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The ideal of a soulful and nurturing vacation is the backbone of our inherent wanderlust. Everyone wants to check off the boxes of their meticulously arranged plans for “the perfect trip,” fully reinvigorate after a long stretch of routine, and enrich their experiences with new sights and sounds. Whether you jump on the adventurous path and hike Machu Picchu or simply take a 10-day long lounge session in a remote corner of the Yucatan peninsula, expectations for trips are inevitable. And sometimes, in a new place that we have no way of predicting and days that take us by surprise, we often find the incongruity of reality with expectations quite unsettling and disappointing. So how can this be avoided to maximize the so sought-after and anticipated travel experience, transforming it from regret-filled to blissful?
1. Implement the “I’ll Come Back” mindset
When I first started traveling quite religiously, I felt like I needed to “sponge” up every bit of place, telling myself, “I’m only here once. This is my chance.” My initial approach to plans, especially in a new city, was to fit everything I could into one day, planning and plotting down to the exact location of the restaurant where I would eat lunch at exactly 12:30 p.m. When things went awry, like an Uber taking too long to arrive or a museum line manifesting itself to be longer than expected, I grew anxious and turned inward in fear rather than doing the exact thing I initially planned on: exploring. Finding myself susceptible to this habit, I decided to change by implementing a hard and fast rule: no schedules!
Schedules are for work weeks and do better when filled with meeting times and lunch dates, not rigid guidelines for travel. Do your research beforehand. Figure out a mental map of where you will be based and where you want to go. Have a general understanding of how to get there. But, amidst all of this, head out and be spontaneous. Only the best things happen when you don’t plan, and maybe something novel and unprecedented, in place of an oversold tourist trap, will become the highlight of your trip. Most importantly, realize that things unseen and undone are not shortcomings. The world is too interconnected to think you will never come back.
2) Learn stories from first-hand sources
As an introvert, it’s hard for me to admit that much of the satisfaction of travel inevitably comes from being outgoing, approaching, and unafraid in a foreign environment. When even asking for directions in a predominantly English-speaking country induces the jitters, the experience of connecting with natives and diving head-first into a country’s culture is oftentimes swapped for the easier head-in-the-guidebook alternative. A good place to start being an “extrovert on the go” is visiting obscure places frequented by locals. Crowd-free venues will not only allow you to get a true feel for a place and its everyday proceedings but grant a better chance of engaging in friendly and spontaneous conversation with a native. Maybe they will introduce you to a local haunt or give you tips on the best herring cart in the Netherlands. Maybe they will turn out to be royalty and invite you over to their chateau for the summer. More realistically, though, interacting with locals to glimpse the true essence of their residence will extend traveling to something downright gratifying.
3) Combine travel with good deeds
A vacation is time to indulge in yourself according to anyone’s standards. This is a golden opportunity for truly recentering and finding balance away from chaos or monotony. Yet, I believe there’s more to it. Visiting a new place means not only infusing your whole being with unbelievable energy and joy but also sharing a bit of yourself with it. “Volunteercations” are on the rise, with companies such as DiscoverCorps offering a multitude of options underlined by comfortable living arrangements, 30+ community service hours, and a chance to explore the country as a tourist. Habitat for Humanity is another short or long-term option for those interested in all-hands-on-deck type work, mainly focused on helping restore or build infrastructure in a particular area of the world.
When I traveled to Belize last summer to lead English lessons for kindergarten students, I was amazed by how much more relaxed and fulfilled I felt versus a cookie-cutter vacation. Every day was marked by four or more hours of lessons after which my fellow volunteers and I spent time reminiscing on the day and touring the country. After the two weeks, I felt that I was finally able to strike a balance between gratification and giving back. This type of work, as it turns out, pairs perfectly with bullet point number two, as I never felt as open, curious, and receptive to other cultures as I have when I interacted with the children, teachers, and community leaders to become more aware of what life means to them.
Having the opportunity to travel frequently was another manifestation of the “practice makes perfect” mantra. As straightforward as it seems, the more you explore the unknown, the less unknown it will become. There’s an anxious, obsessive traveler in all of us, searching for the right lighting to get that picture of our chai lattes and trying to decode seemingly undecipherable tram routes. From one such traveler to another, the best advice of all is to predict nothing and expect everything. The whole bliss of travel, after all, is just finding yourself on completely new soil and seeing what sprouts.
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