I’ve tried writing a few times about the personal nature of travel, but I always let it go, because it feels like I’m shutting down discussion on places I visit. That’s not necessarily my aim. Instead, I’m interested in talking about how it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Travel is personal and highly subjective.
From what we do, to what we see, how we like to do it, how we feel, what we learn, all the way through to what we observe, comes down to where we are, when we’re there, and even who we happen to pass on the streets.
It’s a fantastically individual experience, and I would never presume to tell you where you should go, what you should see, or why you should do it. It’s why I talk about Albania with a “meh, you probably wouldn’t like it” point-of-view, because it was the right place for me at the right time, but I’m a nomad and most travellers are not. It was the country I had major surgery in, and complete strangers made sure I came out of it okay. It was dirty, chaotic, loud, crazy, but I loved that country because they kept me safe and healthy.
The “it’s personal” bent is also why I loathe the “10 things to do in [insert hip town here]” trope of travel ‘writing’.
Ahem, So That Happened
Why am I finally tackling this topic of travel being personal now? Because I lost a ‘friend’ recently, and an unquotes friend friend and I got to talking about the subjectivity and personal nature of travel.
How’d the unfriending of the ‘friend’ come about? Ahh, social media, how fickle thou art.
I put a quickie commentary on my “friends-only” Facebook feed, saying how this hotel was the first time in nearly eight months I’ve had to think about smoke in close proximity. With a year ahead of being in Greece, Turkey, the Balkans, and even Kyrgyzstan, I know this dreamy love affair of a largely cigarette-free lifestyle is ending.
Soon, I’ll be in places where smoking often still happens in cafes and restaurants. As an asthmatic nomad, I called this realization a rude reminder of what I’m in for.
So, the ‘friend’ weighs in. Tells me I’m “failing at being a nomad” because, well, I’m wrong. Asia has lots of smoking. This is when I realize I should have said “Thailand and Siem Reap,” not “Southeast Asia” in my comment. Oops, misspoke. It happens.
But the bell has rung, the button has been pushed. I see “failing at being a nomad” and it’s like a matador waving red in front of my face. CHARGE. HOW DARE YOU.
I told him very specifically, and moderately explicitly, what he could do with himself, and he decided it was worth ending our relationship over, and I’m okay with that.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say…
The reality is, I am a nomad. I’m my kind of nomad. I’m not pussyfooting around here. I don’t have a safe haven to return to in between trips, so I travel differently – more boringly.
At times, I feel so alone, so far from home, so cut adrift, and the last thing my life needs are individuals who only speak up when they see something worth criticizing. My mother always said friends that give two-handed compliments weren’t friends worth keeping, so I’m not crying over things ending here, because this friend seldom said positive stuff without the ‘shit sandwich’ my long-time former-retail-manager friend tells me is “negative feedback wrapped in a token positive comment”.
Mom also always told me I’d be lucky if I had five good friends who got me through my life unscathed. I have those – people I can parachute in on and it’s like no time has passed. Conversations aren’t awkward, our guards drop faster than an adjusting Canadian dollar. I value them deeply, and I’d crawl on my knees to undo something that offended them. But friends know how to say things without offending each other. We wince, we laugh, we move on.
And I’m not sure there’s a ‘good’ way to take “you’re failing at being a nomad.” So that’s that.
If I’m not the nomad for you, go follow someone you like better.
Because travel is personal. Maybe you want a traveller who sees the world differently. Maybe you want them to do different things, visit different locations at their destinations. Maybe you want excitement, adventure, thrills a minute.
And that’s okay. You go. Because travel is personal.
Travel is personal.
I may travel safely, boringly, without deep explorations, but this is how I travel. It’s personal.
Travel is timing. Travel is different by degrees. Travel is complicated. Travel is never, ever the same with two people.
Once Upon a Time in Lisbon
I can tell you to take a walk in Lisbon, the very same walk that comprises one of the nicest days of my life, and you’ll probably have an underwhelming experience compared to mine. It was my first day in the city. It was freakishly warm for Lisbon, 22 degrees in mid-December, a week before Christmas. I’d slept well. I left my apartment and laboured uphill to a church I discovered was one of the only buildings left standing before Lisbon’s quake in 1755, a quake that destroyed 85% of the city, one of the most powerful quakes the world has ever seen, which demolished over a quarter of Portugal’s wealth.
So this church survived that, built a couple centuries before, when Portugal was a great imperial power with arguably the best ships and explorers anywhere. I sat there, surrounded by this art and opulence that the Catholics often do better than anyone, and I cried. I cried because of the art and beauty and lives that were lost, and how a country that once stood so tall had been reduced in standing so harshly that ramifications echoed even now.
And that, I realized, was what travel was. It was moments of beauty, inexplicable emotion, seeing the world in a unique light because of the place and time in which you’re standing.
