Sometimes people ask me a question that I always have a hard time answering. “Where should I go?” The experienced traveler rarely asks this question. However, before one is an experienced traveler, one is a novice. You have to start somewhere. The world is vast with endless opportunities. While there are some places that most will agree are excellent travel destinations, there is no one location that is perfect for everyone. Where to go is often largely dependent on the traveler. Time available and finances are part of the equation too, though these factors are often more flexible than people think. Still, there is one factor that will always be the most important:
Who are you?
You see, I dreaded that question because I take travel very seriously. Asking me where you should go is like asking me who you are. I don’t know who you are. I spend a lot of time just trying to figure out who I am.
So this one is for the “newbies.”
I notice this predilection towards personal flavor when planning my own trips, so often my own feelings about certain places are highly related to my personality. I find Belgium, for the most part, not my particular style, and think that, with a few exceptions, Switzerland is probably a great place to live, but not the best place for me personally to visit. Despite loving most things Japanese, I’m not the most avid fan of Japan itself. The place is just too neat; everything fitting a little too well into its proper place. That’s something that many people love about Japan, but I tend to find it a bit unnerving. Give me the dirt of Mexican roads that rarely see the tread of gringo feet. Swing me in a briny hammock on a South Pacific island beach. Drop me in Istanbul; wake me up to the morning prayers recited over a crackly loudspeaker from the mosque next door. Actually, I’m up for almost everything. Even so, with my wide-sweeping tastes that I enjoy so much, I personally still have particularities that are individual only to me.
For me, it starts with a list of the places I’d like to go first. The list continuously grows and is often reorganized. If you are just starting to think you’d like to travel, think about making a list of your own. How do you make that list and how do you prioritize it? Where do you begin sampling the pleasure of travel? Where do you start, as Samuel Johnson said, “to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are?” Travel is not free, so how best do you invest your time and money in adventure?
Here are some possible ways you could begin to evaluate this:
Like adventure sports? If you haven’t been to New Zealand, you need to get there fast! Are you a diver? If you haven’t hit Cayman, the Similan Islands or the Great Barrier reef, boy, does the world have some thrills in store for you. Serious about cycling? Imagine speeding over the emerald hills of western Ireland. Enjoy cycling, but aren’t great at it? Bicycle across the tulip fields in the Netherlands (as lovely, interesting and historic a place it is, it’s also flat as a pancake). If there is any hobby or activity you have a passion for, chances are there is somewhere in the world that would be a mecca for you and other enthusiasts.
Places like the Coliseum in Rome or the Pyramids of Egypt stand out like titans from antiquity. Are you a lover of democracy? Go to Athens and stand in the places where it was first conceived. Enchanted with music? Go to Memphis, Tennessee and buy yourself a Jailhouse Rock prisoner’s outfit. For a deeper appreciation of classical music, maybe go to Vienna and visit the places that inspired Mozart. Each country has its own deep histories. Are you an amateur war historian? Visit Normandy in France or Gallipoli in Turkey. Ask yourself what in human history interests you most and which places are most important to those particular events.
Do you fancy yourself a beer connoisseur? Try brews in Dublin, Belgium or the Czech Republic (though I try the beer everywhere I go). Perhaps you’re an ice cream maniac. Go to Italy and be amazed by gelato. These are key examples because, in the same way Guinness is not the same outside of Dublin, gelato is not as good anyplace else as it is in Italy (except maybe this one little shop in Nice in the old part of town). Are you an American or Canadian and fancy that you have already had the best beef in the world? Go have a steak in Argentina and find out how fantastic being a carnivore really is. Maybe you don’t dig on eating anything with a face. Go to India and discover a country where the predominant religion holds non-violence, including killing for food, as an ideal. There are so many foods in this world. How many might you love that you haven’t even heard of? Go to Korea and get the Kimchi that makes your teeth smoke. Go to Paris and visit a fromagerie and a boulangerie, get a bottle of wine, then prepare for a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower. Magical. Eat a conch seconds after it is pulled from the sea off of a Caribbean island. After the slimy thing is cut from its shell, smacked with a tenderizer, cut into pieces and drenched in lime juice, it’s sublimely delicious.
