When I was 17 and had just graduated from high school, I got to go on an amazing 3 week trip to Europe with my AP European History teacher and lots of other kids from school. I was so thrilled! Several of my close friends were coming too and the itinerary included:
What an amazing trip, right?!
Yes, it should have been.
The day finally came and I couldn't wait to get on the plane and get out of Utah. I'd been to Mexico every year (but only to visit family, so it didn't count to me), and Hawaii once, but this would be my big, for-real, foreign debut. Life was good.
But once we touched down on British soil at our first stop, London, my spirits touched down too. It was my first time so far from home, and everything was different. I wasn't dressed as well as I would have liked, there weren't enough boys in our group, I had so much acne that month and my self-esteem was dive-bombing. Just on and on. I was very pessimistic and that led to me feeling sad and missing my family. I spent the whole first night crying on the phone to my mom.
Seriously! Crying. All out.
Same story everywhere we went. I was so focused on how I felt about myself and what I didn't have around me, that I missed what actually WAS around me.
I clearly remember one night in Italy. We were having a yummy Italian dinner at a little restaurant that was, honestly, shabby and dark (though the food was fantastic!). My mood was shabby and dark to match, and I spent another night crying on the phone to my mom about how sad I was and how much I missed her.
GAG! Gag, gag, gag!
Well, so, ok. In the end, I saw all the cool things that you're supposed to see when you go to Europe (except in Greece where I mostly stayed on the cruise ship. WHAT?!), took all the token tourist pictures (like me holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, and me standing next to an unflinching Buckingham Palace guard.) I swam in the ocean in Italy, ate the Swiss chocolate, bought the tacky souvenirs, ate all the food, accidentally drank , messed up all the hotel rooms (but not really, promise), and danced at the night club on a Greek cruise ship. In the end, I DID have fun. I really did.
But then I came home, and I didn't feel like I had experienced what I should have experienced. But why? If I did and saw all the stuff you're supposed to do and see in Europe, then what's the problem? If I stopped calling my mom to cry like a baby toward the end, why didn't I feel fulfilled?
I didn't know then, but I do now.
I didn't truly experience each place because I didn't truly immerse myself in the culture or talk to the people. I didn't ask for recommendations of where to go, what to see, what to eat (which, on a tour like the one I was on, is hard to do anyway). But I didn't truly see the people at every opportunity that I could have. I didn't try to experience a tiny piece of the everyday life of a resident in each place.
So here it is:
Because who wants to waste opportunities like I did back then? No one! No one should unknowingly waste their money, time, and opportunities, much less WANT to waste them!
1. Buy a decent camera, and learn how to take a good picture
Look. Just invest in a decent camera, and watch some youtube videos on how to use the thing. There's nothing worse than coming home from a vacation to a gorgeous place, and having pictures that make it look like you took a trip to the inside of your neighborhood parking lot dumpster.
Well, this is recognizable, right? It's the Mona Lisa! It's the only picture I have of her. And it looks like I'm taking a picture of her through a dangerously and illegally tinted and distorted car window.
And this is the Tower Bridge in London! It's more of an impressionist painting than a photograph, but hey, this was before digital cameras were common!
Horses and a naked man riding one. Why? Why did I take this picture?! Even if there was a reason, it's a horribly-framed picture!
This is the inside of my cabin on our cruise around the Greek isles. Awesome, right?! Look how comfortable the beds look, and check out that view! Makes you want to get on the ship right now, doesn't it? I'm not sure why I haven't been contacted to promote this cruise line.
I don't even know. Just move along.
Also, make sure to put people in your pictures! While it's nice to have beautiful shots of the places you visit, they'll mean more to you if you or your loved ones are in most of them. So, take the token shot of the landscape or the building, but then throw some people in front of it and shoot it again.
2. Write down the places you go and the things you see
What's the point of taking a picture of something if you're not going to remember anything about it when you look at the picture later? Some of these pictures mean absolutely nothing to me. But maybe they would have. Maybe there are amazing stories attached to each one, but I'll never remember them again because I didn't bother to write them down.
What's this blurry, unfocused building on the hillside? Oh, who knows? From the landscape I'd say this is somewhere in Greece. Didn't have the energy to pick up a pen and write it down somewhere, obvs.
Whose mouth are we putting our hands into, and for what reason? Oh, I don't know. I couldn't be bothered to WRITE IT DOWN!
Which Greek island are we posing on (in all our late 90's, Doc-Marten-wearing glory)? Hmmm. I'm sure I knew at the moment the camera flashed. Probably thought I'd remember for all generations of forever. But I don't.
(And not only is there a date printed on the bottom of all my pictures-- SUCH A DISRUPTIVE PRESENCE! --but it's the wrong date. So, I don't know what I'm taking pictures of or when I took them. Brilliant.)
WRITE IT DOWN!!
3. Open your mouth
One of the hands-down best things about traveling is meeting people who live differently, and who have had different experiences than you. But in order to truly meet others, you need to open your mouth and talk to them. Which, yes, can be hard if you're in a country whose language you don't speak! But that can make it even more interesting!
This is a picture of a guy in Italy. He was a server at a villa we went to for dinner one night. I wish I could tell you that we talked to him. That we asked him about his life, how he liked working at a villa serving tourists, what his favorite thing to do on his day off was, what the best well-kept secret in his city was.
