Follow Your Own Travel Bliss

by Ekua on April 15, 2012 in general travel,musings,slow travel,why i travel

A couple weeks ago, a Facebook friend posed a question about whether she should do a multiple day hike to get to Machu Picchu or take the train to save time. Before I expanded the list of comments, I already knew what to expect based on my own experience with making that decision. My thoughts were correct. The majority of the responses could be summarized like this: “Do the trek so you can leave Peru with no regrets!”

I chimed in as the only person who overtly spoke positively about taking the train, which is how I got to Machu Picchu. It was a great experience for me. I had a fantastic travel buddy for the train ride and exploring Machu Picchu, I got back to Cusco in time to celebrate Peruvian Independence Day, and I followed through on my overall goal which was to spend the larger portion of the trip in Bolivia exploring remote corners of a remote country. I never look back and say, “Man, I wish I’d done the trek to Machu Picchu!” It simply was never important to me. It may be many people’s dream, but it’s not mine.

I think real honest enthusiasm from travelers who hiked the Inca trail sparked the trek-to-Machu Picchu fervor. But the “must do!” hype around it speaks to a larger theme of urgent, consumption-oriented travel. In the end, is it really worth it to obsessively tick off boxes and fixate on one particular popular experience when there are many equally fulfilling alternatives to that?

I certainly have succumbed to this kind of travel. I’ve rushed through places, trying to see as much as was humanly possible in a short period of time, driven by a well-intentioned mentality that life is short and I may never return to those places again. I still value the idea of making the most of your time in a place, but the numbers game doesn’t seem as important as it used to. While I love the experience of seeing so many different things, I’ve found that rushing through the world and ticking off boxes can limit what you truly see in the long run.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes I am in some exceptionally unique far away place for a specific reason (for example, visiting my mom in Namibia over the holidays or going to India for a wedding) and squeeze more into a limited time than I’d like.  But for trips that I come up with, I’ve begun to plan for longer amounts of time in fewer places.

I didn’t expect to encounter so many people who think that is a terrible idea. I often feel like I have to justify my decisions to spend a long time in one spot, return to place I’ve already visited, or to not do a “must-do” experience.

I met a group of guys from Ensenada when I first returned to Oaxaca last summer. They’d stayed in the city for a couple days and then left for more adventures around the state. They came back to Oaxaca city the day before I left to go back to Mexico City. When I saw them again, the first thing one of them said to me was, “Wow, you’re still  here?!”

“Yes,” I replied. “But I’m leaving tomorrow!” As soon as I added that second part, I knew it wasn’t necessary. Sure, I’d missed out on plenty of potential opportunities in Mexico and elsewhere by revisiting the small city of Oaxaca for the second summer in a row. But I left knowing the city even better, having seen nearby places I hadn’t been to on my first visit, and knowing that my passion for it wasn’t a fluke — it’s one of my favorite places in the world.

Sure, I missed a great challenge and amazing scenery by not trekking to Machu Picchu. But in Bolivia, I encountered unexpected challenges in stunning places over and over. I trekked through a swamp in the Amazon, through an ancient fern forest to the top of a mountain, across an island in one of the highest lakes in the world and hardly encountered foreigners other than the ones I was with. I wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the trek to Machu Picchu.

Life is short and the world can seem overwhelmingly huge for an adventurous spirit. But one of travel’s greatest lessons to embrace is how small you are in comparison to the world. You may not be able to see everything, but you can make the most of what you do see — and making the most of a place is subject to the traveler’s own ideas, not some list created by someone else.

In this world of limitless potential experiences, find out what you really want to explore and do that as much as you can. And remember that regretting what you could not do or didn’t have the time for on your travels is a choice. There is always another option: gratitude for what you did experience.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee April 16, 2012 at 6:35 am

I couldn’t agree with you more! Everyone’s experiences (and interests) are different and it’s perferctly alright to get recommendations from others, but doing something just because everyone else said you should is not the way to go. Good post.

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Thanks. On the road, everyone has adamant suggestions for everyone else (I do it too) but I’ve come to realize that people’s suggestions are so heavily rooted in their interests and prior personal experiences. I had some guy try to tell me NOT to go to Oaxaca before my first trip there. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to him. He was all about Chiapas because of the tropical greenery aspect of the state and kept pushing that on me. I was about to have a great tropical experience in Cuba on that trip, and that wasn’t what I was looking for in Mexico that time around. I’ve ended up in some great places by taking suggestions from other travelers and changing plans last minute, but those travelers tend to be kindred travel spirits with similar interests!