I gathered myself together, took my leave up an impossibly narrow sidewalk with crazy old crooked cobblestones, ascending one of the seven hills that made Lisbon such a difficult city to attack over millennia. At the top, I came upon a long slice of urban park – trees, flower patches, very little grass. Just benches and a view for miles. Rolling hills and glorious architecture and colours and the ocean and blue skies. That oddly warm sun beat down on me as a father played with his two children. An office worker slept lazily on a nearby bench while an artisan sold her little oil paintings and a musician played a steel guitar that sang gloriously.
I took some photos, then sat there, looking over this city that had never been on my bucket list, thinking how glorious it is that the world can be filled with places we have no interest in seeing but which can affect us so deeply, so unexpectedly. And then, like the office worker, I put my backpack down as a pillow, stretched out on a bench in the midwinter sun, closed my eyes, and let my incredible luck of being a nomad wash over me.
Those Guys, That Place
After 20 or so minutes of just enjoying that moment, I headed down the impossibly street steps, making note that I’d have to return to use the funicular later (I didn’t, I rode another one). But no sooner did I reach the bottom step than I met an African from Guinea-Bissau and a Danish fella, both tagging a wall with graffiti art. We talked. The African rapped for me. They shared some smoke with me. The African, who called himself Zion, asked where I was headed, I said “Around.” So, he offered to tell me about the city a bit and walk with me.
We had coffee together, wandering through the hub a bit, and then he took me to the Praca do Comercio, and told me this was once a slave market for slaves from Africa – including Guinea-Bissau, his homeland and a Portuguese colony from which more than 150,000 were captured and traded as slaves. His was “the Slave Coast” of West Africa.
He took his leave and, from there, I watched the sun set over the river as two flamenco guitar players played the daylight away. (I wrote at length about this particular day here, which still remains one of the nicest days of my life.)
But Travel is Personal, So…
Now, say I tell YOU to take that walk, and maybe it rains. Maybe you meet grumpy people. Maybe that insanely steep hill trips you up as you traipse down. Maybe you get a bad coffee on the plaza below. Maybe you’ve got a tummy-ache and groan the whole way through.
Travel is personal.
It’s a ridiculously unpredictable blending of ingredients.
The following week, I went to Oporto, where people raved about and romanticized and told me I’d love, love, love, love it. But I had surly hosts, it rained for three weeks. It was dreary and oppressive and dejecting. It sent me into a deep funk and I resented the hell out of everything and everyone. (But I had some great times there too.)
Because travel is personal. Travel is timing and luck and happenstance.
And what we experience changes immensely as time passes too.
I went to Manchester in the spring of 2016, and I could see the potential the city has to be a great family tourism center, but there was a great deal of frustration during my trip due to the immense construction projects happening city-wide. After that’s done, travel will be much easier for visitors because of new trains, new transit, and that’ll be an amazing experience for families visiting for the fascinating mix of venues and museums. And, since then, a terrorist tragedy has brought the city together, giving it a new unity and pride that no civic project can bring. So, just two years later, a place can feel transformative.
Steff Confesses Her Attractionophobia
Just over the last month, I’ve gotten back into reading after two decades of ignoring what was once as much a part of me as breathing. I read one of my great influences, the curmudgeonly travelogue writer Paul Theroux. In so doing, I had a realization that has set me free as a travelling writer.
Theroux, as the world’s most prolific and celebrated travel writer, doesn’t do tourist venues. He doesn’t visit ruins. He doesn’t go to museums. He does none of the things we’re always told to do as travellers.
Me, I’ve never liked those things either. I go to the odd ruin. Like Monte Alban in Oaxaca, which blew my mind, and Acropolis in Greece, which did not.
If I tell people that I was “meh” about the Acropolis – the hilltop overlooking Athens that was the seat of Ancient Greek civilization, home to the Parthenon and more – they look at me like I’m nuts. But there’s a very different experience between standing in a historic ruin and being about to absorb it than there is being shuffled about and bumped into by fanny-pack-wearing sun-visored people muttering, “So this is the Parthenon. Do they have pizza like the place we order from back home? Ha. Get it? Looks like a bunch of columns. What’d we pay 30 euros to see this for?”
“Because it’s history, Herbert! Plahtoo stood there, maybe Socraytes! Yeesh! Can’t take you anywhere.”
Meanwhile, I’m with Herbert, wondering, “why, indeed?”
Because 30 euros is $45 for me, that’s gotta have a hell of a lot of value for me to pay up. I did it because I felt like I’d be a moron if I didn’t, just like I’ll pay $37USD soon to see Angkor Wat.
The funny thing is, the best part of the Acropolis, for me, was free – it was sitting on a bench in a small patch of garden full of olive trees. I sat there, the sunlight flitting through leaves, breeze blowing, birds singing, wondering if Socrates or Plato once sat in that spot, lying under the trees, pondering existence, while picking at unleavened bread and olives, drinking from a pitcher of wine, as children played nearby, and donkeys trundled past with wagons.
Paul Theroux would’ve been on the same page as me, dismissing the ruins in favour of the gardens, just to avoid the crushing weight of tourists with no respect for other people’s personal space.
