Traveling isn’t brutality; it’s a skill you develop with experience. Visiting tens of cities and countries over a short span of time, or even visiting one for that matter, can be at once exhilarating and exhausting; I’m by no means an expert, but I have picked up some knowledge over the three week-long travel breaks we get for the DIS program in Denmark. I was lucky enough to travel through Germany, Austria, Italy during the first break, visit doctors in Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia during the second, and explore the United Kingdom on the third. I learned that if I prepared properly and kept the right attitude, the journey definitely strained a lot less and thrilled a lot more. If you read nothing else in this post, definitely read the tips!
Preparing keeps you sane – you can rely on the fact that you’ve brought what you need. Your pack becomes your best friend and source of comfort. It simply feels better to be walking around in a foreign place if you have the familiarity of your pack literally anchoring you down to the path. This also means that packing right is packing light – I found that with a light backpack I could avoid paying for lockers and save the time some people spend on going to their accommodation first. I also discovered a kind of “survival” kit of times I had to pack. Like Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, having a towel is strangely reassuring (as if you’re saying to yourself “I’ve come through all this crazy traveling and yet I managed to keep my towel, so I must have done something right”) and it’s wicked useful – I used it as a blanket one night I got to my hostel too late, a soft cushion for some Venetian glass I bought as a gift, and even as a tool to dry myself off after showering. Other items I wouldn’t usually think of like ziplock bags, locks (yes, multiple), tape and a notecard box (helps keep small items safe) came in very handy as well. The final and most important aspect of preparing I discovered was researching where I was headed. With this you have to strike a tricky balance – you have to know enough to have historical and cultural literacy of the place (Don’t go to Estonia not knowing it was a country like I did, it makes for very awkward conversations), but without over-saturating yourself. You want to have enough background to know what, who, and where to be interested in but still retain enough ignorance to enjoy learning about and experiencing the place. Being a boy scout about travel (“Always be prepared”) can earn you some derisive laughs from inexperienced friends, but you’ll have a much better experience if you are.
The other, probably more, important lesson I learned is to have a very certain attitude while you’re traveling. Being overly optimistic is foolish – things are going to go wrong, and not recognizing that before you leave will only leave you worse off when they happen. At the same time, you obviously have to enjoy the experience! That’s the key idea right there. Traveling is experiencing, and experiences in themselves are neither positive nor negative things. The effort, curiosity, and openness you put into them and the friendliness, helpfulness, and interest of strangers (yes, they can in fact be nice!) can come together to make the journey fun and rewarding. So, some tips:
- “Don’t Panic” (Again from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which I read after my second break and found oddly accurate). Although I faced numerous, often daily, times that I wanted to give up in frustration and just lie down, having a constant faith that no matter how long it took, or in what way, I would get to the destination I had in mind. Just be patient! Taking a breath, mentally removing myself from the situation, when I felt myself starting to panic helped immensely.
- Open yourself to experience (Or learn to). Of course this is largely a personality trait but everyone has some leniency – I’m actually a fairly shy, closed person but I managed to open myself to talking with random strangers, meeting people (especially welcoming hosts), and I slowly but surely became more comfortable with it. In this is a willingness to not do just the touristy things, but to go further and to explore the “real” place, or at least less commercialized version of it. The people who live in a place make it unique, give it culture unlike anywhere else. Ask them what they think you should do! Maybe you’ll even get invited to do something with them!
- Accept your mistakes. During my first trip to Germany, Austria, and Italy, I had some really fun experiences as well, but my mistakes overshadowed them. And unfortunately humans have this horrible tendency to forecast how they feel in the moment into the future (ever tried to cheer someone up after a bad breakup? “But I’m always going to feel this miserable!”). But then I had this wonderful realization that I had to forgive myself. Picking myself up, healing over the two week course-period, and leaping into the next travel break made it so much more enjoyable than the first. And the best part? I’d learned what not to do from the first trip.
So I guess I’d like to revise how I started this post. Travel can be brutality, I see traveling like how I imagine many captains have described the ocean over the years: arg mate, ‘she’s a wild and beauty but ye need to tame ‘er, ride ‘er or shell toss ye overboard quick as that.’ (Sorry for being corny, haha). Travel will whip you around and kick you until you’re bruised washed up and close to crying on the side of a road in Rome at 2:15 am if you let it (true story). But it can also be an extraordinary experience through which you grow. Your Choice…
I’d like to finish with a connection to my interest in psychology. We panic when we perceive something as a threat. One of my professors described something he called the “Zone of Proximal Growth,” which can be thought of as the extent to which anything we experience can help us grow (literally, personally, professionally, etc.). Basically, we perceive everything inside this metaphoric “zone” as a challenge to be overcome and everything outside as a threat to be avoided. One of the main goals of travelling, for many people, is to expand their zone of proximal growth by being open to new unforeseen experiences and, as a result, grow from them rather than fear them and panic. As Floyd Skloot (2003) profoundly said: “It’s not so much a matter of making lemonade out of life’s lemons, but rather of learning to savor the shock, taste, texture and aftereffects of a mouthful of unadulterated citrus” (In the Shadow of Memory, p.197). Although he’s talking about learning to live with the loss of memory in dementia, potential travelers can learn a lot from his positive, but candid, acceptance and even joy in experience, no matter its quality. So, fellow traveler, don’t add sugar.