They say ¨not all who wander are lost¨. I, for one, usually am.
When I first started traveling—inaugural trip, a 2-month Eurail pass—pre-trip planning involved time spent in bookstores caressing the spines of beautiful, information-filled travel guides.
Earnest descriptions of must-see historical sites and someone else’s take on sights, sounds, and tastes sounded expert and yet, a little overwhelming. How would I possibly see it all? And was that all that was worth seeing?
I tried to see it all, really I did. I hit 8 countries in 4 weeks, collecting those passport stamps but ultimately confusing which memories went with which tour or ciudad, because my manic itineraries made everything a blur. With one month left to go, I was tired, kind of grumpy, and not at all sure this was the way to really experience a new locale.
So I decided to downshift—a lot—and spend that last month in just one country. I walked across the Spanish-Portuguese border and spent the next four weeks chasing the sun down the coast of Portugal. If something looked interesting, I stopped; if not, I stayed on the beach, ate fresh fish, and swam in the ocean. Elderly ladies dressed in black selling wares by the side of the road, a discotheque in the middle of nowhere, and for my 21st birthday, an impromptu dinner party with friends I’d met that morning–the less time I pre-planned, the more time I had to explore, discover, and experience meaningful interactions.
When I put the guidebook down and let my sense of adventure guide me, I started to feel more connected to my travels.
But guidebooks are great for getting situated, scanning the highlights of an area, or finding insider tips regarding transportation and logistics. Use them, sure, but more like a reference, and less like a bible.
1. Photocopy logistics, maps, hotel info before your trip
Having a lightweight cheat sheet will make your first few days in a country, especially a place like the Dominican Republic, less chaotic and easier to navigate. Bringing the book every time you head out gets clunky, confusing, and yes, you look like a tourist when you’re stuck to your guidebook. (You’ll probably still look like a tourist, but now you’re a tourist actually noticing the world around)
2. Practice exchange rate conversions by writing them down
Some of us (ehem) have simply come to terms with losing about a hundred bucks, give or take, in those first few days of translating every purchase into a new currency. We divide in our head, carry a couple ones, but every now and then, we miss a zero. Phones help, yes, but they’re not always on us, or charged…Try jotting down figures on a small spiral notepad, which will fit in your camera bag, backpack, even your surf shorts. By jotting down basic costs, or where to buy what, you’ll get better at both calculating and transacting. With a place to record rates and make lists, you’ll take the opening guesswork out of on-the-spot transactions and familiarize yourself with what things cost.
Some of the most memorable experiences come from asking a local what he likes. Not only will mixing and matching language skills entertain both parties, but a local knows a good place for just about everything: eating shopping, where to find a casual drink, and where to find true culture. A local tells you things that don’t make the guidebook.
You probably already do this in your domestic travels back home: ask the waiter the best place for dancing, ask the bellhop at your hotel about the best after-hours bar. Internationally, too, most people warm to the topic of how to enjoy their town. Some of your best recommendations will come from the people who live and work where you’re hoping to adventure.
4. Practice nonattachment to agendas and directions
“Life is what happens when you’re making plans,” said John Lennon. Sometimes, vacations happen while you’re trying to find the damn turnoff to that darned historic site that the guidebook said was around here somewhere. While trying to retrace our steps, we sometimes take new ones that aren’t on the map and don’t pass by points of interest.
Or do they?
If you think about it, when you’ve lost your way, you’re somewhere you’ve never been before. Isn’t that the very impetus for travel? With the right attitude, a dead-end side street that ends in a flower stand, or a wrong turn that passes by a new restaurant could lead to unplanned sights and sounds. Getting lost leads to new adventures, which become a part of the journey.
Allow yourself to get lost every now and then, and use that opportunity to interact with the people around you. Not only will you find better directions for finding your way back, but you’ll discover something of interest—if only a small conversation—along the way.