Ever since the term “bucket list” was made popular by the movie with the same name, it has inspired people to travel…THE WRONG WAY.
As a landscape and travel photographer my world revolves around all things travel/photography related. It’s hard to go a single day without hearing a reference to someone’s “bucket list” destination. I cringe a little every time I hear it.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” -Henry Miller
Travel is many things. It’s an adventure, an opportunity, an education and a soul fulfilling experience. It can so drastically alter your perspective about almost everything you are forever changed as a person.
Well, it can be all those things. Unfortunately, the way many people travel, I dare say it’s none of those things.
The one with the most items scratched off their list when they die is NOT the winner.
The bucket list mentality is transforming travel into a race or competition with social media fueling it. Surely, what you experience at a destination is more important than simply your arrival.
Make it more than a bucket list and…
Ask yourself, and be honest, what is the first thing you want to do when you arrive to a destination? Is it to see and appreciate? Is it to discover and learn?
OR is it to take a selfie and get it posted? Does the idea of travelling without access to social media give you anxiety?
If your end game is only to get a selfie to boost your social media, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to superimpose a photo of yourself on stock images of iconic places. Photoshop is very good and nobody will know the difference. I’m being sarcastic but I think you get my point.
So, how do you travel deeper?
First, throw the list away. Abandon the idea that once you have been to a place it gets scratched off your list. If you have found a place you really enjoy, go back! If you love it that much you will most likely discover something new each time. That is much more rewarding than just checking off the boxes on some invented list.
Don’t stay in hotels. Instead of staying in the crowded tourist areas, stay where the locals live. Airbnbs have made this easier than ever. It’s a more authentic experience and usually cheaper!
Once, on an Easter visit to Florence, Italy we stayed in a 13thcentury villa in the Tuscan countryside. It was less than the price of a hotel and we had the entire property to ourselves. Our bedroom was the converted chapel from when it was owned by the estate’s original owner, the Strozzi Family. Each day we walked through the olive groves to the country market. We bought fresh prosciutto, cheese, pasta, olives and tomatoes. It was from local farmers and the most delicious food we ate on the trip. Next to the market was a bus stop where a commuter bus went back and forth to the Florence city center. With easy access into the city it was a perfect balance.
In Ireland, we stayed in a 200-year-old traditional country cottage that had been in the same family for 5 generations. The owners, who lived down the path, would stop by for a visit with us in the evenings. They shared stories of their lives which gave us great insight to their community. One evening they showed up with a tray full of ingredients and gave us a lesson on the proper way to make an Irish coffee. It was a great evening!
Swap superficial tourist activities for authentic experiences. I can remember standing on top of a water slide with my kids at a popular resort in Nassau, Bahamas when it first hit me. Looking out at the expansive view of the gorgeous turquoise sea, I thought, what the heck are we doing up here in this over-priced and contrived resort when paradise is literally a few steps away. The next day we left the resort and took the ferry over to the island of Eleuthera. We had the time of our lives on pristine beaches we enjoyed practically all to ourselves. All for a fraction of the price of the resort.
Interact with the locals. Be curious and friendly. Locals are very proud of their community and heritage and LOVE to talk about it.
On a visit to Croatia, my daughter and I were exploring the Castle grounds in Varaždin. An elderly man stopped to tip his hat and say hello. He spoke no English and I speak almost no Croatian so we communicated in German (my German is only slightly better than my Croatian). He asked me what we were doing and I told him we were exploring the castle. When I said how beautiful it was and how much we loved it, he straightened up his back and beamed a smile. He proceeded to tell us how he had lived there his whole life and raised his family there. His eyes filled with tears as he explained that his children had moved away but he would never leave. Varaždin was his home and he loved it very much. My daughter and I were so moved we got misty eyed as well.
He seemed curious about my camera so I showed it to him. I can’t remember if I asked if I could take a photo of him or if he asked me (old timers loved to have their photo taken). He posed with his cane and right as I went to snap he shouted, “Meine kappe! Meine kappe!” He took his hat off and posed again. I stifled a giggle.
He was such a lovely man and it was a lovely experience. I can’t think of Varaždin without thinking of that amazing moment.
Get lost on purpose. The very best part of travel is the discovery. Going beyond the tourist areas to dig deep into the culture is profoundly rewarding. France is so much more than the Eiffel Tower, Italy is more than the Trevi Fountain and Ireland is more than the Guinness Brewery.
No matter how crowded an area is, I find myself completely alone within 5 minutes. I always think, “Where did everybody go?” While the crowds are looking for the coffee bars and souvenir shops (or are all on top of each other trying to take selfies at the same exact spot) I can’t stop wondering what’s around the next corner. Wandering down alleyways, further and further away from the tourist areas is where I always find the best stories, the best views, take my favorite photographs and meet the most interesting people.
Put your phone away. Seriously. Live the moment, breathe the air, read the visitor’s info and learn something. Think of all the things you miss with your face looking down at your device. The same applies to cameras. Take the photo then put the camera way. Photographs should be something we use to help us reflect on a moment not BE the moment.
Try using a notepad. What better way to capture your impressions than with the written word? I find notes from my travels all over the place. It’s a lot of fun to relive some of those wonderful moments. A posed photograph of you “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa can’t describe how you felt the first moment you saw it.
Be respectful. The ground you are standing on could quite literally be sacred to its community. Never assume it’s ok to take photos. Many churches and museums don’t allow it.
Follow the rules and don’t go where you are not supposed to. There are many places in national parks where the tundra is fragile. Usually the park service has signs requesting everyone stay on the paths to protect it. Many people, unfortunately, disregard this. (often, it’s so they can get a better selfie.)
Open your mind. Being exposed to cultural differences can open the mind, educating you how others see the world. Subtle differences in the way another culture does something can come across as rude or frustrating. If it happens enough times it can negatively impact your trip. BUT DON’T LET IT! Be prepared for those differences. Embrace it! Try to see the world as they do. You will come home with a whole new perspective.
"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home"
-- James A Michener
Still feel the need for a list? How about creating one while ON the trip. Make a list of all the great experiences you never want to forget. Or how about a list of fabulous food you want to try to recreate when you get home. Or what about a list of email addresses of all the new friends you made.
Approach each trip as if it were the very last one you will ever take. Travelling deeper and more mindful will take you far beyond any bucket list.