What’s the best way to travel? How do you get the most out of a trip abroad? How do you travel in a way that you’ll remember, that you’ll enjoy, and that you’ll cherish in the future?
I think that the best trips are ones that will pay dividends in the future: the ones that generate moments that I’ll remember. An old man once told me that travel was the best way to live longer, and I agree with him. When I stay in one place for too long, when I don’t challenge myself for too long, it’s easy to forget the days and let them blend together. When I move I remember almost every day.
I find that seeking novel experiences and views helps me remember every day. Don’t try to replicate my experience, find your own.
I worked at Facebook for two and a half years and it was one of the most exciting places anyone could have worked. It’s overly dramatic to say this but it’s true: the decisions we made to ship or not ship products altered the way one seventh of the world experiences life. But when I look back on my time at Facebook I remember only the highlights. I remember a few dozen notable days out of more than five hundred. I don’t remember the days when I came into the office, worked hard all day, and went home.
When I move I remember almost every day. It doesn’t matter if the things I remember were pleasant or not, or how much money I spent, as long as the trips help me get a concept and appreciation of each day. It doesn’t matter much if I remember sweating, being thirsty, and covered in dust in the Grand Canyon, or spending five hours going sixty miles on a local bus in Indonesia, or seeing beautiful temples in Japan. What matters for my memory is the novelty of the experience.
Your experience on the beach will never be as perfect as carefully timed and edited photograph.
I think that one of the best ways to travel well is to not compare yourself with other people. My experience never feels as good as other people’s photos and stories. I remember all the moments: pleasant and unpleasant. I try to share a mix of both types of moments but have a bias to share the most interesting things.
As I summarize my trip it looks much more glamorous and exotic than any trip will feel. You only see the highlights. There are around 1,000 pictures on this website. Each of those photos took about a second to make. For each of those photos there are about 15,000 untaken photos stretching the full six months of time on the road. Those are moments you’ll never see and that I’ll forget in time. The reality of my life is far less interesting than the highlights reel.
A novel experience that you won’t find in any Yelp reviews.
To me comparisons and expectations are important when deciding where to go. I’ve tried to do what everyone does and I’ve come away disappointed. I spent $100 to see the sunrise at Mount Bromo and it was gorgeous, but what you don’t see is the journey to get there. You don’t see the rowdy crowds, you don’t feel the displeasure of being constantly hassled by touts and ripped off by local shops. If you had been there you’d know that the experience is much more complicated than a single spectacular view.
The simplest example of comparisons and novelty is deciding where to eat. I could open Trip Advisor or Yelp and try to eat the best food. Or I could walk down the side streets and see which restaurant is packed with locals and try to order what they’re eating. I find that too much of the world is off the map and too many excellent restaurants are left unreviewed. So when I’m on my own I tend to wander and find things for myself. Without any expectations or friends to compare myself with I enjoy that experience a lot more.
The expensive way to seek novelty is to try maximize life through known experiences: Yelp reviews, Wikipedia entries, and Facebook checkins. The cheaper way is to try to experience as much as possible with relatively few expectations. The cheap way is to just ramble. Either way seems to lead to equal happiness for me because the real joy is in just experiencing things that I’ll remember.
In practical terms:
- I eat local food at local restaurants. For about 1/5th the cost of western food I get to try something I’ve never tried and I’m sure to remember.
- I walk down streets at random and watch how people do things. I try to think about how it compares to life in my own country. It’s free. Doing what the locals do away from the tourist sights is more memorable and cheaper.
- I’ve found that most tourist sights are oversold experiences. The only two I’d unequivocally recommend are The Grand Canyon and Angkor Wat. Those both so completely changed my perspective on what nature can do and what humans can do. Everything else could have been missed.
- I don’t beat myself up about taking an occasional scheduled tour, but I try to do it with friends. Only about half of the scheduled tours I’ve done were worth the expense but it’s always been better with someone along to share the experience. Similarly I mostly only go to nice restaurants with people I meet along the road.
- Staying in tourist towns is much easier than staying elsewhere if you don’t speak the local language. Tourist towns aren’t only for foreigners though: there are hotels in Mexico for Mexicans and hotels in Thailand for Thais. This lets me be a tourist but experience life a bit closer to how a local would.
- Shopping is fun and it doesn’t have to be for tourist items. I’ve bought no souvenirs on my trip but I sometimes visit souvenir shops and look at what they carry. I also love finding local camera stores and book stores, or spending a full day wandering around trying to find small stuff I need. I don’t believe that I should have to pay more for anything because of the color of my skin or the size of my pocket book, so I dig around for deals and meet lots of people in the process.