste the nuances of each bite. Begin and end with customary drinks. Relax between courses. And, wherever you can, visit local farmers markets, or take a cooking class. Food is one of the great pleasures of travel, and the mindful traveler enjoys it to the fullest.
8) Be Sensitive to Differences
Inevitably, when you “go local,” you encounter the unfamiliar, the unusual, perhaps even the off-putting. I have vivid memories of being in Pokhara during a national festival and watching the father of a Nepali family pull a chicken from a plastic bag, holding it by its feet as he sliced off its head while his wife and children looked on, then sprinkling the blood on an altar of a shrine. On the same trip, I witnessed funeral pyres along the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, the ashes dumped into the sluggish water once the remains were incinerated. Yet rather than turn away from either event, I sought to learn about the cultural rituals I was observing. Keeping an open mind to the diversity of human experience can help engender empathy and understanding across cultures.
9) People-Watch While You Wait
Stuck in a long line on a sticky-hot day waiting to purchase train tickets in Barcelona? Packed into a sightseeing boat on the Yangtze River? Navigating a crowd to get a closer look at the Great Pyramids while touts nag you to buy cheap souvenirs? Don’t think of such experiences as detriments but as chances to observe people and gain insight into a culture or your fellow travelers. Observe what people are wearing, how they are behaving. What cultural norms are evident? What does the local language sound like? A mindful traveler can be endlessly intrigued in any circumstance—just direct your focus to your immediate surroundings.
10) Be Flexible
To be mindful is to be adaptable, accepting what you cannot change, working with or around those circumstances, and finding the positive in whatever situation befalls you. When plans are derailed by bad weather or road damage or political events, rather than lament what you missed out on, embrace what else is possible. When I was traveling in Mongolia, heavy rains and flooding rendered our much-anticipated horse trek along Lake Khovsgol impossible. We spent five days on horseback in rolling mountains and steppe farther south instead, among meadows of wildflowers and hospitable nomads who invited us into their gers to drink airag—fermented mare’s milk—for an equally memorable experience. The flexible traveler is a happy traveler, since satisfaction is not contingent on any given condition.
On your next adventure, cultivate mindfulness by slowing down, stepping up awareness and drinking in whatever comes your way…and see how much richer your travel experiences and memories become.
All photos ©Wendy Worrall Redal
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