We thought he was attractive and so the game was, see who can most-covertly take a picture of him. Shallow. SO SHALLOW. He could have been an amazing human being with so much to share about his home, but I'll never know.
In contrast is this picture, taken during a trip to China a year later. This trip lasted five months (I was there teaching English at a boarding school, and there were zero tears of homesickness). A few of the people in my group decided to travel to Xi'an for the weekend, and we took a train. It was a sleeper train, meaning three-high, narrower-than-half-a-twin-bed, bunks. This man was in a bunk in our section on the way home.
He spoke some English and so we had several conversations with him during the trip. I don't remember his name, but I remember hearing all about his philosophy on life, why Chinese people followed Chairman Mao, why President Clinton was better than President Bush, how Chinese men should never hug their mothers-in-law, and so much more. It was the best conversation ever! We learned so much about how the Chinese view life and were able to share some things about our own views. Awesome. So, while I'm not posing with anything famous or well-known here, this picture means a lot to me because it brings back all those memories.
These amazing people are Roger and Betty (their English names) and they were cooks at the boarding school I lived at in China. They were always cooking. Steamed buns, bamboo shoots, deep fried pineapple rings, orange chicken...their food was always delicious. I remember that Roger was very quiet. Neither of them spoke English, but once in a while they would invite us to come learn how to make something in the kitchen.
It's nothing amazing. Just two cooks in the kitchen of a boarding school in Wuhan, China. But the image means more to me than a thousand generic pictures of the Great Wall of China because of the experience that goes along with it.
4. Don't be lazy
Travel can make you tired, and sometimes you just want to relax. Which is fine! Relaxation is one of the reasons we take vacations. But don't relax at the expense of something much more fulfilling, missing things you're going to regret missing later.
On the Great Waste (which is what I'll call my previous trip from now on), our ship made a stop in Turkey, on the island where Ephesus is located. Like in the Bible. I DIDN'T GET OFF THE SHIP!! Why? When else in my life would I be able to visit Ephesus? Who just goes to Ephesus?
You might assume that you'll catch this excursion on the next trip, or see that vista when you're here in a couple of years. The problem with this mentality is that life gets serious and times and situations change. Don't assume that it'll be easy to get back to wherever you are. So, if there's something you've been wanting to see, see it now, if you have the chance.
Here I am, a couple of decades later, and do you think I've been back to visit Ephesus? Not a chance! Between raising a family, and every other obligation that goes along with it, there just somehow hasn't been the time to visit a random Turkish island on the other side of the world. I wish I hadn't wasted the opportunity.
If I could do it again, this time with my husband, here's how it would go
On the plane to London: Talk to the people in the row next to us who live in London. Ask them what we shouldn't miss, where to eat like locals, what hidden sights are their favorites.
At the hotel: Talk to the front desk clerk. Ask about her life. Ask where she likes to go. Ask what we should see. Ask how she likes living in London.
In Bath: Ask a local where the least touristy establishment is, and go there. Talk to the people. Ask how they like living in a Jane Austen novel. Answers may include:
A) It's brilliant!
B) Meh. And I'm brassed off with people like you asking.
C) Who is Jane Austen?
D) Oi! Who let you in here?
On the Chunnel ferry: Decide to take a short break from barging into people's lives, but accidentally do it anyway when the woman next to us who has been chasing around two small children says it must be nice to be able to sit and actually enjoy the view. To which we'll reply that we have four crazies and we left them all at home in a closet with plenty of food and water. Her eyes will widen in alarm, until she realizes we're not anywhere in the neighborhood of serious. Only then will we commiserate about raising children on opposite sides of the world.
In Paris: Grab our rental car (because, YES, we are all about driving ourselves anywhere we go so we don't miss "the road less traveled) and find our VRBO on the outskirts of the city. Knock on the neighbor's door and ask about local dining options and grocery stores. Get into a long conversation about French cuisine and what Americans think they know about it. Ultimately, get invited to dinner to learn a thing or two about NOT french fries and NOT French toast.
In Italy: Explore MORE of Pompeii! It's huge and somehow I only saw a super small part of it during The Great Waste. Lazy much, was I? Oh yes! This time, I'll explore every inch, and then ask a man selling souvenirs about little-known hot springs in the area. We'll snicker at the "tourists" (because obviously, WE'RE not!) as they get back on their buses, while we drive to a warm river to hang out with the locals.
On the Greek Isles Tour: One thing
GET OFF THE BOAT! (And not just to go shopping)
You get the picture, right?
So, to recap, here are the four ways you can make your travel more memorable:
1. Learn how to take a good picture before you go.
2. Open your mouth!
3. Write down the places you go and the things you see.
4. Don't be lazy!
And one bonus:
5. Get recipes from people that live in the places you visit!
Here's one of my favorites from my time living in Brazil:
Pao de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread)
4 c. of tapioca flour (no substitutes here, or it won't work)
1 c. water
1 c. milk
1/2 c. oil
3/4 c. of grated parmesan
salt to taste
Boil the water in a pot on the stove. Add the milk, oil and salt.
Turn the heat off and add the tapioca flour. Transfer to the bowl of a mixer and knead with a dough hook (or knead by hand for a few minutes, until the mixture is elasticky).
Add the parmesan cheese and eggs and mix well.
Roll balls of about an inch in diameter and place on a greased baking sheet.
Bake in the oven at 325 degrees F for about 40 minutes.