Life Changing Travel

“It changed my life.” How many times have you heard that said?  The range of these miraculous events from the near-misses to the new revelations is broad.

Certain trips feel life-changing in the way perspective is altered or understanding of a place or culture increased.  You learn new skills, gain confidence, or truly change your life by meeting new people who become part of the rest of your life.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that travel can  change your life – what you do, what you read, what you care about, your doubts and even your physical self.

It’s happening. I’m getting ready for a trip this fall and grateful that I still have five months ahead. It’s a horseback riding clinic in a beautiful foreign setting. (This is where friends laugh or gasp or seem very confused.) Yes, I will be spending seven days on horseback on trails, along the beach, and in the training ring.

As I counted off the years left before the next big birthday, it brought up existential questions.  Who am I? Who do I want to be when I hit that truly adult milestone?  What of the (many) hobbies I’ve dropped would I want to reclaim as part of my life? Horseback riding was one.

Though my relatives had horses, my grandfather was loath to let a little blonde bookworm with a bad sense of balance  have the reins. So to prove a point after grad school, I rode a couple of times a week but as many things do, it faded away with job changes, mortgages and life.

A trip isn’t just a promise of an experience you plan for, it can be a promise to yourself, a way to reach a goal, a definitive time where you will make the leap. Committing to the trip, getting ready, planning – all shift your sense of who you are. And once committed, there’s no turning back. (Cowardice is not one of the options on the travel insurance.)

Would you feel this too? Not only am I walking funny from sore muscles and angry ankles, other things have to change to make the trip possible. I’m simplifying my life – culling down, weighing my choices, living more simply. I am thinking, “what matters?”  In light of the big plan, what matters?

One of my favorite luggage strategies is to travel with clothes that I can let go of. Often these are things I love but are nearing the end of life. Wear that jacket or shirt one last time and leave it behind. It’s freeing. Less baggage, more simplicity, a lighter load rather than a heavier bag as I go forward.

That does work great for the suitcase but it’s an even better habit for the insecurities and fears you drop along the path – “I’m not the kind of person who can…”. It’s easier to slip out of those with strangers. It’s easier to try.

All of this will change you.Maybe the life-changing trip does begin when the idea first forms in your mind.  I want my view of the world to be bigger but I also need my life to be bigger.

Is it time to risk more, be brave and think big?

 

 

Travel Arithmetic

The small but thriving town of Tain, situated on the south shore of Dornoch Firth, is Scotland’s oldest royal burgh. Glenmorangie Distillery has been producing its Single Highland malt Scotch whisky since 1843.  Crafting the delicate spirit is entrusted to the legendary Sixteen Men of Tain. from VisitScotland.com

I have a process.  While solo travel is spontaneous, soul-shifting, and sometimes mystical, I have a process.

After that flash of inspiration where on some rainy Friday night with little warning or rational thought about retirement planning I commit to the airline tickets, I start “the plan.”  It is an approach that at its root harbors a fear, a deep fear of freezing in the face of too many choices.

Lowest Common Denominator.  Using a stern, middle school math teacher’s insistence, i look for that lowest commonality – the very basic requirements for my plan.  I sort.  What are the priorities, the real essentials for the trip? As I planned my trip to the Highlands and the Hebrides, what were those non-negotiable experiences?  This took several days of honest thought. At its prime number level, it was castles, Culloden, and the freedom of ferry-hopping. It was also the hope to reclaim that feeling of freedom on the open road adventure that I found on Iceland’s Ring Road, my first solo trip with a car.  Should I happen to stop for a rest break at the scotch distillery, so be it.

So, as Bill Clinton said at the 2012 DNC, It’s ARITHMETIC.

I do not have the infographic, but as I look at the list of all the great places I’d like to see and the must-see essentials, I start to subtract.  Looking at drive times, maps, events to avoid (Mull Road Race), and a real desire to stay at least two nights in each destination, the trip takes shape.  Any spot that isn’t a priority has to be on the wait list.  Any destination that falls too far outside the compass circle of my essential trip, has to wait.

(Side note: I love two nights just because there needs to be one perfect day where you awaken in this place with the day ahead of you, knowing you’ll come back in the evening.  Except Mont St. Michel.  Hear me. One night only. And leave immediately after breakfast. Really.)

