It is one thing to spend plenty of time in a destination, but that doesn’t automatically mean that you will fully immerse yourself in a location. It is not a matter of how much time you spend in a place but rather how you spend your time. You can choose to stay in your resort and drink cocktails from 12pm – it’s your holiday, after all – or you can go out and explore and take it all in.
On my travels this is what I have observed over the years: We have been given five senses, but we rarely use them consciously. I want to argue that if you actively seek out experiences that will engage all your senses you will have a much more memorable experience than when you just park your body in a lounge chair.
You might say, but I am using my senses all the time! I can see, I can hear, I can taste. But do you really make use of them to their full extend while you are travelling? Here is the test:
The Sense of Sight
I am always amazed about how many people see without actually seeing. Just because you use your eyes it doesn’t mean you are actually taking in all the visual nuances of a location. How many people will fail to look around them when entering a church, to move their heads to inspect the intricately decorated ceilings? How many will step on a tiny wildflower without even noticing, dismiss a crumbling facade as neglect or a sign of poverty, will be glued to that sunset but not look at the play of colour that the dying light casts on the objects around them?
Truely seeing something, noticing the details, inspecting nooks and crevices, getting down on your knees or looking at what’s behind you is an art form that needs to be learned over time.
From experience, taking photos helps to see the world with a new set of eyes. If you enjoy taking photos you will soon notice that there is so much more to it than just taking pictures of landmarks and your travelling buddies. You will get an eye for the colours in a stack of sarongs that are displayed for purchase, see the lines on deeply sunbaked faces of the locals, notice the imperfections in grand masterpieces of the world.
Seeing is not just the process of letting rays of light enter your eye, it is about letting the pictures in front of you create long-lasting impressions that you can recall when you have long returned home.
The Sense of Hearing
We talk and talk and talk but we hardly ever listen. In our busy world it is getting more and more difficult to just shut up and let things happen to us. We believe we need to be in full control of our environment, and what better way to control our environment than by giving it directions.
Yet as every good people manager will be able to attest, hearing can be the most powerful tool when it comes to creating positive outcomes.
It is no different when you are on the road. When you hear you are passive. You are receptive, taking in sounds and voices that have nothing to do with you but everything to do with those around you. Sometimes it is time to just stop talking and listen instead. To sit still in a park and identify the different songs of the birds. To appreciate the ringing of the bells on a ricksha. To isolate the noise of a busy street and appreciate the brimming of life all around you.
It is the perfect opportunity to slow down, relax and lose yourself in the moment.
The Sense of Taste
One of the biggest mistakes I see people are making on the road is to avoid local food. I remember a family of four in the old town of Athens, happily munching away on a plate of spag bol – adults and children alike. In my view, there is no acceptable explanation for this choice. If you are in Rome do it like the Romans. Taste the local food, for crying out loud.
I won’t promise you that you will always like what you eat but at least you have given it a try. How do you want to learn more about different cultures, get to know its people if you choose to avoid the very things they are eating on a day-to-day basis? Sure, it might be gross, it might be surprising. But what if it’s actually tasty too? Wouldn’t this be quite a win for you, an addition to your palate, a new experience?
Do not make the mistake and order travellers’ staples such as schnitzel and pizza in places where these foods are not the standard fare. Go for the specialities, order a variety of things, take risks. And I might even take it a bit further: do not eat in the touristy restaurants. Locate the gems in the side streets, head to where the locals eat.
My parents used to say about restaurants in Spain: Eat where the floor is the dirtiest. Because locals would eat their food with toothpicks, which upon conclusion of the meal would end up on the floor together with the used napkins. I think you get the idea.
To avoid unpleasant surprises afterwards, ensure the food that you eat is freshly cooked – is there a high turnover, does the food not sit in a hot bar, do the locals eat here? Chances are you will eat some of the best foods in the city, and quite accidentally probably some of the cheapest too.
The Sense of Smell
The world is not just made of roses. I could have started this sentence with “Sadly” but I didn’t. For a full experience, even unpleasant smells might actually be a good thing. Not that I would want you to stick your nose into any dumpster, but think about a fish market, for example, and how it might smell on a hot day. We tend to shut out any unpleasantness when we come across it. But by doing so we are denying ourself to fully experience a place. Yes, the fish market was a bit smelly, but you know what, that’s how it really was. Don’t sugarcoat your experience and paint your world in roses.
On the upside, there are many pleasant smells that you mustn’t underestimate when travelling either. Take the salty breeze from the sea, for example. The baking heat that rises up from desert sand. The fragrance of wayside flowers that you see on a road trip stop. The comforting perfume of freshly laundered towels in your hotel room.
I think the nose is one of the most underrated sensory organs, so easily overpowered by other impressions, so easy to ignore when things don’t quite go your way. Give your nose a chance and sniff around from time to time.
The Sense of Touch
There is a reason why a vendor will want you to touch their goods at a market. The tactile qualities of an object can tell you complete stories about their past, present and future. Whenever I am allowed to do so I will reach out and touch what is around me. I let sand flow through my fingers. I gently rub petals with thumb and forefinger. I stroke a horse’s neck, poke my fingers in bulletholes from WWII on the fronts of Berlin houses and feel the dry bark on a hundred year old tree.
Being able to touch is such an intimate experience, making physical contact with the object, animal, person in front of you. Imagine not being able to use your hands anymore, how big of a loss that would be. So how come we don’t do it more often? Is it the invisible barrier that you need to cross in order to overcome your fears? I dare you to be more courageous, more inquisitive, more outgoing. Next time you travel, make sure you touch things.
The Role of Senses when Travelling
Words can only go so far when it comes to transporting sensory experiences to another person. In my writing I am doing my best to transport all these impressions over to the reader, but no words will ever be able to adequately express the experiences that I am able to make when I find myself in a situation. What I am trying to achieve, however, is that with my writing I will be able to encourage you to open yourself to the world of senses, for deeper travel experiences, longer lasting memories, and more satisfying encounters.