What time are we supposed to be there? What does the ticket say? No, not the actual time we leave. The time we’re supposed to be there. What about tomorrow? Where do we go to get the double decker bus tickets? We only have so much time and I want to make sure we see everything. And I mean everything. No, we don’t need a nice hotel. Who cares? We will only sleep there anyway.
Have you ever traveled with someone like this? Maybe you are this person. At one point in my life I was too. But here’s what I’ve noticed having traveled for years now. Packing my pockets full of cheap tickets and some very expensive, arranging an itinerary even a trained marathon runner would find over the top, I thought I was seeing the places I wanted to see, learn everything in a day, check off each and then off to another city tomorrow. But that’s not seeing. It’s sightseeing, taking in as many sights as possible without stopping to reflect how whatever you are witnessing came to be before moving on to the next.
Nothing wrong with that at all if you enjoy getting on the double decker bus to listen to a half broken speaker while inhaling the aromatic smell of exhaust. Nothing wrong with sightseeing at all. But at the end of the day exhaustion, pain, and misery take over. It’s all running together. Instead, all of those exciting places vanished behind a fog, a type of sensory overload, short circuit. Done. Caput. No good for anything except wine, a hot bath to calm my aches, and sleep.
Rarely would I bring up the double decker bus except the last time I was on one, it was in December in New York City during the first snow of the season. My sisters and I were on top of the bus in the cold and wind. I recall keeping my head down to avoid a frostbitten nose, cursing to myself about why I had agreed to take myself away from that warm lovely fireplace in the apartment that overlooked the city. That’s all I remember, except firetrucks rushing past us to keep a building from burning to the ground. Double deckers aren’t always so dreadful. The Big Red Bus in Rome taught me some things I didn’t know, and of course, I was able to remember some of it, as I was not in danger of freezing to death in September. In fact, the balmy weather helped me to stay present. I don’t remember as much of what I saw as what I felt…the gentle breeze blowing through my hair, the sense of freedom of not having to drive, but allowing instead to be chauffeured in the open air.
Rarely does anyone trying to stuff the travel turkey remember the significance of everything they saw, but people always remember who they met. A kind gesture, directions when you couldn’t find your way, help with your luggage, or a leisurely cup of coffee at a café whose legacy dates back generations. The inviting smile of a stranger or listening to your server eloquently articulate mouthwatering chef specialties. This is especially true of Italian and French speaking countries. When they speak, I hear music. When I close my eyes and silently listen to what sounds like an Italian symphony from the table next to mine, I am in heaven. That sound is worth remembering. It’s like a baby who coo’s at you for the first time. You just want to shut everything out and listen to that beautiful sound. You may not know the language, but the language knows you. It knows your heart.
Without stopping to listen and reflect, it is nearly impossible to take in the sights and sounds, to be aware. The constant rush of keeping a schedule, beating the crowds, and experiencing anxiety when we don’t, is not seeing. We are not able to see when we are not present and it’s impossible to be present when we think we have to get it all in. I don’t travel much anymore to get it all in, but am totally on board for taking in new and old sights every time I travel. The routine has changed, however, to allow for reflection and retention. Five habits changed the entire way I sightsee, allowing me to really see.
1. Meditation. Meditation helps us stay aware, especially during the hustle and bustle, when traveling gets to be frustrating with long lines. Meditating in the morning before you go out and sightsee helps keep you focused and relaxed. Sometimes if I am in line waiting to see something, I will shut my eyes and take 5-15 deep breaths focusing only on the sound of my breathing. If there is chatter around me, I keep my earbuds handy and use the meditation music on my phone.
2. Shut Out the Noise. Recently I was visiting the Borghese Museum in Rome. It was crowded and loud. I decided to tune everything out and put my earbuds in and listened to classical music the entire time I was there improving my experience dramatically. Pick whatever music you like, but try to keep it instrumental like classical or acoustic guitar. Music with lyrics get in the way of informational reading. Again, the idea is to stay present rather than drift off into the land of scattered thoughts.
3. Research the Busiest Times and Stay Away. If you want to miss the crowds, call the place of interest and ask what the busiest times are or ask your hotel concierge or a local. It’s not hard to figure out and you will be so glad you did.
4. Get a private tour. Sometimes private tours are pricey but well worth the money. You don’t wait in any lines and the tour guide knows exactly where to take you to get away from the crowds. She will command your attention with memorable stories and fascinating facts you wouldn’t learn otherwise, some of which are hilarious and others treacherous. Either way, you won’t soon forget. Audio tours with headphones are pretty cool too. Some are generic and don’t give you the juicy stories, but having headphones definitely helps block out the noise of crazed sightseers in close proximity.
5. Take time to be alone. Rejuvenate yourself. Obviously, you won’t have this problem if you are traveling alone, but if you are with family or friends, it is vital to your mental health to take some time either before the day starts, a short siesta in the afternoon, or when the day has come to an end. For some this could mean fifteen minutes of meditation in the morning or in the evening after a long hot bath. Your private time could be treating your feet to a thumb message or a nice body scrub in a hot bath or shower. Journaling highlights of the day whether it was something you saw or someone you met is a great way to spend time alone. What stood out? How did it make you feel? What do you remember about it? If you feel safe, take a walk alone and clear your mind. Read. Do whatever you can to make yourself a priority. Your traveling pleasure will increase tenfold and you will be able to handle traveling with people with more ease and grace.
Sightseeing is so much more fun when you take your time. To really experience a culture, to really see, you must slow down and stay present. That’s when you’ll notice a stranger smiling at you, when you can look directly into the face of another human being and really see them, their gentle nature, and the sheer joy of having you visit their homeland. This is particularly true of foreign countries. Whenever I travel, I make it a point to look people right in the eye and smile. I have made more friends and learned more about culture and history by the simple act of staying present.