“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.” ~ Gandhi
What if we lived the way we travel?
It’s been my experience that we let go of many things when we travel. I’d like to propose that those things—the things we loosen our grip on while travelling—are things that don’t need to be held quite so firmly.
1. Notice. Slow down. Reflect.
San Miguel de Allende is one of my favorite places on earth. I’ve visited nine or ten times. If asked to describe heaven, I’d say that it was a long weekend in San Miguel.
After a gorgeous night’s sleep in Room number eight, I’d start to see things differently. I’d become absorbed by the way the golden light fell across our bed. I’d notice the specks of dust in the light shaft, like tiny astronauts travelling between the earth and the sun.
In the town, I’d observe the dogs walking on the shaded side of the street and follow their example. Everything in my path seemed beautiful and noteworthy: the way that rain drops hit the cobblestone streets, the crayola-colors of folk art in store windows, and the markets that smelled like cheese and chicken feet.
We sit at a cafe, content to drink limonada, and people-watch for hours.
We rarely do this at home because we believe there are very important things that must be accomplished, and that we can’t waste time at cafes. Vacations help us understand that we’re not quite as essential to our workplace as we thought. They’re getting by just fine without us.
Noticing leads to slowing down which allows us to reflect. We spend time observing the shape of things. Life exhales and rolls out ahead of us. We dream.
We begin to notice what needs more attention. Romance. Health. Connection.
We begin to wonder—what if we started leaving work at 5:00 p.m.?
Travel is the most profound of all noticing projects.
2. Live with less stuff.
I am a person who is unreasonably attached to things and to people. Perhaps it’s because I have lived away from Canada for fifteen years and travelled to twenty-four countries—five of which I have lived in for a year or longer. I am constantly trying to create a home… even on vacation.
To pack a bag of just twenty-three kilograms feels like a consequence for bad behavior. Nevertheless I became an expert packer, planning outfits from matching trousers, skirts, and tops. At some point, however, the coordinated outfits gave way to jeans, neutral trousers, and black tops and jackets.
Who do I think I’m kidding, anyway? The Parisians know that I’m a tourist and I’m okay with that.
Where I used to pack matching earrings and necklaces for each outfit, I’ve begun opting for simplicity. I’ll take no jewelry other than what I wear on the plane: a simple pair of earrings, a beloved ring from Chaing Mai, and my watch.
The time I once spent managing my travel wardrobe is better spent in the gardens at Versailles, at lunch or browsing in the Red Wheelbarrow, a favorite book shop in Paris.
There’s also a decadent freedom that comes with being responsible for less stuff. It is easier to change your plan and stay for a few extra days, or hop on a train for Vienna.
How would it feel to live at home with the same amount of stuff we pack when we are traveling?
3. Talk to strangers.
My father can talk to anyone. It’s one of the things I most admire about him—this ability to begin a casual conversation, to put the other person at ease, and to crack a joke. I was a quiet and introspective kid and I didn’t think I had his gift.
As it turns out, talking to strangers was waiting inside of me—a latent gift from my father.
While living in Barcelona we spent a Christmas holiday in Eastern Europe. We were catching an early-morning train from Budapest to Prague and I grabbed seats while Damien went to find breakfast.
He arrived back with a Burger King bag (that’s how you roll sometimes when you’re travelling) and I proceeded to spill my very large drink all over the floor of our six-passenger car.
Mortified, I tried to mop up the mess with our napkins and, during the clean up efforts, a young woman joined us in our car. She was quite young—not yet twenty—and her father carried her bag onto the train for her. He had a kind face and he smiled at us as he got off.
Whether it was one of us who spoke first, or Szuszi, I can’t really be sure, but we talked like three old friends all the way from Budapest to Slovakia where she disembarked. As she gathered up her stuff, I wondered if I should give her my email address. The cautious part of me—I’ll blame it on my Canadianness—said “No!” but the intrepid traveller in me said, “Go for it.”
Several days later, I received an email from Szuszi. Since that day on the train we have visited Budapest, spent Boxing Day with her family, and her brothers have stayed with us in our Barcelona flat.
I remember feeling nervous as I handed her my email address. This kind of risk-taking is not my default mode, but reaching out has led to a rich friendship with someone living an inspirational life.
Why did that risk seemed easier on a train in Europe than it does at our grocery store or work place?
4. Reserve judgment.
When we travel, we don’t expect plans to unfold without a hitch—at least not if we are travelling on a budget. We don’t expect that people will speak English. We don’t expect to understand the cultural nuances of everything that happens.
Because we’re not at home and all bets are off.
Shortly after we moved to Bangkok, fifteen colleagues travelled to Koh Samed for a lovely beach weekend. One night, we found an outdoor Thai restaurant where the young waiter helped us move the tables into a long line close to the sea. We pored over our menus, trying to pronounce the names of these amazing dishes.
Some time after we’d ordered, someone wondered aloud about our food and decided to investigate. What he found was that the kitchen consisted of one guy with a wok. When he reported this back to the group, people’s eyes widened at the thought of this enormous task.
Our meals arrived one at a time, as they were ready. The last person’s meal arrived an hour after the first person had finished eating, but no one complained. This restaurant was not equipped to handle dinner for fifteen people at once, but they had done their best and we, in return, had accepted the speed with which they could deliver our meals.
I ate my phad thai with my bare toes buried in the sand.
Most work places are not as soothing as a Thai beach but, in a very profound way, they are like foreign countries. We cannot assume that everyone thinks like us or desires the same outcomes. My travels remind me not to judge a situation without thinking about that Thai dude with the wok.
What I’d really like is to live everyday more like I travel: to notice things, slow down and reflect, to be less attached to stuff, to engage with strangers, and to judge less frequently.
Imagine what it would be like to feel our toes in the sand of our own contented lives.
Photo by Inti