Travel with Meaning: Catch The Moment on Impact and Check Muddy Footprints at the Door

My friend, Matt Madeiro over at Three New Leaves asked me what my favorite moments during travel are. Since I believe creativity is a point-of-view and thus everyone on the planet is creative, I was intrigued by this question. Because there are few other things in life that evoke such a profound shift in view point than meaningful travel.

What I discovered while unraveling my answering is that what I love most about travel and the moments I treasure are the same ones that teach me who I am and who I want to be in everyday life.

Being Completely in the Moment

Unless I’m confined to a creepy resort where there’s nothing to do but stuff my face and sit on the beach (something I could do anywhere and have no idea if I were in Florida or South America) I am stimulated when I travel.

I love new food, new people, new languages, new architecture, new insights, new beer, new culture, new music. A new way of life. But it expands past stimulation. I am happiest during travel when I discover myself completely present.

It’s easy to go through the motions in your day-to-day life. Even if you live an unconventional lifestyle or have a job where you work on something different every day, anything becomes a bit routine from time to time.

Traveling leaves little room for such experiential blindness. Just ordering a beer in another language takes some thought. Everything is fresh and new and difficult to take for granted. My close friends know I have an eery sense of recall for small details. I can recall entire conversations from years ago, and can often even tell you what you were wearing while we had said conversations.

Those small details I remember are only amplified when I’m really in the moment, especially while traveling. Favored moments include snuggling on a secluded beach in Vieques with my husband while wild horses strolled by. I remember the color of the jagged rocks lining the shore. The way the weeds wound around the trees and patches of woods we walked through to get down to the water.

Or being captivated by the soft, downy birds gliding through the mist of the waterfall at Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. The way the sky alternated between grey and bloated with impending rain to clear and sunny while a curious bird sat on her ledge and watched us watching back.

My husband is also my best friend, and the shared experiences that travel gives our life just makes our journeys all the more remarkable. Seeing my husband’s face widen in wonder and profound realization that travel is within his grasp when we flew over the Italian Alps the first time he ever went to Europe. Hearing the Ramones blast out of a pub in Prague and ending up with an amazing meal and tasty beer. Strolling on the beach our last night in St. Maarten in the moonlight… before an older gentleman clad in nothing but a ball cap jogged by.

Sometimes I catch the moment on impact, knowing how special it is and that I should remember it exactly as is. Moments are fragile and pass so quickly. I take a moment to soak in the atmosphere, the mood, the weather, the idea that nothing else in life matters right then and there but us.

Being Empathetic Toward Others

Approximately 10% of Iceland’s population believes in elves and trolls. Around 10% do not. And about 80% can’t rule it out. I thought this was so silly when I first heard it. And when it was confirmed on the fun trivia being played before take-off on our TV screens on Iceland Air. And when I read a New York Times article about it. I didn’t spend much time dissecting it. What could there possibly be to analyze?

But after exploring the vast expanse of Iceland’s countryside, I get it. The sun barely sets, if at all, for months at a time. Then never really rises during winter months. Couple that with a near 300,000 population of which roughly 60% of which live in Reykjavik. Now, drive out into the countryside or along the Southern coast and witness how few and far in between the houses are. And how frequent rock outcroppings, volcanic rock, and little piles of what looks like troll cairns are for as far as the eye can see. The sheer power of its landscape is humbling, coupled with a reaching darkness and dancing shadows.

Now it makes me admire the locals’ deep sense of understanding and appreciation for nature and the power it holds. Why build through a massive boulder when you can pave a road around it instead? It’s not about elves and trolls. Its about nature being an awe-inspiring entity that deserves respect. Aside from the empathy travel evokes, there are also offbeat pieces of Iceland’s culture I delight in that makes me want to know more.

Like no one really having a family name, even within the same family. Most locals last names are taken from their parents’ first name. So if you’re a boy and your father’s name is John, your last name would be Johnson. If you’re a girl, it would be Johndóttir.

As a result, their slender phone book is organized by first names instead of last. And everyone goes by their first name in business, including their Prime Minister, Jóhanna. Whose home number can also be found in the local phone book along with everyone else’s.

