When you’re planning a trip, how do you prepare for it? Not whether to bring two or three pairs of underwear but rather, what’s your philosophical approach?
This question was asked of me a few months ago by my friend Elaine. It’s such a good one, because if you’re going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a trip, really, whether you have the right SPF-level of sunscreen in your bag is merely a triviality.
Think of travel as an investment in yourself, a component of your education, except you’ve paid the thousands to have it delivered in the open world instead of a closed classroom. What do you want to learn? And how do you want to grow?
If your predominant style of trip planning is to book everything—hotels, tours, transportation—down to the last detail (and I plan like that sometimes), then I tend to think of it as a low-risk, low return-on-investment (ROI) ‘product,’ like a money market account. Safe, and still very nice, because you’ll definitely come out ahead from where you started.
If your trip plan is to buy a plane ticket, period, and let the rest unfold as it may, then I consider that type of investment to be a higher-risk, higher ROI product. Who are you going to meet? Who knows! Where are you going to stay? Somewhere! The thing to remember is that the elements of spontaneity and surprise can push a trip from being really good to over-the-top life changing.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re trying to determine a travel philosophy, or if you’re working on loosening up your planning tendencies:
- Do you have to know exactly which city or town you’re going to stay in each night?
- Do you care which hotel or guest house you stay in? Can you trust that you’ll find a safe place to rest your head even if you haven’t pre-booked?
- If invited, would you stay in a family home of someone local?
- Is one night of unsuitable or unsavory accommodation a total trip-wrecker for you, or can you put it aside and move on?
- Are you able to ask people for help? Would you trust the locals to tell you how to get from A to B or where to find a safe guesthouse?
- Is traveling about the things you do when you get to a place, or is getting to the place part of the journey for you?
Another way to practice ‘unplanning’ is to use visualization. Imagine walking through the exit doors of an airport or getting off a train, your onward destination unknown. What kind of person would you approach? Male or female? Young or old? Do you smile at them? Do they smile back? What questions would you ask? How do you want to feel during or after this exchange? Is it sunny? (That one is a guaranteed ‘yes,’ I bet!)
The inherent opportunities of an unplanned trip smacked me in the face just this weekend when I was driving down the street. On the sidewalk were two round, old Eastern European women; a mother and daughter, I’m guessing. The eighty-something year old stood less than five feet tall and, using a walker, took short, shuffling steps. Every single push of a foot was a gargantuan effort. She wore a cardigan over her dress, a paisley baboushka on her head and knee-length stockings on her feet. Her face was lined with deep wrinkles, and her nose rivaled that of actor Adrien Brody. The woman’s daughter, probably in her 60s and dressed exactly the same, had one hand on her mother’s walker to keep it steady. The other held a cell phone to her ear.
They were adorable, and I had the sudden urge to greet them. Say hello, nod my head, just stop and drink in their adorableness. But encased in my bubble-car, I couldn’t do any of those things. In a second, I’d passed them. I thought about pulling a U-turn and going back, but worried if I screeched to a stop beside them it could send Baba’s blood pressure into an unhealthy zone.
You never know when you’re going to be greeted by something that makes you want to stop dead in your tracks, maybe linger. It’s such a gift to have the time and freedom to actually be able to stop.
I’ll be hitting the road again in a few weeks, this time to Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. I have booked my flights into Suriname and out of Guyana and Trinidad. That is all. I don’t know much about any of those places, or what I might want to see. I figure I’ll ask some folks when I get there. They probably won’t be wearing baboushkas, but I bet they’ll be pretty cool, just the same.
Finally, I hate ending on a sad note, but given the topic of this post and the recent murder of Sarai Sierra, a solo female traveler in Istanbul, I want to say a few things. Sarai’s tragic death occurred due to a crime that could have happened anywhere. She lived in New York; it could have happened there. Her solo trip to Istanbul was not a precursor to her death, and the odds of being victimized by a physical crime are generally low in most places. That it happens at all, ever, is a terribly sad thing, and I deeply wish I knew of Sarai Sierra as a result of her passion for photography instead of the recent events.