Some travellers follow the predictable triangular path of beach, hotel and night club. They take the shortest route possible, steering clear of culture, history and art. And believe it or not, I think that that’s ok. Not everyone gets a kick out of visiting churches and museums. I get that.
But there is more to a destination than just the usual tourist fare. With a little bit of imagination and some tweaks in your mindset you can easily find excitement and pleasure in the most unassuming things.
My parents have taught me quite a few lessons when we travelled. For starters, it’s ok to go on holidays to relax. When you grow up in Germany and you have endured yet another long and painful winter, all you want to do is soak up as much sun as possible and play in the waves of a lake or an ocean. That’s the perfect response to what the soul needs in order to recuperate. We spent many hours around pools and on beaches doing exactly that. And we loved it. Please don’t be pretentious and call it ‘not travelling’ because it still requires you to go some place else entirely.
But no matter how much time we spent relaxing and doing nothing cultural at all, we also made sure we would do something a little bit more exciting and extraordinary. We would take the train to Barcelona, or ride our bikes to the next city. We would join a bus tour around the island or hop on a train to travel down the coast. We would look at churches and palaces, eat at different restaurants, check out other people’s hotels. It was my parent’s way of exploring the country, in a subtle and safe way.
Excitement can be found not just by leaving your personal realm while on vacation. It is also about opening your eyes to the treasures all around you. There are a number of places that are – while not exactly spectacular – useful to understand a different culture and the people around you.
To start with an easy one, markets are one of my favourite things to explore when on holidays. The market hall in Barcelona, for example, is a wonderful place to explore the local cuisine. To taste some wonderful ham, look at sheep heads and gobble up tapas with the locals at one of the food stalls. Some tourists will find their way inside the market but few will truly look at what’s on display and try to make sense of what is out there.
And then, compare it to other markets you may have visited around the world – the bazars in Istanbul, for example, or the swimming markets in Bangkok. Markets are a raw, untainted window into the everyday lives of people around you. The produce, the dirt, the smells, the chatter. It’s all part of the journey.
But it’s not just markets that are fascinating to me. Supermarkets can be equally appealing. Growing up close to the Dutch border, it was one one our favourite past times to travel across the border to check out Dutch supermarkets and bring home some foreign specialities.
And here’s another reason: The soap and cleaning products’ aisle in a Spanish supermarket smells so different to what we are used to. And think about the breakfast cereal aisle in American supermarkets. You need to see it to believe it. Provincial supermarkets in underdeveloped countries stock very different things to the ones in Aboriginal communities in Australia. Don’t walk past a supermarket when on holidays, they reveal so much about the country you are visiting. Look at the convenience food section, the fresh food section, the frozen foods section. What does it tell you about your host country?
Another place people like to avoid when travelling is the cemetery. Personally, I love a good cemetery. As a child I would ride my bike at the central cemetery of my city as It was more like a park than a graveyard. Culturally, there are many different things you will notice that are different around the world when it comes to dealing with the dead.
Headstones might look different. Tombs might be present or absent. Mourners might have left candles, flowers, stones or graffiti. Yes, graffiti. Visit Père Lachaise in Paris to see it first-hand. See the beautiful flower leis and colourful feathers on many indigenous graves. Read the inscriptions, try to make sense of the life stories being told. Whether large or small, provincial or famous, ancient or modern, cemeteries are a perfect place to get a deeper sense of a culture, as death is very much a part of life.
And so is food. Let me share with you one wisdom that my parents taught me while on the road: always eat where the locals eat. Okay, that sound reasonable. But they went even further: the dirtier the place looks, the better the food. This was very true in the case of Spain. Spaniards would eat their tapas on napkins, using tooth picks as cutlery. Once finished they would throw it all on the floor. If they still do it these days, I am not sure. But it is good advice that you can apply to any country in the world.
I guess what I am trying to say is that there are two ways of travelling, and it’s got nothing to do with whether you booked a package deal online, joined a cruise, or sold all your stuff to travel the world.
If you prefer to join a trip simply to get drunk and to party and to work on your tan then you might one day realise that you haven’t seen nothing much at all.
Beauty can be found in the smallest things. Wonder is everywhere. Travelling is not just a physical trip from one place to the other, it is a journey of the mind. A process that will make you a more open-minded, knowledgable and better human being.
Even if you don’t travel like a ‘pro’, don’t be afraid to look deeper, to explore more and to find excitement in ordinary things and places. And most importantly, enjoy the moment!