How To Travel

Differently than the masses with their damn selfie sticks and incessant, narcissistic staged photographs in front of every god forsaken tourist landmark.

Call me hopelessly out of touch. A Luddite. A curmudgeon. A Luddite curmudgeon. Sticks and stones.

Dammit though, when exactly did everyone substitute smart phones for brains?! And my frame of reference was early April, I can’t imagine summer in European cities.

If you live in the US, what would you point a 21st century de Tocqueville to if he or she wanted to understand what life in the (dis)United States is really like? Disney World, the Las Vegas Strip, the National Mall in Washington, DC? If you live outside the US, what would you point someone to if they wanted to begin understanding life in your country in a short period of time?

The trap people fall into is being able to say they’ve seen the most popular places. Others travel in pursuit of good weather, or as a temporary respite from their hectic work lives, or to break out of the mundaneness of their lives.

I’m different, those things don’t motivate me. Not better, just different. I’m most interested in observing and reflecting on what ordinary day-to-day life is like in other places. And then thinking about similarities and differences with my life. I find ordinary aspects of daily life endlessly interesting.

How do parents interact with children? Gently, kindly, absent-mindedly? How much freedom are children and adolescents given? When alone, how do they play together?

Is there much community? How do people create it? In Spain, they go to Tapas bars and eat, drink Sangria, and talk late into the night. No introverts need apply, which probably explains why my application for dual citizenship was summarily denied.

I’d counsel a foreign visitor to the U.S. to skip the big city tourist magnets and instead live for a week or two in a few small to medium sized cities in different parts of the country. Like Marion, Ohio; Valparaiso, Indiana; Seal Beach, California, or Olympia, Washington for example. Attend a school play, get a day pass to the YMCA, attend Olympia’s Arts Walk and Procession of the Species. Go to Vic’s Pizzeria and while eating watch how families interact with one another. At Vic’s, almost always, I’m inspired by the care adults show one another and their children. So much so, I can’t help but think positively about the future. Our politics are hellish at present, but we’ll be okay.

Families—in all their myriad forms—are the building blocks of society, and therefore, a key to understanding any particular place. Whether home or abroad, I’m always eavesdropping on families, in restaurants, in church, in fitness centers, in parks.

How to travel? Go to the world famous museum, ancient city, or cathedral if you must, but resist a steady diet of tourist magnets, instead seek alternative, off-the-beaten-path places as windows into daily life. If my experience is any guide, your life will be enriched by taking the roads less traveled.

Like the Triana farmer’s market in Seville, Spain, where I sat for a long time watching a sixty something father and mother and their thirty something son, cut, wrap, and sell meat to a cross-section of Seville. It was artistry, the way they shared the small space, made eye contact with customers, talked them up, and effortlessly moved product. The son has to take over for the parents at some point, right? He’s a handsome dude with a winsome smile. Does he have a life/business partner to team with? Will he?

Or the small plaza in front of the Sophia Reina Museum in Madrid where school children played a spirited hybrid game of soccer and volleyball while dodging the occasional passerby. Dig that 11 year old girls vicious jump serve. How did she get so athletic so young? A natural. Will she become another great Spanish athlete on the world scene?

Then again, when it comes to alternative tourism, it may be dangerous following my lead. I have 9 pictures from our 11 days in Spain. If someone discovered that at Passport Control at JFK airport in New York, they probably would’ve shredded my passport.

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Another pro tip: always travel with smiley peeps

 

 

 

Why Travel?

Asking why travel is like asking why exercise. Just as it’s a lot easier to be sedentary, it’s a lot easier to stay home.

I have less travel energy than in decades past, but every time I do take off for distant lands, I’m better for it. Better because my understanding of differences expands, which pay dividends long after I return home. Most everyone makes different choices than me about not just where, but how to live. Traveling helps me understand that while I would not make some of the same choices, theirs work out well for them.

Early in our recent trip to Spain, I noticed one of my travel companions saying “That’s weird” on multiple occasions. “That’s different,” I suggested as an alternative.

I’ve been fortunate to see half the world and that one subtle difference may be the most fundamental travel insight of all.

Consider that the Spanish:

  • are more honest about their meat, openly displaying deer legs and dead rabbits in open air markets
  • close most things up from about 2-7p and begin thinking about dinner around 8p
  • pronounce words with an “s” sound—z, s, c for example—as “th”

Not weird, just different. Overtime, if you don’t travel, you run the risk of thinking other ways of life are odd, even inferior to your own. The social scientific term for that is ethnocentrism, but arrogance suffices.

The classic example is the American in London who can’t believe Brits “drive on the wrong side of the road” as if there’s one right side. Actually, that’s not the best example, because most of the time, our arrogance is more subtle and nuanced. When we travel very far at all, we regularly see or hear things that we’re unaccustomed to. We label them weird because we have a hard time assimilating them into what we’re most familiar with. But if we take any time to consider the unique positive aspects of the cultural context, the contrasts in daily life are not weird at all, just different.

