It's July 2020, and no one can predict when the world will be normal again. Many of us, despite being in the midst of financial and emotional turmoil, are understandably itching to travel; but perhaps this long hiatus is a perfect opportunity to slow down and rethink how we explore the world.
I've had the interesting fate of being stuck in Dubai throughout the pandemic. During these months spent hunched over a laptop in a dim room in one of the most artificial cities in the world, I've had plenty of time to dream of happier days to come. It's no surprise that the sort of adventures I crave carry a whiff of escapism.
Many others seem to be nursing similar cravings. In the past, I would hear people talk about travel in terms of a bucket list: climb the Eiffel Tower, explore Mayan ruins in Guatemala, somehow wrangle a visit to Burma or Bhutan. Back then, the obvious frontier was geographical: of course we should go to Bhutan, because we've already "done" so many other more accessible countries. True adventure meant crossing yet another border – or so it was tempting to think.
Today, the frontier is of a different nature. Many of us now dream of feelings rather than specific destinations: we yearn to wake up in any unfamiliar bed; to step off a train in any mysterious village; to hike up any mountain with a bottle of wine and a flirtatious new friend; to sit anywhere under the evening stars and feel grateful for the vanishing day. What we really crave, it seems, is the feeling of being alive – and perhaps that is what we wanted all along, even when we were rushing from place to place and striving to take photos of everything under the sun.
In an effort to crystallise some of my hopes for the future, I've put together a list of five ways to make post-coronavirus travel more meaningful. Some of these things you might do already; some of them might seem overly eccentric or reckless. But I hope you find at least one idea that strikes a chord.
1) Draw maps on napkins
Google Maps prevents us from getting lost. This can be genuinely useful – but as I've written elsewhere, the sense of certainty it creates tends to place the most enduring charms of travel beyond our reach. It diminishes adventures in two ways: by stopping us from taking the wrong turns that lead to chance encounters, and by making the destination seem more important than the journey towards it.
It's possible to get from place to place without shutting out the world around us. Physical maps are good for this – but even better, in my experience, is a napkin or scrap of paper with a few basic directions scrawled on it.
One of the most memorable mornings of my life was spent wandering through the streets of Paris. I walked out of Charles de Gaulle airport with a scrunched-up note of written instructions: "take the bus to Gare de Lyon; walk straight along the Rue de X; turn right at the Place de Z," and so on. Eventually, after asking several people for directions, I found my friend's empty apartment. Looking at my notes, I read: "the key to the front door is on the shelf above the water cylinder." And as I entered the empty sunlit room, which looked out upon a stone courtyard, I could hear the bells of a church chiming through the open window, as if rewarding me for finding my destination.
Nobody will ever persuade me that Google Maps or a Notes app could have provided the same sense of magic as that tiny scrap of paper. Without a smartphone, you'll still find your way eventually – and by having to actively search for the right way, you'll also notice every other possible way.
2) Behave like an improv musician
Have you ever watched in amazement as a jazz quartet improvises half an hour of continuous music, seemingly through instinct rather than effort?
Travellers can learn something from those musicians. Often, a fixed plan, like a sheet of music, is fatal to spontaneity. Every hotel we book, every table we reserve, every ticket we buy in advance, represents a narrowing of possibility and a constricting of freedom.
By keeping a flexible schedule and keeping our eyes open, we can seize opportunities that were impossible to imagine in advance. Plans are necessary to get us out the door each day – but we can design them to be instantly abandoned when we find ourselves, say, invited to join a cricket game in Mumbai, or offered a room by the self-styled heiress to the Empire of Trebizond.
3) Seek settings, not countries
Of all the traps that await the unwary pilgrim, one of the most tempting is the sense of completion. It's very pleasant to scratch countries off a world map – in the same way that it's said to be pleasant to take cocaine. But a country "done" is like a dopamine neuron destroyed; things will never quite be the same again.
National borders are only worth our attention because (a) they help us learn history and politics, and (b) they limit our freedom of movement. They shouldn't determine how we perceive the surface of the earth, or how we explore it.
Imagine a beautiful island in the Sea of Marmara. On this island, facing the water, is a small teahouse that sells black coffee, orange juice, cakes, and other things. Outside the cafe, on the grass, there's a rickety table. Next to the table, two kittens are sleeping in the sunshine. It's possible to sit at the table with the kittens at your feet, drink black coffee, and look out across the sea at the domes and minarets of Istanbul.
Does visiting Turkey once mean you should no longer look for this place? Does "seeing" Istanbul mean it's not worth going back? And does sitting at that table, sipping that coffee, looking at that view, mean you shouldn't visit the same spot again in fifteen years' time when the kittens have become elderly cats?
We all know the correct answer hypothetically. But it's very, very easy to think of the world as an ever-diminishing list of unexplored countries, rather than a practically infinite variety of possible settings.
4) Collect moments, not places
Closely related to the last point is another common trap: letting places get in the way of moments. Even the sort of traveller who spends six months in a single country can fall victim to this temptation.
Places are inherently interesting – and the pleasure of exploring far-flung regions is a worthy reason to travel. But sometimes, the thought of our destination blinds us to the beautiful moments that await anyone who deviates from strict point-to-point navigation.
As Alan Watts once said, comparing life to music: "in music, one doesn't make the end of a composition the point of a composition."
Everyone knows the same is true of travel – journey, not destination – but how many of us truly abandon ourselves to whim when we're moving from place to place? During Patrick Leigh Fermor's youthful walk across Europe, he had a fixed destination (Constantinople) and strict rules of locomotion (no trains, no cars, no wagons). But on one occasion, he was sidetracked – and spent a week driving around the Saxon towns of Transylvania with two friends he'd met on the road. Despite this detour being contrary to the goal of his long walk, it was absolutely consistent with the spirit of it – and led to some of its most unforgettable moments.
Next time you travel, try to say yes to any opportunity that passes your way – even if it means you'll miss your train or waste your two-day museum pass. This is especially worthwhile when the opportunity presents itself in the form of another person... which leads us to our final point:
5) Put your life in strangers' hands
Risk isn't for everyone – and it's perfectly reasonable to avoid it as much as possible. No one wants to suffer the fate of Frank Lenz, the man who was ambushed and killed while cycling around the world in 1892.
But for those comfortable with some risk, there's something profoundly liberating about entrusting your fate to strangers. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have at least unwillingly found ourselves doing this: perhaps we accidentally left our bag on a bus, or twisted our ankle on a mountain path. When we're in a vulnerable position and humanity comes to our aid, it gives us a sense of solidarity far deeper than anything we normally experience while comfortable and secure.
Some travellers consciously put themselves in situations which foster this solidarity. At the mild end of the spectrum are ride-sharing services like BlaBlaCar. A bit more adventurous is the choice to stay in other people's homes, à la Couchsurfing. Further along the scale is hitchhiking. And more extreme still is what inveterate risk-takers like Patrick Leigh Fermor did: set out each morning without any idea whether you'll end up sleeping in a hayrick or a Hungarian castle.
Whatever level of risk you're comfortable with, making an effort to trust strangers generally leads to more meaningful experiences on the road. And meaning, after all, is one of the incidental rewards of true adventure.
Enjoyed this article? We'll be publishing part two – Another 5 Ideas for More Meaningful Travel – in the coming weeks. Stay tuned by signing up for our monthly newsletter below.