The Multiplication.  When the framework of the basic trip is done and the hotels booked (which is by far the best part), I step back.  It’s like the journey itself begins now, long before departure day. As you run through the itinerary in your imagination, there is now the discovery of new possibilities and all the things on the way.

So what do I mean?  Planning that trip to the northwest Highlands, my tickets, hotels, ferry reservations are all made. I find some solid security in that. Now with lots of context and no cares, I start reading, mapping and dreaming. The personal adventure starts to take shape.

A couple of weeks before I left, I was planning  (or dreaming) the route from Stirling to Inverness and realized that the drive time would leave me a full afternoon on arrival in Inverness. I didn’t see that coming – so many drives on this trips were on winding roads but this was highway.  Speed!  I could head right to the Culloden battle field before going into town. What about that one perfect day in Inverness then?  Looking outside my compass circle, I really can take the time to drive to John O’Groats, an easy 2.5 hours up the coast, with beautiful scenery, to the northernmost tip of Scotland. With a free day, I can leave after breakfast and be there before lunch and home for an afternoon stroll before dinner.

Good quickly became great.  There it was! TAIN. The home of my favorite whisky, made by the mysterious sixteen men of Tain.  Right on my way up the coast. An experience I had ruled out is back in and even better now that I have the overall plan.

Life.  Basically, with travel planning, I find pockets of possibility – remembering the adrenaline of travel, learning more about the landscape I’m travelling, checking the drive times, and then the reclaiming of time and surprise and possibility. I know I live my real life very much like that first stage of the plan.  Now, I would like to spend more time living the multiplication stage – the search for possibilities, the constant adding and learning, and new things on the way. Living in the “yes, I can.”

What I Learned

Find a tool that works for you as your trip takes shape. For me, it’s a spreadsheet – for you it might be a vision board, a flow chart or a map. Don’t be afraid to really shuffle it around and look at all the possibilities.  Seeing what it would be like to reverse the trip and drive across mountain passes doesn’t mean you have to…

Leave time along the itinerary when you begin planning.  It’s kind to your future travelling self but it also leaves room to add. It’s far more uplifting to add a great experience than to realize you have to give things up.

Check event schedules.  I planned out the whole Highlands trip and noticed no hotels were available on Mull for my dates. Though normally quiet off-season, my plan A itinerary had landed me in the Mull Road Rally. Luckily, you can reverse the dates on “the plan”.

 

 

 

Solo: The Freedom of the Road

There is nothing sweeter than walking out the automatic doors of an airport into a city full of possibility…where no one is expecting you.

Stepping out into an April breeze (usually brutally early in the morning) with no one behind you, no deadline, no looming schedules.  No one expecting you.

Today, I read a review of a book by Clara BensonNo Baggage, that tells the story of her first trip with only the clothes on her back. She experiences moving through Europe never having to stop, pack, organize all that ‘stuff’.  That is a particular kind of freedom on the road of being light, nimble, unencumbered.

For me, it’s not the actual baggage, though the freedom of traveling light is part of it.  It’s aloneness. I love to travel on my own but expressing this deep longing sounds disloyal to friends and family I love and who I love to travel with.  Why do I crave this time apart and what is this freedom ‘from’?

There is a spiritual release to being alone in the world – not avoiding the world at home but having freedom to  remember. It’s time set apart  to remember who you are when you are away from your responsibilities, from your job, from your habits, and from your recurring role in the weekly sitcom of Life.

I have questions.  Am I kind when no one knows my name? What do I really want to do when I’m in charge of the day?  How have I changed? What am I good at? What is my role in the day…if it’s not already ordained by my title and my name?  At the end of the day, what am I writing home about?

A few years ago, I spent several days in Paris. It was actually April in Paris and it is not at all overrated. I took the first afternoon to just wander. I headed for the Marais neighborhood with no plan and no map, everything changing and recalculating with each step. Along the way I found a beautiful jewel of a store stocked entirely with products of monasteries and convents.

After a great conversation with the manager (and a haul of honey, needlework and candles), she showed me an inconspicuous passage from the store into the very back of the cathedral that faced the next block. Down winding hall and up a stair, I found my way to a balcony where I could listen to the choir prepare for a concert.