Rick Steves Wants to Save the World

One vacation at a time. Lengthy profile of the travel guru, but really well written and well worth the time. In the spirt of Steves, I’m off on a two-week vacation, during which I’ll be pressing pause on Pressing Pause.

I’m agnostic on marijuana. Apart from that difference, I’m down with damn near every other aspect of Steves’s worldview. At the same time, I get tired just reading about his frenetic pace. I’m far too slothful to aspire to be Steves-like, but his non-materialism and associated generosity are definitely inspiring.

I’ll post pics to Twitter, @PressingPause, of my travels. First person to guess the correct country wins an all expense trip to North Korea.

Thursday Assorted Links

1. The New York Times Bombshell That Bombed.

“And what the NYT can still do to find an audience for its Trump tax story.”

This blows. I was hoping he’d have been fined $400-500m dollars and impeached by now. Maybe some jail time for good measure.

2. Can’t help but wonder if the bombshell bombed because people have been distracted by what Tay is up to. I got you. Taylor Swift Succumbs to Competitive Wokeness. Wokeness a future Olympic event? How might one begin training?

3. We Slow as We Age, but May Not Need to Slow Too Much. Finally, some good news. Footnote. Last Thanksgiving I ran my first marathon in a long time. My time was only 5 minutes slower than my personal record from a decade earlier. Probably my greatest athletic performance ever. A legend in my own mind.

4. Amsterdam’s Plea to Tourists: Visit, But Please Behave Yourself. The problem of “overtourism”. Based upon the pictures, I will pass.

“Sometime it is as simple as tourists not realizing that real people live here.”

Reminds me of signs I see in a nearby neighborhood I cycle through regularly. “Drive like your kids live here.”

Bonus.

Friday Assorted Links

1A. The new “Coolest City on the East Coast“.

1B. Some of the best television in history.

2. Better to buy or rent? The American Dream is a Financial Nightmare.

Spoiler.

“Housing has always had a terrible track record as an investment – from 1890 to 2012, the inflation-adjusted return (i.e. taking inflation out) on residential real estate was 0.17 percent. That means a house purchased for $5,000 in 1890 would be worth $6,150 in 2012.

Over the same time period the stock market returned an inflation-adjusted 6.27 percent. That means a $5,000 investment in the market would be worth over $8 million.”

3A. First-generation students are finding personal and professional fulfillment in the humanities and social sciences. The Unexpected Value of the Liberal Arts.

3B. A “Seismic Change” at Cal State.

4. A friend of mine, a former high school principal extraordinaire, says school leaders need at least five years to implement meaningful reforms. The D.C. public schools have not got the message. One in four D.C. public schools have had at least three principals since 2012.

5. About 50,000 people live in Olympia, WA and in Venice, Italy. Approximately 20,000,000 visit Venice annually. That’s approximately 55,000 people every day of the year. If that many people visited Olympia each year, I would do what young Venetians have already done. Leave.

6. Venezuela is collapsing.

7. Hypothetical. Say at some point in the future I’m out mowing the lawn and decide to take a “nature break” behind a big tree on our rural property. Will mountain goats later appear? One other thing, what kind of person whizzes where those mountain goats are licking in the lead picture?

On Travel 2

Today, the Good Wife and I have been married for 29 years, 11 months, and 18 days. Fairly confident we’ll make it to three zero, we’re planning a celebration of marital endurance bliss for a week and a half from now. Given assorted responsibilities we can’t shake, we’re temporarily tabling a trip to a Spanish speaking country in favor of a nearby quick hit.

Meaning Portland, Oregon.

Read and/or watch the New York Times depiction of the Rose City and then dig this person’s comment which I’m assigning an “A+”:

“It’s a very pretty video. Please forgive my peeve. Some of us aren’t cheering.

It’s the weirdest feeling to have lived somewhere your whole life and suddenly feel like a stranger. The aggressively smug city in the video is not Portland as many of us know it (or knew–past tense–and loved it). Portland is unrecognizable to me, anymore. Portland was a decided introvert until fairly recently; a dark, foggy haven for privacy-loving people, many of them genuine eccentrics–not the braying and proud ‘Portland Weird’ of now.

The self-satisfied extrovert it has become is due mainly to hype and an internet-fed culture of rootlessness and restlessness (“I can do better!”), spawning quality-o’-life-seeking newcomers looking to reinvent themselves and put their stamp on what too many have regarded as a tabula rasa, ignoring what existed before they arrived to ‘improve’ it.

The noisy eagerness with which new lookalike (mostly white, mostly moneyed) arrivals and discoverers advertise and idealize the city feels like an extension of FB-fed narcissism and now-epidemic attention seeking. “I found it! I discovered it! Look what I did!” Portland makes a great FB post, a great tweet, a great NY Times feature. It reflects well on mememe. Aren’t we all clever for discovering this place? We are curators!

“Authentic” is not a word I’d use to describe Portland now. And I always thought relentless self congratulation was the antithesis of ‘cool.'”

How does one add to that? It’s not just a very thoughtful take-down of the NYT, it’s a trenchant critique of our penchant for superficial travel.