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Jessica Lockhart April 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I totally get where you’re coming from. I think I’ve skipped more tourist destinations and must-sees than the ones I’ve actually been to. I’m not interested in standing in lines and I’d rather actually experience a place and enjoy myself.

However, I LOVED the four-day trek to Machu Picchu last year. Not because it was on my “bucket list” or was a box that I had to check off, but because there are so many archaeological sites along that trail that you wouldn’t see otherwise. By the time I got to Machu Picchu, I was underwhelmed. For me, Machu Picchu was the most forgettable part about the whole trip.

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I’m not saying that people do the trek to MP only for that reason, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it if you’re not sold on it just because so many people say you should. As I said, I know that I must have missed some great stuff by not doing the trek… but it left more time for me to do things that I really really wanted to do. To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in exploring a bunch of archaeological sites in Peru, so I stuck to the big one. And I’m guessing that favorably altered my perception of Machu Picchu!

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Anna Maria April 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Thank you for writing this. I recently returned from a cruise around Greece/Turkey and although I squeezed in a lot of “must-sees” in 3 cities within one week, I couldn’t help but wish I could have spent more time in one place to really soak in the local vibe. Also, at one point while in Turkey, I had the option to go with a group to Ephesus to visit the site where Mother Mary spent her last days (a “must do”), OR spend the day exploring Izmir on my own. I chose the latter, and observing how the locals in that city spend a Sunday afternoon turned out to be the highlight of my journey.

I have felt especially drawn to Oaxaca lately, and I’ve decided to make it my next destination abroad. I would love to know more about how you arranged your trips there. Would it be possible to contact you via email?

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I haven’t ruled out taking a cruise, but this is the kind of thing that makes me hesitate. I’ve always liked the idea of approaching a place by boat, but when it comes down to it, I really like to travel overland!

Yeah, feel free to email me about Oaxaca, I love to share tips on it. I didn’t really do much arranging for Oaxaca on either trip! I had some points of interest in mind, but both times, I really just showed up and made my days up as I went along.

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Terri April 17, 2012 at 7:40 am

I hear you. I think it depends on my mood and where I’m going. I also think it depends on the type of traveler you are. For some people like me, I’d rather walk all day and take in a place including its sights than sit in a cafe and people watch or shop. For some the latter is better because they fee, but I like wandering down various streets passing stores whether I’m on my way. Each way is a different way of taking in a place. That being said, you can’t see and experience everything, even if you try.

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Yeah, I wouldn’t spend a long time in one location everywhere I go… it often depends on the culture. But even with places that I visit for a short time, I’ve found that adding a day or two beyond what I used to (at least one extra day for both walking around and hitting up a cafe!) tends to make my experience more meaningful.

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures April 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm

What a beautiful post and I totally agree!

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 11:26 pm

As I was writing this, I remembered when I was planning for that trip a few years ago and I asked you if you’d done the trek to MP. I wasn’t feeling it and didn’t feel like I had time in my schedule for it, but everyone I talked to acted like it was the only way to go. At that point, it was nice to talk to someone who hadn’t done it and you didn’t seem bothered by not doing it! I thought about it, and realized that if I had to ask so much, I wasn’t all that interested in it!

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Tatiana April 17, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Yes, I definitely agree about the consumption-tourist mentality many travelers have. The “must sees” or how staying in one place for too long is somehow bad or poor traveling etiquette. I’m not a big believer in that, in fact, I’d love to stay in one single place for a very long time, just to get to know it. And BE there and do other stuff.

I’m also a huge home body, and love to have roots in places. Hopping around like a nomad, trying to visit 4 places in two weeks is really intense – and probably disorienting in its own way. And I’m a HUGE opponent of the very popular saying: life is short therefore you have to do all of this stuff you really wanna do RIGHT NOW BECAUSE LATER ON YOU’LL BE DEAD. I think this is actually more damaging than anything else, and serves no real purpose except to fuel anxiety about “not doing anything” and fosters a sense of “instant gratification” and even more abstractly: a fear of death, a fear of not doing it all. It’s so horrific; I absolutely abhor it.

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 11:45 pm

In places I really like, I get such a kick out of staying long enough to have a favorite cafe or restaurant and bumping into the same faces and getting a glimpse into a culture that way. Some of my favorite posts are about times like that, when I took the time to settle into the local culture.

I like the “life is short” saying because so many people float around and never take the initiative to do the things they want to do and go where they want to go. I think realizing your time is limited has the power to motivate. But I totally agree that it can create anxiety and extreme behavior/desires, especially in such a consumption-oriented and competitive culture. Balance is key!