That afternoon was wonderful in many ways but there was a moment of clarity as the light came through all those bright panes in the balcony and the music rolled up the stones.  I was still me, regardless of the nation or the accent or the job or my name, finding the perfect jar of lavender honey… and the back door into the Church.

 

Giving Yourself the Time of Day

It’s not just about where you are…it’s when you are.

Have you noticed that there are times of day that are familiar – grabbing a coffee on the way to work feels the same in Monroe, Manhattan and Montepulciano. We’re all in it together before 9.  Alone as dusk falls, I feel more alone walking past cafes filled with tables of friends and first dates whereever I am.

One of my very favorite times to wander a new city alone is in the very early morning.  There is something about this time of day. Everyone is making their own way – walking the dog, grabbing a coffee and a paper, heading to the market or even dragging back home…alone.

There are three things I like to do in the morning. They start the day with the feeling that I’ve already had one grand adventure or gained entrance into the real experience of the town.  Admittedly, I love having a purpose or a destination. If you are not that completion-bound, you can probably just substitute “taking a walk” for any of these.

The Market.  Imagine it’s 6:00 a.m in Venice – the muffled chugging of motorboats on the canals rolls in your window. Peering through the curtains, you see boats weighed down with fruit and vegetables coming through the first light.  Throw on your clothes, find your shoes, grab a coffee on the way and head to the market!  When you’ve been touring cathedrals and museums, it’s so good to see the other side, the behind-the-scenes real work of bringing in the city’s food. You also see the grocers making art out of stacks of peppers, chefs choosing seafood and produce of the day, housewives checking in with their regular vendor.

Now major point of clarity.  I DID dash out at 6. The book said “very early morning” indicating that if you didn’t get up and get out, you’d catch the slacker dregs of market day.  Coming from a southern farm family, I know early…in Mississippi.  In Italy, I can tell you that it’s different.  And it’s embarrassing to be sitting on a fountain with the last of your second coffee when the first trolleys roll in. Early in Venice means 7:00.  Good to know.

The Dog Walk.  If you’re in the city near the river or a green space, you can count on early morning with the dog walkers.  It’s a sweet time to walk, grab an early pastry from a shop that has just opened, and people watch.  It’s another look, behind the curtain, into real life as little old ladies, super-joggers, kids and business suits all level the international playing field as they walk behind their dogs with plastic bags.

The Camera Tour. I’m not a great photographer but there is something about capturing the first sunlight of morning or the perfect sunset that makes us all artists. There is also joyful purpose in getting up knowing that you are looking for the perfect view. In Venice, I rose with the sun (again) to take the first ferry across the lagoon to San Giorggio Maggiore.  I failed to find the mass with the Gregorian chants that morning but the trip was full of beauty as we rode back to the city just as the sun was hitting San Marco square.  It’s worth getting up.

And one more that isn’t for everyone.  The big drive.  If you areleavingstirling in a car, there is magic
slipping away in the early morning. With the right timing, you can make quite a day trip on your own. In Iceland, I left Hella at 7:00 a.m, missing a pretty extraordinary breakfast buffet but that’s not the point.  I was able to see the sun rise over the glaciers at Jokulsarlon and still be back for dinner. Or, as in the picture here, if it’s your first day driving on the left side of the road in Scotland, get out of Stirling before the traffic!

What I’ve Learned

I never feel alone in the morning (or maybe no one wants to be with anyone at 6:30).

Having a destination or a goal gives shape to an early morning adventure.

Being a part of the early morning work of the day gives me a sense of confidence that I belong to the city that lasts all day.

Travelling at the Speed of You

A few weeks ago, I was walking the streets of Edinburgh. It was a balmy night, the wind was full of history and intrigue, old violence and literature…as well as a fantastic whiff of garlic from the steak house.

It hit me. I wasn’t happy.

How could I not be furiously, incandescently happy?  When I started traveling on my own, those first trips were wonderful weeks in one amazing city. I remember the excitement of picking the ideal home base and mapping full day walking adventures.  Learning the city under my feet.

Something has happened.

