Have you ever looked into a persons face? Really looked?
What did you see? Could you get past your own ideas of what it is to be a person, or did your thoughts still circle around yourself and your prejudices about being a human?
Maybe that’s what empathy really is. Understanding that we are the same, but different. From that starting point, other people get infinitely more interesting. You can’t help but want to hear their story (and there are no boring life stories). Travelling is a shortcut to this experience, but only if you let it be.
Every time I’m travelling it’s like my senses are heightened. I will notice the details. I look at what kind of trash people have thrown in the street. The specific smells. Stickers on lamp posts, posters, graffiti. How the alleys in this particular city look, the storm drains, the signs. How people move. The interaction between strangers in the street. Traffic.
Why? Because that’s what makes a place. If I hop on a tour bus all I get is postcard memories, and enough people have those. It’s the details that put me in a place. It’s what feeds my real memories and the stories I remember.
I think a lot about my trips before I go, but maybe not in the same way you do. I try to see myself in the new location, among the people who live there and have their normal life there. I do this because I want to be able to drop the sense of being somewhere exotic the minute I step outside the airport. People live where I’m going. It’s normal to them, and the quicker I can see that, the sooner I get to the really exciting stuff.
I can’t remember ever getting a culture chock arriving somewhere new (coming home though, I’ve gotten them many times). There is a system to every place, and one of the biggest part of any adventure is to find out what it is. Humans are self-organising, you just have to find the local flavour of organised.
Of course I think about some practical things, but I try not to read too much beyond what weather to expect, how to get around and the status of the tap water. Maybe a general idea about prices. I will look at pictures and read something, perhaps a biography or an article. Never a travel guide.
By the way, that works in reverse as well. Sometimes I’ll read something because I’ve visited where it takes place. I remember reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being years after visiting Prague and overlaying my own memory of the city on the story.
I take very few pictures. If I take any at all it’s with my smartphone and what I shoot is often of little interest to others. Instead, I write down everything in a diary. Sometimes I’ll offload my experiences several times a day. I wish I was as good with a camera as with my words, but there is no picture in the world I’d trade for the memories I have written down. I couldn’t have taken a photo of the moment my plane was taking off from Narita and I had my headphones plugged in the armrest, the radio channel tuned to a local channel playing a Korean cover of Gangsters Paradise.
My father is the one that taught me about watching faces. It’s one of the ways he remembers his travels. He is good with a camera and in his gentle way, gets people to agree to let him take close-ups. He’ll show me a picture of a woman in Guatemala, in a village where no tourists ever go. Then he will proceed to tell me, in great detail, all that happened there.
When I started travelling someone told me that if you travel you always have a story to tell. That has turned out to be true. More than that, though, it has given me a big library of experiences with many different kinds of people, and that is what’s pulling me away to travel again and again. The more I do this, the more I want to keep doing it.
No matter where you go, go with an appetite for life and adventure. Remember where you are and experience that fully.
And, please bring back more stories.
I’ve started writing up several of my travel memories, and this serves as an introduction. If you like it, please let me know. Cheers! // Daniel