Slow Travel, Slow Days
For the first two-plus years of me playing nomad, I’ve questioned myself and felt lacking as a traveller. Shouldn’t I be doing the things? Experiencing more? Being brazen, bolder, daring?
Paul Theroux, though, is like giving myself permission to travel how I like.
I’m not 24. I’m not 36. I’m not 40. I’m 45 later this year. I’m heavy. I have crappy feet. Walking five kilometres is a good day for me. I’ve had multiple head trauma, so renting scooters is a daunting proposal, as is renting bikes, in cities I’m unfamiliar with. I have survived several accidents and am lucky to live as I do, but adventuring holds no allure for me. I find museums to usually be dull and dry. Tourist sites I frequently loathe as crowded, overrun, expensive.
I don’t hate tourists, just a kind of tourist – the kind who’ve planned so intensely that they don’t leave time for breathing. Snarfing food down, complaining that the cheque takes too long to come, grumbling at lineups for places they are complicit in perpetuating the lineups at. They don’t learn about the culture, don’t respect or understand the history, and are inconvenienced when things aren’t just like back home.
These are the people I find en masse at popular destinations. I’m much happier to admire the Eiffel Tower or Acropolis from afar.
For me, travel is about watching people – locals, people who live there. It’s about the little ladies in crumpled clothes and ridiculously thick socks and natty headscarves trying to sell me a bag full of spinach in Albania. It’s the rugged-looking Bosnian men drinking daintily, little fingers extended, from tiny espresso cups. It’s street corners where old Balkan men congregate to gossip and banter the day away. It’s watching a swarm of tuktuk drivers playing high-stakes poker on the seat of one of their chariots on the dusty side roads of Siem Reap. When I’m lucky, it’s a horse-wagon cart full of milk jugs for market, or a hand-cart filled with eggs. Maybe it’s a Zapotec woman walking with three chickens hanging upside down, one-handedly clutching their feet, their ends looming nigh on Sunday market day in Mesoamerica.
That’s where I come alive. That’s what I love. I get more out of sitting under an old banyan tree here where all the locals come to park their scooters, chatter, and get on with their days.
It’s watching people go about their daily lives in a way that hasn’t yet been erased by globalization that makes me tick. Walking down an unknown street, witnessing something like a welder fixing a tuktuk while the driver stands nearby, impatiently pacing because time is money and he needs to get out there for fares.
Travel is personal.
And being a nomad? Well, that’s personal too. I’m living the life my interests and body and finances allow me to live. Doing more is often not possible. Yet, anyhow. But I’m not even sure if doing more appeals to me anyways.
You Have To, But Appreciate It Too
I’m a lucky person. I largely live my life on my terms, waking to amazing places that can be what I need them to be.
And Angkor Wat? Yeah, I’ll go. I’m sure it’ll be fantastic to behold, but it’ll also be crowded with tourists who are going for the same reason I’m going – because that’s why you come to Siem Reap. To come here and not see the largest religious site in the world is as stupid as stupid gets. What I don’t love about these places is that necessity – you have to see it. YOU HAVE TO. Invariably this leads to collisions with the tourists who are doing it for that reason, they don’t really care. Those tourists don’t have the imagination of looking around them and picturing that landscape nine centuries ago – tall, primordial jungles, no electricity, and the physical challenge of carving out over 5 million tons of sandstone by hand with primitive tools, from quarries over 25 miles away. Imagine the sheer feat of physics and effort to get each single block of stone all that way, then positioned, then bound together with a compound made of vegetables they’d have to harvest and grind by hand with stones, or wood, which also had to be honed by hand.
That’s why you go to places like this, to remind yourself of where we come from, of what we’ve accomplished, of how we evolved. It’s to remember that, while we’re bitching about cutting onions, people once made monuments like that with nothing but primitive tools, a vision, and gruntwork.
But if you hang your whole travel experience on the ‘you HAVE to’ aspect, then disappointment awaits. Because it will be crowded. And being stuck among people who don’t respect the experience the way you do, who aren’t moved by its immensity and beauty and relevance… oh, soul-crushing sometimes. Besides that, it will often be expensive, hot or wet, dusty or muddy – insert unsavory conditions here.
When a place is as hyped as a place like Angkor Wat or the Acropolis or the Vatican is, it’s often a means to disappointment if that’s your travel raison d’etre. There is more to them than just the big sites people visit. Much more. The magic, for me, is in the little stuff.
Without even being the purpose of my travels, every major tourist site has let me down. Because I’m in places long enough to stumble on things that tourists and other travellers never find. Some weird forgotten ruin, quaint eateries. Wandering home, “oh, look, a 3,000-year-old ruin that isn’t a ‘thing’ yet, cool.”
So, if how I’m travelling means I’m failing as a nomad, well… hey, man. Whatever you say. That’s your take.
It’s working for me. You do you. I’ll do me.
Because travel is personal.