After a week of driving through the Highlands, tackling one-lane roads filled with disdainful sheep, landing exhausted in a pub or B&B with new-found friends, the city felt like a noisy, lonely place. Sure, there were infinite choices for restaurants and shops but something was surprisingly off-key. Travel has changed me.

It also became clear that we each are on a very different progress. In this world of Facebook following, Instagram instant news and perpetual Periscope, you can easily mistake someone else’s pilgrimage for your own. Or their pace for your rhythms.

Whatever you do, start just inside your own comfort zone, enjoy the victories and the small steps, push the edges. But do it your way.

For me, when I began, being a competent traveler, a citizen of the world, overcoming reticence at trying new things and “learning how” was what I needed. Could I find the courage to do exactly what I wanted?  (Frankly, learning how to buy a coffee in Venice is not a snap.)  I became the grand master of public transport and proved the best lunches actually may be in the museum.  From there, I tried feeling the freedom of train-hopping in France, never spending more than two nights anywhere, unhooked but learning the systems of movement.

Only lately was I craving that one-on-one experience with the grand and great theatre of nature, challenging my fear, hitting the road, alone and in the dark through Iceland in the winter.

Each trip feels like nudging a door open that could lead somewhere phenomenal.

For others, for you, the order would be different, wouldn’t it?

I was standing in a street full of the past, in a city I could have reveled in five years ago, but my syllabus has taken me elsewhere now.

If you are planning to set off, whatever you do, do it as you feel it and want to experience it. In the end, figuring out what you want to do and when and how, is the big gift.

My advice is don’t take my advice!

What I Have Learned

  • Think about something you want to experience, the one thing  – a view, a challenge, a day.
  • Is there uncertainty that is holding you back in everyday life? Can you push that when you are out in the great anonymity of “out of town”?
  • Don’t be charmed by any one else’s journey. Yours will be better.

 

 

Starting the Countdown

Recently I posted that planning a trip, one that is focused on something important to you – a goal, a lifelong dream, a challenge – requires changes in your life.  The trip begins to change you months before you pack your bags.

That kind of trip, planned just for you, can be a “dream with a deadline.”

To put myself completely on the line with this…I booked a trip.  It’s that riding trip I said I always wanted to take. The tickets are not booked but the spot is reserved for November.

At the turn of the new year, I thought about hobbies and interests that had fallen by the wayside even though I had at one time invested a lot in these.  Riding is one of those interests – I have never been very good but I got a lot of joy out of trying.  The horses, the barn, how it feels to try and try and finally, for a moment, get it.

In nine months, I’ll need to brush up what I learned about riding and then take it to the next level.  That means confidence, courage and competence.

If you can make a human being in nine months, surely…

A consultant I know speaks on the importance of Making Public Your Intent. There is some power in that. It’s going to be work.  Resources will have to be redirected (goodbye, manicures and CABI shows and really good port).  So I’m telling you first.

Who has a challenge you are willing to take on this year?  We could all get ready together!

What I Learned

For this kind of investment, picking the type of  trip is critical. What would make this most likely to be a success?

Structure: There are point-to-point rides where your group travels from inn to inn, rugged treks  with camping, riding weeks from a central locations, and weeks that split the time with cooking lessons or sightseeing.

Necessities: A reality check: I don’t camp and I won’t be satisfied if riding is only part of the focus.  For me, I need a cool place to come at the end of a day knowing that day might include embarrassment, failure and sprained ankles.

Most important for ME: I want to connect with the joy of riding and to do that, I need to have a way to get better and make progress. So, I found a trip that combines scenic rides with riding clinics.

It’s good to know yourself! For you this list might be radically reordered – but it’s good to make the list.

 

 

Eating Out: It’s All About the Cheese

Barthelemy on rue de Grenelle is like going to church. 

Cheese, fromage, fromaggio.  There are countless ways to relish the food and the whole dining ritual in a new place. On a recent trip to Paris, it was all about the cheese. I was ready to abandon entire meals to cheese.  Not the cheese course, not trying a new cheese with my wine … just cheese.

