Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Travel changes you...

The road less travelled: Low Head, Tasmania

Day Two of the Bootsnall travel blogging challenge:

Change can be exciting and bring new joys into our lives. But it can present challenges that frustrate or annoy us. How has travel changed you in the last year? Did you welcome these changes or resist them at the time, and how do you feel about them now?

Ahh...the challenges of travel. There’s no doubt that they help us develop some useful life skills. Here’s a few valuable change experiences I remember:

Learning to control the Travel Irrits: 

Flight freakout!
Let’s face it, long haul flying is tough on the system, physically and mentally, as it winds up your diurnal clock, turns it back and then springs the hours forward. Skipping a day of your life as you pass the date line, or arriving before you left, is a curiosity, but also stresses the body. This, then, is my excuse for what I call the Travel Irrits: you know how you blow up in irritation at the smallest thing which you would ‘normally’ never even notice? Such as the security guy demanding imperiously that you do the exact opposite with your shoes or your bag as the last guy imperiously demanded. Both of them imply that you are a mindless moron (at least this is what you think when jet lag and lack of sleep has you in its grip). And how about when you are off-loaded from a flight at what you body considers to be 3 am, and find that your connecting flight is delayed by 3 hours? Then 4 hours. Then 5 hours...By the time you finally make it to your destination, having not seen a shower for 28 hours, you can take offence at the girl serving you coffee or the lack of the precise type of sandwich you wanted. It’s not a co-incidence that the Irrits strike often at airports, but they can happen anywhere when the stresses of travel become a bit too much.

Take time to chill

A little of this, and you soon learn that the only person having a bad time is you, and the sooner you embrace your inner jet lag, recognise these reactions for what they are, forgive yourself, and chill...the sooner you’ll enjoy your trip. I can remember the moment I realized this a few years ago. A flight delay in Switzerland. Snow everywhere. Alternate flights proposed to a destination I didn’t want to go to. Fellow sufferers succumbing to the Travel Irrits all around me. I sat on the floor in the terminal (it was that bad), chilled, decided to consider it all a great adventure.

These days, when I sense the Travel Irrits sneaking up on me (and they always will) I try to find some small travel pleasure to savour: I look through the pictures on my camera; I buy a local snack; I spend an afternoon lazing at the hotel instead of doggedly touring the Sights; I sit in a cafe and people watch.

Traveling alone and loving it:

Travelling alone: The Dingle Way, West Ireland
I mostly travel alone. I go to the opera and theatre alone. I eat in fancy restaurants alone. I sit in cafes alone. I tour museums and galleries alone. I travelled to Antarctica and the Arctic alone (well, except for those other 75 people on the ship, but you know what I mean ;-) And you know what? I love it! Oh, I also love joining a group of friends in an exotic location, or talking one of them into spending a few days touring, or going to visit them. But I have no complaints at all about the time I spend alone on the trail, so to speak.

When I first thought about taking a trip trekking in Nepal, I couldn’t fine any long-suffering friend or family member who would go with me. This, I thought, made the trip impossible. For literally years I used this excuse. Then one day I pushed through whatever invisible barrier of fear I’d put up, and booked onto a public group trip. In Kathmandu I found that out of ten co-trekkers, there was only one couple. Everyone else was a lone traveller like me, spanning a whole range of age groups and experience. What an eye-opener.

Sometimes, when people ask me what I plan to do on my trips, I answer “whatever I want!”, celebrating the fact that I don’t have to take account of anyone else’s interests or foibles or idiosyncrasies.

When you get lonely:

But I won’t say that it isn’t sometimes lonely: here’s my tip for those times - meet the locals.

A couple of locals: Lake Eyre, Outback Australia

Sit at the bar in restaurants which serve meals at a bar. The servers chat to you as they work, others come and go on the stools next to you. Favourite places to do this:  'Zin'  at Healdsburg in the Sonoma Valley, 'The Bar Room at The Modern' at the MoMA in NYC; 'Les Deux Salons' in London. Related tactic: sit at the long communal table in cafes - the 'Le Pain Quotidien' chain has them, and many little organic cafes have them. Chat to those around you - or even just people watch.

Hire a private guide. Spend three or four hours with a local. They show you around their home city, you can ask about their lives. They’re often interested in comparisons with yours. Don’t keep dashing from gallery to historic site to garden...ask your guide where is the best place for hot chocolate, their favourite cafe, or even take them to lunch. My favourite experiences with guides include meeting several different ones in Dresden, Weimar and Leipzig. Some had grown up behind the Berlin Wall, others had moved East after the Wall came down. In St Petersburg, my guide Tatania told me quietly over a traditional Russian lunch what it was like to have lived before and after the breakup of the USSR. In Udaipur in India, my young guide was an art student and when I expressed interest in the very special silk paintings of the region, he took me to a workshop where local artists continue the tradition.

Shopping for the perfect astrakhan hat
in Samarkand

Go shopping. The one-on-one variety, where the merchant spends an hour or more spreading his wares before you, assistants run in and out with tea or soft drinks, you bargain, in a polite and time-consuming way. Carpet buying is a good example - “but I’ll get ripped off!” I hear you cry. Think of it a bit like gambling: know what you are prepared to lose, and consider it money well spent for the entertainment. But having said that, whether I paid a little too much or not, I have some mighty fine carpets! Not every vendor is trying to cheat you - most are just trying to sell carpets. And the experiences I’ve had are priceless in value. I’ve bought carpets in Kathmandu, Turkey, India and Uzbekistan. I’ve bought small antiquities in the bazzars of Old Jerusalem. And it doesn’t have to be expensive items that will bring you this experience. I’ve also bought tea in Taiwan, which involved a divine little tea ceremony, the Oolong ceremoniously poured, and the young Taiwanese lady and I sitting to ‘chat’. I've been back three times on different trips to the Mona Lisa Pashmina Shop in Thamel in Kathmandu - and they remember me! (No, I didn't buy that many pashmina scarves...)

This post could go on for a long time - but these are some of the ways that travel has wrought its magic changes on your blogger: learning to control my irritation, no matter how tired, and be grateful for the precious chance of adventure. Learning to love traveling alone and enjoying the upsides of my own company. Learning how to go out and make opportunities to meet the locals.

I’m looking forward to learning much more.

All you need is....da-da-da-da-da!


  1. What a thoroughly enjoyable read, thanks

  2. Hi Bruce - nice to know you're reading! I'm hoping I can keep up with this daily challenge thing, but I may have to break off go travelling!