Are the wonders of the natural world the ones that take your breath away the most? Go stand in front of the yawning enormity of the Grand Canyon. Lay on a perfect white sand on a small, Bahamian island. Go to Etna, Kilauea or Arenal and possibly catch a glimpse of molten lava bubbling up from the heart of the planet. Wriggle on your belly through the Cango Caves in South Africa. Dangle in a pool above the rushing power of Victoria Falls. See a sky full of stars in a Himalayan base camp. Fascinated by wildlife? Laugh at monkeys in the rain forest canopy of Costa Rica. Go on an African Safari and “ooh” at the baby elephant so new that he’s still a little pink. Swim with wild dolphins on the western coast of Australia. There is nothing like seeing wild animals in their natural habitats; zoos don’t even come close.
How much can you handle? I once heard somebody say how amazingly different Britain is from the United States. It is different, but an American is not too far from their element in Britain. Same language, more or less, and you can still get a fried breakfast even if there are a couple of extra items that are a bit strange. Head over to Paris. Though just a short distance from Britain, in France you’ll make an even larger jump in culture and it isn’t just the language that makes the difference. Here, a fried breakfast, while not impossible, is surely not likely and probably not very good if found. If you are a first timer, you might want to start with a developed country that you share a language with. I once knew a man whose first trip out of the country was straight to India for four months. I always wondered how it turned out. The experienced traveler tends to revel in culture shock, but for some, it can be quite unpleasant. Seeing the abject poverty in some countries can foster compassion and give one valuable perspective on their own life. Talking to a Frenchman about the quality of the French health care might help one to realize how health care in their own country can be improved upon and might also help get one motivated for a cause. Volunteering in Belize to help the locals access clean water can be rewarding in many ways. Helping in an African orphanage for the children of Aids victims can be something that can make you proud for the rest of your life. Culture shock is often uncomfortable, but can cause powerful personal growth on a myriad of levels. Finally, if you want to learn a language, there is no better way to hone your talent for tongues than total immersion in a country that speaks that language.
Do matters of the divine weigh heavily on your soul? Walk through the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem and see if you can still feel the footsteps of Christ on that day, so long ago. Go to Kapilavastu and meditate on the surroundings that raised the Buddha. Go to Spain and walk the way of St. James. Go to Pune and immerse yourself in Iyengar Yoga. Go to Japan and sit zazen for long enough to yearn for the priest to come hit you with his bamboo stick (it helps you remember your posture and, actually, after sitting long enough, feels great). The Muslims know the value of the Hajj for good reason and, in past years, Christians also made their holy pilgrimages. Native Australians know of the almost tangible power that radiates from Uluru. Do you think you might be able to feel it too? In traveling the earth, we also travel the lengths of our own souls. As the world gets larger, so do our hearts.
I have only scratched the barest surface of places to go and reasons why. Travel is about things that are different than what you know. Some of the differences are huge and others are very small. I’ve mentioned a few here, but in reality there are nearly endless factors that will make one person prefer a certain destination more than somebody else. Asking yourself where you want to go IS very much like asking yourself who you are. Once you figure that out, who you are and what you like, figuring out where in the world has the most promise for you gets a whole lot easier. Once you’ve got those ideas, ask around. You never know what will make the notion of heading to a particular destination occur to you or when. I first knew I would love Dublin from reading James Joyce. All I knew was that the author loved that city and I loved what he wrote. I felt like I was in love with the place before I ever set foot there and found this love to be a reality. I’ve had the reverse happen too, I’ve had places I thought I would love that I wasn’t all that fond of. However, I cannot describe the enrichment and joy from knowing, as Johnson said, how the world is instead of how I imagined it to be.
Written by: Jake
IMAGE VIA: hugovk on Flickr