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Melodie K. April 23, 2012 at 10:29 am

I, too, prefer deep-diving – getting to know a favorite place better and better over time. Were I to return to Paris or Madrid today, I know just which café I’d head off to first. And then, I’d spend the rest of the time exploring, heading off in a different direction from my hotel each day. I know I would see something worthwhile and new.

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Ekua April 29, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Yup, it’s often a fulfilling way to travel!

This Battered Suitcase April 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Well said – I totally agree with you! I’m probably taking the train to Machu Picchu, too…

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Cool… just be prepared to explain why you didn’t do the hike to EVERYONE, haha. I already decided not to do it before I arrived, but when I got to Cusco, I met more people who tried to convince me to do it. Now, when people find out that I’ve been to MP, they pretty much assume I hiked until I tell them I didn’t. Then I get a lot of blank stares or “you’re crazy” looks. That part of the world has sooo many amazing things to do though… mountains, jungles, history, cities, lakes, etc… no need to focus on that one thing unless you have a true desire to do it.

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Fly Girl April 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm

That’s a great perspective, Ekua. I would have picked the trek too but your explanation makes total sense, you can experience travel with every experience as long as you’re open and grateful.

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Ekua April 19, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Thanks 🙂 The way I see it, you’re always missing something. Even when I’ve spent a long time in one spot, I’ll come home and discover some cool place nearby that I didn’t know was there until it was too late. It sucks, especially if the place is far, but it makes so much more sense to appreciate the experience for what it was than to dwell on the other stuff.

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Laura April 18, 2012 at 11:05 pm

I wholeheartedly agree… even if I must admit I find myself doing the same thing sometimes. I absolutely think that people should participate in the activities that would make them happy and not what someone thinks is the ‘best’. I like to push for the idea that when one visits a new place, they should really make an effort to get to know the people there in order to learn about a new culture. I can’t stand when someone talks about something they know nothing about (like a German woman inside a mosque in Turkey who asked her friend why Muslims kiss the ground because it seems so unhygienic). But even then, this woman was experiencing a new place (a mosque) and still not even paying attention to how people were praying. So I guess at the end of the day, it’s always each to their own!

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Ekua April 20, 2012 at 12:01 am

I think not rushing through a place and making the effort to understand a culture go hand in hand. Of course, there are people who will live somewhere for months and still not make an effort, but the more time you put in, the more likely you are to meet local people and find out what a place is all about!

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hannahinhanoi April 19, 2012 at 4:43 am

Thank you for writing this. Part of the reason I like to travel alone is that I get to set the pace. If I stay in one city for a week, so be it. If it takes me four months of studying art history in Paris to discover only half the Louvre collection, that’s fine. Quality of the time I spend with the art or the place is more important to me than the quantity that I see. I think it’s why I’m better at moving to new places and investing myself in a community than I am at travel. It feels validating to know that other people share the same opinion.

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Ekua April 20, 2012 at 12:11 am

I like settling in new places, but also really like the discovery of moving around. One of my best experiences abroad was volunteering in Northeast Brazil. I got into a routine there, but would also take off by bus or boat to go on adventures on long weekends… the best of both worlds.

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Sojourner April 21, 2012 at 5:44 am

I love what you said about embracing how small we are in the world. It is so true. It is so tempting to try to rush through a new city or country, checking off requisite places. We’ve all been there. But the magic often happens when you slow down and take your time connecting with a moment, a space or an experience. Great post. I love your blog 🙂

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Ekua April 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Thanks – I’m glad you stopped by! I’m definitely pulled by the temptation to rush, but I’ve come to see that taking the initiative to go outside your comfort zone and making the sacrifices to do it (i.e., choosing to put $ towards travel rather than fancy stuff) is already living life to the fullest, no matter how slowly you go about it!

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Michi April 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Incredibly well-said. I’ve often felt overwhelmed by all of the things I want to see and experience, but have yet to do. It’s easy to forget all of the incredible things that I have done. And yes, re-visiting a place simply because you’ve loved it should be perfectly okay. Indeed, life and travel shouldn’t be just a tick-off list. 😉

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Ekua April 29, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Thanks 🙂 One of the great things about blogging is that if you take the time to read over past entries, you can have a great look back at all of the awesome things you’ve done. It always makes me happy to sift through my archives!

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81noes April 25, 2012 at 2:27 pm

That’s a really lovely and inspiring post. I do feel exactly the same. Sometimes I got the impression others don’t get it: “How come you didn’t come into that museum, that island, that forest?” Well, I prefer just to sit down and feel the local sphere. Nice many more share the feeling!

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Ekua April 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Thanks!

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