Eating out is the scary part of travelling alone for some of us. It can be hard especially when it’s a new experience.  Some venues are a less daunting. My favorite travel guru, Mary D. Bowman, introduced me to the ease, variety and people-watching-wonder of museum cafes. (The logic is brilliant – your feet hurt, the exhibit map is usually inscrutable and requires decoding, and they almost always have fancy desserts.)

Museum cafes, busy cafeterias and bakeries are easier than four star, full-scale restaurants; lunch is friendlier than dinner; fixe price is a bargain.  In any case, it helps to have a plan. I like to go not only with a plan but with a mission and a purpose.

Back to the cheese.  On the first morning in Paris, I dressed carefully (for confidence) and set out to worship at the temple of gourmet condiments, Fauchon.  I was ushered into the cool, elegant dining area early enough to feel like I had a backstage pass as the servers set up tables and prepared for the lunch crowd to come.  I had a perfect cheese tray and a glass of crisp white wine. There was time for the server to explain the choices on the tray, time to think about how all the different garnishes complemented the cheese – the honey, nuts, tapenades. Something carmelized that I never figured out.  Better, there was time to think about what I liked best.

I compared the chorus of cheeses to what I read in my guidebook about designing a cheese plate. Here indeed was a sharp, dry cheese,  a softer, creamier almost sweet cheese, a militant, strident blue and one with fresh herbs.  It was an event – I left feeling totally cared for, inspired and sated. My hand had been held on the first step of exploration.  It also blew my food budget for that day – I was relieved when jet lag sent me to bed without supper.

Later in the week, I visited three cheese shops and practiced my college French (merci, Madame Choate) choosing perfect trios of cheese from white-coated cheese gurus. Barthelemy on rue de Grenelle was indeed like going to church.  With fresh bread and yogurt from the corner shop, I had picnics with a view across the city. You begin to get adventurous – one cheese was rolled in herbs and dried currents and one had a fragrance that would scare a junior high gym coach.  The cost of these shop visits was much less than Fauchon but the cheese was excellent and I was more confident and more creative.

When I could put down my cheese knife, I experimented with when I dined and and where I sat.  Going early (not so early that the staff said, ‘you must be American’) felt less daunting – date night hadn’t started at 730.  Sitting at the bar or outside was also very comfortable.

But what if you want to truly dine in style?  When going to a fine restaurant in the evening, I go around and make my reservation in person. I introduce myself, tell them why I want to dine there, and ask for advice about when to come and what the specials might be that are planned for the week. It’s not always great but sometimes it is fantastic.

What I Learned

  1. Invest in some education – the expensive lunch taught me a little more about my favorite subject.
  2. Never give up.  I chickened out at the first gourmet shop – I just got confused and felt silly and left. But, after another try, I had my camembert. I had to try three times just to find the tapas bar I wanted in Venice actually open.
  3. Prepare for the kindness of strangers.  I learned to say in French “I love cheese, I know nothing, can you help me?”  Cheese gurus couldn’t resist helping a doltish but self-aware American.

 

 

The Next Adventure: A Dream with a Deadline

Last fall, I took a trip I’d dreamed of for years, driving through the Scottish Highlands and taking the ferries to Skye and Mull.  I wanted to see the countryside I’d only read about in books with the freedom of driving on my own.

For months, I dipped into Scottish history, read about every castle I could find (don’t an inordinate number start with “D”?), plotted my route on maps, and even watched YouTube videos of what it would be like to drive on the left side of the road.

I realized then how important having something in the future – especially something life-shaping and challenging – can be. Most of us have busy, in fact over-busy, lives.  So why the need for this next big adventure out ahead of us?

My next big dream is a riding holiday.  I’m not sure where – maybe back to Scotland, to Wales, maybe France or Mallorca?  The chance to see a new place from horseback and being completely present in the moment and in the landscape is appealing.  I want to see it all from the saddle and spend a week in a lodge and get to know the people around me.  I want to pick a skill I used to (almost) have, like jumping, and try to recapture some of that joy while I’m there.

This, for me and maybe for you, too, is an ideal adventure to take alone. It’s got a strong purpose, it’s very personal, and it could be easier to come to terms with how much proficiency I’ve lost in the saddle if I don’t know the last names of my bunk house mates.