On Traveling

A nice insight:

“If you travel a lot, you should not restrict yourself to “nice” places, which are more likely to disappoint.”

Instead, make your way to places like Shenyang, China. What are some other “off the path” not so nice places one should go?

Addendum: How much of travel decision making is inspired, at least in part, by status anxiety? For the self actualized among us, with no status anxiety, sources tell me Picqua, OH is on the upswing. Fort Picqua Plaza, the Midwest’s Taj Mahal.

Update: Sources tell me I can’t spell. It’s Piqua, OH. Apologies to the Heartland.

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

The Tourism Trap

Talked to an elderly couple at church about their recent adventure in China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I checked off the same spots during my first trip to China in 1997. And today I looked at a friend’s Facebook pics about a recent trip to China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Anyone that stays on the well worn, urban, tourist pathway of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, really can’t say they know much about China which is still largely rural and poor. As tourists, we lack creativity, independence, and a sense of adventure. Our collective lack of creativity, independence, and sense of adventure creates tourist traps—must see locations that make people feel like they understand a people and place far more than they really do.

Of course, in the U.S., foreign visitors have their checklists too. Here’s the Top Ten according to Forbes Traveler—1) Times Square; 2) The Las Vegas Strip; 3) D.C. and the National Mall and Monuments; 4) Faneuil Hall Marketplace; 5) Disney World; 6) Disney Land; 7) Fisherman’s Wharf/Golden Gate Bridge; 8) Niagara Falls; 9) Great Smoky Mountains; and 10) my birthplace NavyPier Chicago. If you’re an American citizen, what kind of feel would a foreign visitor get for your community if they went from one “Top Ten” site to another?

How does a sense of obligation to see standard tourist sites form, that if I’m traveling to Country A, B, or C, I have to see X, Y, and Z? Is it a fear that someone might ask upon returning, “Did you see the Great Wall? Did you see Times Square?” Are we defenseless in the midst of the iconic sites incessant, sophisticated, billion dollar marketing campaigns?

My most memorable travel experiences have been off the beaten trail. In China, a bicycle was indispensable to experiencing more of daily life. When abroad, I’ve learned the more still I sit, the more I listen and observe, the more I learn about different forms of daily life.  Lo and behold, many people live markedly differently than me and their unique ways of life work well for them. Once I learned what’s “normal” is culturally defined, I not only learned to appreciate foreign cultures, but cultural diversity in the U.S. as well.

International school visits have always been enlightening. The different architecture, curricula, teaching methods, teacher-student interactions, extracurricular activities, and feel in foreign schools always provides wonderful insights into the larger culture.

Think about a foreign tourist to the U.S. that spends a few days at the Grand Canyon and a week on the Vegas Strip. And another that spends ten days visiting private and public elementary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Which would learn more about life in the United States?

What other, “off the radar” experiences—besides school visits, a farmers’ market visit, riding city busses, a homestay or two, attending religious services, a hospital visit, watching a youth sports tournament, visiting a courthouse and sitting in on a trial, attending a summer concert in a park—would you recommend to a foreign visitor who wanted to not just recreate, but learn as much as possible about life in the U.S.?

Here’s a travel challenge from Roman Krznaric, the author of the book I’m currently reading, The Wonderbox. This from a chapter titled “Empathy”:

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with ‘being good’. But experiential empathy should be really regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next holiday at an exotic resort or visiting museums. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives—and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, ‘Where can I go next?’, the question on our lips should be, ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’ 

The Politics of Travel

The North Korean dictatorship now sees tourists on cruises as the best way to generate some foreign currency with which they can keep buying western luxury goods for themselves. Fifty-four pictures here.

Do the mostly Chinese tourists have no conscience? Don’t they realize they’re propping up the most heinous dictatorship in the world?

Easy to rip them I suppose, harder to reflect on the ways our travels sometimes negatively impact the people and cultures we visit.

When teaching and living in Ethiopia, I took what I thought at the time was an excellent picture that captured the harsh reality of poverty in the developing world. It was of two young girls who had hiked up to the top of the hills north of the capital city, Addis Ababa, with a huge thicket of wood branches on their tiny arched backs. Technically it was National Geo-like, and even more impressive after the excellent matting and framing job. After having it hanging in our home for quite a few years, the haunting, absent look on the girls’ faces started to trouble me. Despite being someone who values my privacy, I hadn’t asked for their permission. I raised my camera with my fancy zoom lens, pointed it right at them, and snapped.

There was no reciprocity in our interaction, no balance. I’ve since taken it down and use it as a discussion starter when teaching about cultural globalization.

I have other similarly unflattering travel stories. We don’t like to think about, let alone tell those stories though, opting instead for innocuous ones as if our travels are apolitical.

Our travel negatively impacts the physical environment; our physical presence inevitably changes the cultural environment; and our loding, dining, and recreational decision making tends to create distant economic winners and local losers.

To mitigate our negative impact, maybe we should travel less often, over shorter distances. And when we do travel far afield, we should strive to do so as global citizens, not amoral global tourists like the damn Chinese on the North Korean cruises.