What else? Iceland’s most popular restaurant is also a hot dog kiosk. And for a reason. And the reason isn’t because their seafood and famed restaurants like the Sea Baron aren’t amazing. Because they are. It’s because the hot dogs are that good.

Being A Good Guest

I’ve also found that when I travel, I am genuinely concerned about being a good guest in someone else’s city or country. When we went to Budapest, I was working on a travel article and the tourism board provided a guide for the day. She took us to lunch and at one point asked how I felt about not being able to speak Hungarian. She was wondering if it was frustrating or made me feel isolated.

I told her it made me feel badly, because I want to be as good of a guest as possible and didn’t want to seem rude for expecting everyone else to speak to me in my own language; especially in a country that has proven so hospitable. She assured me no one minded. At the very least, I learn to say “please” and “thank you” in any new country I go to and that small gesture seems to make an impression on the locals.

They appear more willing to help and interested in our journeys. We also wound up in Budapest during the anniversary of the 1956 uprising against Communism. It was an honor to see so many of their locals proudly parading the streets with Hungarian flags waving. The older generation’s flags had a giant circle cut out from its center. During the occupation, the Russian hammer and sickle was sewn into their flags, and later cut out when Communism finally fell.

The anniversary was festive, but also somber with gatherings and speeches we couldn’t understand. But what we did understand was not to dig into the crowd and obnoxiously snap photos or insist locals pose for us. We took pictures from afar, as discreetly as possible. We knew it wasn’t a tourist spectacle, it was their memories and demonstration of the deep personal history they lived through.

Memories of loved ones lost and the turmoil of knowing no other future than occupation. During the occupation, there were also dozens of Communist statues scattered throughout Budapest. Imagine stark, grey, oversized labor workers; the Red Army, Lenin, and Marx dotting the landscape.

Eventually, 42 of the statues were moved to Memento Park where they sit near a highway, about a half hour from city center. The statues sit in an ominous circle, hovering over the quiet crowds that gather. My husband and I took a handful of photos; deciding against posing with the statues or do anything that didn’t represent the gravity of what they represented. I thought of my friend, who is Jewish, commenting how surprised and offended she was to find tourists smiling and striking silly poses in the gas chambers at Auschwitz as if they were at Disney World instead of a death chamber.

Having lived in New York during 9/11, I can’t say it would offend me to see someone posing with a smile next to the memorial wall at Ground Zero. It wouldn’t. I understand the need to have a tangible memory of a piece of history that meant something to you. To connect to a moment that effected the world. But what deeply offended me was seeing vendors sell Ground Zero T-shirts and merchandise mere weeks after the attacks while locals were still homeless because their Tower-adjacent apartments were consumed by toxic smoke and ash.

When clean-up crews were still working around the clock, stumbling onto the subways at all hours of the day and night and living directly in the insurmountable hell of its aftermath. When the rest of us were under constant Anthrax threats and getting trapped on the subway for hours or dumped miles from our final destination. While lives were still freshly destroyed.

When I think back to those dark days and the vendors who took over the area like pariahs, the words “appalling” and “sociopathic tendencies” come to mind. But what was worse than the vendor-pariahs were the tourists who supported them. They herded around the city in newly minted Ground Zero shirts, trying to catch a glimpse of the attack site and loudly complaining of the crowds blocking their views, while the remains of those who died were still inside.

We needed comfort and empathy and were instead met with a crushing indifference. Those repeated slaps in the face evoked such an excruciating and profound hurt it left me breathless. They went back home with cheap shirts merchandising our grief while the rest of us were enveloped in a scarred city filled with roaming despair.

So do whatever you genuinely feel is appropriate for the situation while traveling. Just keep in mind you’re in the middle of someone else’s home and history and your footprint can leave a permanent impact. Ask yourself this. Will you come inside with mud on your boots? Or will you enter with enough thoughtfulness to consider your impact and how you’ll represent your own culture? But more importantly than muddy boots and thoughtfulness is an inventory of why you like to travel in the first place.

Does what you love most about travel make you a better person? Or does it make you indifferent and allow you to take liberties with someone else’s home you would never consider taking in your own?