Don’t plan your entire itinerary. One exception: If your flight arrives at night in a country foreign to you, ensure your safety by reserving accommodations for the first night. Then you can wake up refreshed and ready to evaluate your options. Don’t just rush along to the next destination. Wander the streets, ask locals for suggestions and if opportunity comes knocking, you’ll have the flexibility to open the door.
Concentrate on the present and enjoy the moment. Celebrate the colours, savour the flavours and embrace the noxious smells (you may be offended but they’re integral to this environment).
Don’t fly. Airplanes are not always practical. When I lived in “Old Playa del Carmen” in Mexico (then a fishing village, now the Mayan Riviera), only once did I succumb to pressure from well-meaning expatriate friends who encouraged me to fly to nearby Central American countries. I was already anxious about the one-hour flight on the dilapidated coach and about arriving at Cancun International Airport two hours before our departure on an international flight, and then mechanical problems delayed our flight. (“Time to spare, go by air,” as the old adage goes.) Already exasperated, the security checks at Mexico’s Chetumal International Airport after we landed infuriated me. Wasted time + aggravation = USD$130. Departing southbound from Playa + relaxing on a deluxe bus + clearing Mexican and Belizean immigration in the same time required for air travel = USD$10.
Choose slower methods of ground travel. Instead of taking a taxi, bus or, worse, a city tour bus, walk or rent a bicycle and actually get a good look at those sights you’re whizzing by.
Choose even slower methods of ground travel. If there’s a rickshaw, triciclo or tuk-tuk, take it. Start a conversation with the driver. Make unplanned stops on a whim. Interact with the locals.
Detach yourself from the go-go pace of life back home. To minimize your compulsive reliance on technology (admit it), visit cyber cafes or use a smartphone on occasion to maintain contact with friends and family – but that’s it.
Arrange a home-stay with a traditional indigenous family (if possible). In the homes of my Maya friends, my momentum wanes almost immediately. I can be guided by daylight hours, walk one mile for potable water, carry those full 10-gallon water buckets back home, bathe in the river, wash dishes in the stream, walk through the hills to gather firewood, cook on the wood-fuelled hearth and then fall asleep in the hammock, exhausted.
Transform the journey into the destination. Hike from the city of Pokhara to the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal’s Himalayas, meander through the meseta (“inner plateau”) of Spain to the town of Santiago de Compostela, make the pilgrimage down the ancient road of Via Francigena between Canterbury and Rome, perch on top of the train car to view Ecuador’s El Nariz del Diablo (“The Devil’s Nose”) massif, ride a camel through the Saharan erg of Morocco’s Erg Chebbi – the list goes on.
Study abroad. Among the many ways to learn while you travel, you can devote a few years to post-graduate research or a few weeks to a short-term foreign language course. With your free time, you and the other students will have the opportunity to explore the region thoroughly.
Volunteer abroad. As with studying abroad, you’ve already made your way to your destination of choice, but as a volunteer you’ll be working with the locals. You’ll meet their families and friends and be immersed in their traditional culture. You’ll learn regional mores. You’ll acquire different but effective approaches to problem-solving. You’ll appreciate that perspectives on life and living as observed by different cultures are fundamentally equivalent to your own. What could be better?
Lola Reid Allin is a traveller, freelance photographer and author currently based in Hastings County, Canada. She is a commerical pilot, PADI DiveMaster and Maya ethnographer who has lived in Mexico's Yucatan, Belize, British Columbia interior and almost everywhere in Ontario. Her travels include exploration of Kenya, Morocco, Tanzania, Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, India, Australia, Peru, Cuba and the Maya Lands of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Her volunteer experience includes translation, photography and teaching in Kenya, Honduras and Guatemala. www.lola-photography.com