“She often winds up getting lost, but that’s part of the fun.” – says the Apple iPad advertisement featuring Cherie King who eats coal-roasted lobster in Ghana. Hmmm.
Why is going off-the-beaten path the archetype of success for travel? Why does it not always come naturally? And, are all these people snobs or am I some kind of wimp? What kind of traveller am I and why? Do I have something unique to offer others here?** I’ll start with the idea that I travel, but do not typically eat coal-roasted lobster in Ghana or stay at the Capella, and drink scotch at the roof-top patio, in Washington for $1000 per night as my in-flight magazine suggested would be awesome.
We all know that travel advertisements, blogs and the articles you read in your in-flight magazine paint a pretty romanticized view of travel. And, the themes of getting lost, and going off the beaten path, are pervasive. What does going “off-the-beaten path” mean anyway? The best definition of off-beat experiences I found say it typically means looking for isolated, special and secret sacred places, and trying to find connections with people, or a sense of uniqueness, authenticity, purpose and inspiration. And, so why is this fundamental to defining success for your travel experience? The psychology and neuroscience of this is not precise at all: “getting lost” and going “off-the-beaten path” could give a rush of adrenaline which makes the adventurous activities seem exciting, or seeking unfamiliar experiences might provide an evolutionary advantage. The natural selection argument has a more reasonable counterpoint: didn’t our ancestors who wandered into the dark woods get eaten, and is that the reason why I am hesitant about being in unfamiliar places? Maybe it’s about discovery and curiosity. The funny part of that idea, reflecting on my own experiences, is the notion that you actually discovered something yourself (i.e., despite the fact that it’s there is plain sight for everyone to see, probably for hundreds of years, is beside the point).
There are definitely a variety of people and perspectives when it comes to travel. The tourist is someone who is explores new places superficially, insulated from the experiences. A traveller is someone who independently, but sometimes cautiously, plan and seek out enriching experiences as part of their travels. And, the adventurer is someone who fully immerses themselves in the culture and wanting full cultural immersion and peak experiences. These are great distinctions. Kudos. I am definitely in the traveller bucket and line-up to “off-the-beaten path” as shooting for unique and authentic, in my admittedly limited repertoire of experiences – again, a key theme in my travel entries.
I spent some time thinking about my favourite experiences and what I learned. In re-reading this entry, I did somewhat laugh at myself: is this obvious? I think I sat on this post for a couple of weeks before hitting the publish button.
- Bryant Park, New York (and the Open Air Library) – At this point, most people reading this are saying, “what the heck? Bryant Park is in the middle of mid-town Manhattan, at 42nd and 6th, that hardly qualifies as off-the-beaten path, gesh what a moron”. My point here is that we just happened to be walking by, not knowing or thinking about going to Bryant Park, and it end-up being the most pleasant part of a beautiful May weekend. The Magnolia Bakery is around the corner, for those with a fetish for Red Velvet cupcakes. We just happened to be walking by with cupcakes in-hand, noticed the park, with its great lawn, tables and seating along the shaded lane, books, magazines and newspapers for everyone to read. What’s better than reading the Times in a park in New York while stuffing cake in your mouth? A perfect way to kick back on a Sunday. Unscripted. The lesson-learned here is: if something looks nice or interesting, stop and check it out, plan not to be in a rush.
- Place Dauphine, Paris – I wrote about this in another blog entry. This discovery fits into the “what’s down this street?” part of getting lost; a nice tree-filled square, somewhat secluded, with cafes surrounding looking inward, is yet another example of a little piece of calm and serenity in a busy city. At the time, my colleagues and I were at the tail end of our walk down the Champs-Elysees in the late afternoon, in desperate need of food and drink. I think we wandered into the square fully by accident (it’s not obvious there is a square from the street), and my immediate reaction was “hey, this is cool”. This struck me because there are literally streams of tourists that walk by Point Neuf to the Louvre. The lesson-learned here is: poke your head down streets that seem interesting, actually go off the beaten path.
- Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore India – My colleagues and I planned a day trip to Mysore, about 140 km south of Bangalore, with the intent of checking out the palace, which is the main attraction. The drive to Mysore reminded me of a couple tracks in Mario Kart, weaving in-and-out of, and narrowly avoiding, people, animals, and oncoming traffic. Having arrived before it opened, we pondered our next move and eventually decided to head up to Chamundi Hills. Chamundeshawi is an active template, complete with sacred monkeys, cows, a market, hordes of pilgrims paying homage to their warrior goddess. Do we go in? You’d think it wouldn’t be a question, but kicking off your shoes and jumping into what can only be described as a scrum, of sorts, seemed daunting to pampered westerners. Of course, I joined the line and got into the thick-of-it and it turned out to be the most memorable part of the day. The lesson-learned here is: get-out-there, don’t hesitate, and take the plunge.
- The Who Shop, London UK – I wrote about this in another blog entry. They have a little museum in the back-of-the-shop with all kinds of set pieces and costumes: cool. The guy poking about back there looked like he worked there (he was the owner), so I struck up a little conversation, asked him a couple of questions, and complimented his shop, resulting in a full 30 minutes of him pointing out all the nooks and crannies of the museum and his awesome stories about being an extra some of the episodes: much, much cooler. Lesson learned: talk to people, say hello, be friendly and ask questions.
- Taito Station Shinjukuminamiguchi, Tokyo – (OK, the name of this location is just awesome) In my stop-over in Tokyo, I wanted to make the most of my couple days there and insisted on walking and taking transit around a few key areas. In retrospect, I now recall I was looking for the Takashimaya Shinjuku Store, I turned the corner, and behold: a gigantic red three storey store facade with a huge Space Invader on it. Oh, baby. I couldn’t believe I didn’t think about visiting an arcade, but moments later I was standing amidst the action. This place is not somewhere a person who is prone to seizures should go. Not making much sense of the Japanese instructions, I spent a fun-filled hour giving up my Yen to the machines and taking in the spectacle of the experts. The lesson-learned here is: walk, ride a bike, or take transit to encounter the unexpected.
The bottom-line: It’s ok to be a traveller. You don’t always need to be jumping off a waterfall or bartering in Morocco. If you want to try to be a bit more of a traveller than tourist, and you are just not wired for that, try some of the tips above.
**There are a lot of blogs about the art and value of getting lost while travelling, such as those in Travel and Leisure, Dangerous Business, other blogs, and Huffington Post and NY Times. The latter two blogs are pretty good, as they explain just a little bit about both the method and means of getting lost and the stories that ensue. Here’s a girl who has been around, and gets the idea about authentic experiences. This is not a new idea.