A few months ago I broke ground on the idea of experiential travel as the structure for my future travels. In the time since that post, I’ve read a lot about the topic, proceeded to get extremely confused, and started dissecting the term so I could get a closer look at its inner parts. The magic of Google Alerts has marched a hilarious assortment of articles classified as experiential travel through my e-mail, everything from interactive gin displays in airports to sex tourism in Thailand and everything in between. The phrase is gaining popularity, but in a faddy wild west kind of way where just about any activity can be classified as “experiential travel.”
These events served only to distance me from the original spark of affirmation. After all, it wasn’t the allure of the term that grabbed me; it was a definition I read that closely mirrored how I was feeling about travel. Given the general cloudiness surrounding the idea, I started digging for the cornerstone themes – something, anything to help me organize my travel approach and to share with all of you. I might be a little dusty and mud-spattered, but I present some rules that would look excellent chiseled into a stone block.
Rule #1: Invest in Details
Experiential travel requires me to be a student of travel and everyday life. The magnificent brain is able to process a finite amount of information at any one time. This “mental RAM” focuses on new incoming information and relegates the vast majority of other familiar information to a rarely noticed “memory cache.” Unfortunately, many of the unique details of a place are lost when this happens. Counteracting this natural process requires deliberate action, so I came up with a simple series of reminders to read on my trips:
- Assume nothing is commonplace or routine
- Observe with concentration
- Notice the details of my surroundings
- Pay attention and solotask as much as possible
- Find wonder in what appears mundane
Following these basic tactics should help me have deeper and richer experiences.
Rule #2: Question Everything
Be child-like in inquisition. Much of the mundane typically slides right past me, and incredible stories hide therein. Why does the city use trams instead of buses? How come the buildings on that side of the street are three feet lower than the buildings on the other side? Why do all of the buildings use terra cotta shingles? Observations that would normally not be given much attention could send me on engaging mini quests. Now I can find answers to just about anything in minutes thanks to our benevolent god, Google, but experiential travel isn’t about the answers. It’s about the process that leads to the answers. When I keep asking “Why?” I often find that my knowledge is a thin crust covering a vacuum eager to be filled. Trade the sterility of a Google search for legwork and conversation.
Rule #3: Foster New Routines
Experiential travel is largely an exercise in cultural adoption and absorption. It is an attempt to see the world from a different point of view. I need to maximize my “sponginess,” and to do this I have to put my normal routines, my standard culture, in storage. When abroad, eat, sleep, work, and play like the people around me. Assimilate. Let go of preconceived definitions of the world. It’s OK to redefine myself; I can have multiple definitions. Why not? Words do.
Rule #4: Slow Down
Slow travel is the binding agent, the ingredient that leavens this experiential travel bread. When I travel too fast, I’m constantly looking ahead to my next stop and never around. Unallocated time is not wasted time, it’s time given the opportunity to surprise me. Unwind and focus on the present (see rule #1). Enjoy the miniature pleasures in life that are invisible at high speeds. Slowing time down makes the preceding rules much easier to follow.
There you have it. Four commandments of experiential travel. Now that you know how I define it, tell me if you think I missed some rules. Do you try to follow these rules in your travels now?
Original photo by Wessex Archaeology via Flickr under Creative Commons