It’s going to take months to save for this trip but more than that, I will have to start the change before I leave. Over the next few months, I’ll have to reclaim a hobby I used to love.  During those months, I will intentionally make time for this work.  It will be a physical and mental challenge – it will require getting fit –  and by the time I leave for this future dream trip, I’ll be a different person in some ways.

Could that be it? Is planning a trip that is very personal and just for you part of how we make time for ourselves? Do we reclaim some part of our personhood this way?   I remember the trip where I listened to French tapes in the car for months or hiked to feel physically ready to do everything I wanted to do.  Maybe a trip is a dream – with a deadline.

What I Learned

The more I invest in reading, researching and readying for a trip, the more I get out of it.  Knowing a little more as I travel connects me with my surroundings.

Planning for a trip that will be a challenge broadens my daily life. It gives me a context greater than next week’s deadlines.

I can be annoying to travel with – all that research just needs to be shared.  Solo is a good choice!

Learning on the Road

In everyday life, I rarely have sense of pure learning – using all my wits to learn with intention, speed, in real-time. Negotiating, assessing, aligning, sure, we do that everyday but not pure survival learning. Maybe a new device or a new tool but it’s rarely pure or primary.

When you travel, particularly alone, you are called on to learn new skills to go forward. Whether it’s how to use an electric shower (first, really, and, second, who knew you had to turn on the outlet) or driving in a new way, it’s full body and fast track.

Levels of Learning  Imagine you arrive in Edinburgh with jet lag using your last spark of energy to argue with the arrogant rental car clerk who thinks you can be swayed by an upgrade, backup screens and a refusal to talk in terms of incremental cost on your prepaid car.

Suddenly you find yourself sitting in the driver’s seat, on the right side of the car, in a cramped lot, pointed toward EXIT with twelve roundabouts between you and your destination.

I found there are levels to conquer here.

Keep Left: Survival Learning
Here is what I discovered in that first, somewhat harrowing day. There isn’t anyone but ADF00F50-29D6-4496-8085-B045722A7A68 [1223869]you. This creates clarity. No help but also no distraction. When I was finally safely parked in Stirling, there were three rules that had helped get me there.

  • First observe deeply, taking time to watch everything around you. Then watch again.
  • Accept that following is acceptable for a beginner. The guy driving the plumbing van – it isn’t his first day.
  • Last, go slow, go with flow.

Beware Right Turns: The Discipline of Attention
Since I did survive, the next step is attentiveness. Every time I got in the car, I repeated the mantra. Every time. Pay attention. Keep left. Beware right turns. Driving well is more important than the GPS lady’s instructions or her begrudging approval. You can always turn around.

The first time I thought I had it down and relaxed, I turned right with great confidence into the proper left lane, but had the left-over and inappropriate relaxed approach to the right turn.  I was lucky that the truck coming my way was still far away. It helped me to keep the keenness of focus for the rest of week.

The Good Stuff: Getting Creative
It was time to go to the Isle of Skye.  I had my driving mojo and was ready. Then I landed on a single track road, going up a mountain full of hairpin bends, and, should you begin to relax, recalcitrant sheep.  It seemed there was no way to know as you went around a blind curve if you’d meet a truck or van or worse, another tourist. After thinking it through, I realized that while I couldn’t see the next 300 yards, I could see the road farther along. If I waited a bit on the shoulder, I could know the hidden road was clear. I started keeping my eye on the mid distance…and the sheep.

So What?  Why Solo Travel Keeps You Sharp
When you meet an obvious challenge on your own, you use your whole intellect, your ability to observe and your experience.

I thought about John Wesley and the quadrilateral of seeing life and faith through scripture, tradition, experience and reason. It’s not a great fit since my travel scripture and the traditional writings of the Church fathers would both be Rick Steves, but you may find that you depend a lot on experience, reading and research, what you observe yourself, and daily honed reason.

In the end, is it heightened awareness or high-speed learning? Is it just truly paying attention?  Whatever you call it, I want to take this into my everyday life – upping the percentage of wit and wisdom I bring to the opportunity at hand.

What I Learned about Travel

Travelling on your own, even for part of a trip, heightens your senses.
Never go on auto pilot. Ever.
It is worth it – get the car!

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