One of my travel rituals is keeping lists of the lessons I learn on each trip. For the past few years, I’ve been sharing these with friends and family in Facebook posts, and have settled on 13 as the lucky number of lessons that define a trip.
The lessons I’ve learned from travelling also help me at home.
Before COVID-19, I compiled a list of things I’ve learned from travelling in general, to share with you all as the first post for Liisa Wanders. To my delight, many of these lessons about the benefits of travel are still useful even when travelling much closer to home, or not at all!
1. Everything is awesome the first time you see it
I still remember the first time I saw a banana in the “wild.” Bananas are the most traded fruit in the world; I’d seen thousands in my life. But never hanging from a plant, as I was walking down the street. I took a photo of this, like it was a precious thing. Because it was! It was my first banana plant!
When you travel, your life is a never-ending series of firsts, with all the wonder that comes with that. But it doesn’t need to be someplace far, or famous. Even when staying very close to home, you can bike to a new-to-you park or try a totally different cuisine of the world. When you choose to go somewhere new, open to its possibilities, you find awesome in the everyday, every day.
2. There’s an adventure for every budget
I grew up believing travel was only for the rich. Then, in my late 20s, my boyfriend suggested if I could save $1,000 we could go see the pyramids in Mexico. I did, and we did, and it changed my life. On that trip I also developed my travel budget philosophy: scrimp so you can splurge.
We took the cheap buses (which always have the best snack vendors anyway) and slept in unique local accommodations (a thatched hut on the beach of Tulum was only $15 back then, I hate to tell you). We had so many pesos left over that for our last night we sprung for a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. I’d never seen a bathroom so opulent. At its fancy restaurant, while wearing my beat-up Doc Martens, I had a ridiculously expensive cheese plate arranged “in order of sharpness.” It was my first experience of 5-star anything, and it was, in a word, a hoot.
I’ve continued to embrace the extraordinary at both the low and high ends. If a city I want to visit is expensive, I just go for the weekend and spend it walking to free attractions — but always with enough in the wallet for a really splendid dessert. If the destination is cheap, I find a glorious hotel room to splurge on for one night. Whether you have a lot of money or just a little, you can still find ways to live it up.
3. Falling in love with a place is a lot like falling in love with a person
Sometimes, it’s love at first sight. Sometimes the feeling creeps on you. Sometimes you don’t realize it until you are far away. But you can be in a relationship with a place.
While I appreciate something about every place I visit, there are a handful that have a romantic pull on my heart. Mexico, Iceland, Morocco, the city of Paris. As soon as I step off the plane or train there I feel like a different person, intoxicated by the smells, the temperature of the air, the sound of music and street life. No matter what happens there, I am happy. Like an actual interpersonal relationship, if you want it to work out long-term you need to give something back. Surrender a part of yourself, show it respect, and probably spend too much money on it. But it’s worth it to have somewhere to return to that might look so very different, and yet feel like home.
4. Hello? I love you.
Bonjour, Hola, Halló, Azul …. Every relationship begins with a single word, and travel gives you an excuse to learn how to say “hi!” to more people. You don’t need to master a whole new language every time you travel but the local version of Hello/Goodbye/Please/Thank You will not just make you a better guest (and shopper), but a better citizen of Earth. I love languages. My goal is always to learn enough that I can make a joke. So what if your pronounciation and grammar aren’t perfect? Parisians constantly make fun of my French, and it’s my mother tongue. Don’t be shy. The more language you know, the more friendships you can develop, at home and abroad.
5. Taxi drivers are always a hassle. Let it go.
I have a tattoo on my arm commemorating an argument with a taxi driver. I was in Cairo, where the cost (at that time) for a short taxi ride within the city centre was 5 Egyptian pounds — khamsa. I knew this. I’d been paying it for a week. Our driver was demanding 10. I refused to pay it, and after much yelling, dropped him a 5 and stormed out of the car. I don’t feel good about this today.
The price for tourists is never the actual price, it’s whatever taxi drivers can get out of you. The standard travel tip is to do your research, agree on the price before you get in, then stand your ground. But I would add this unpopular advice: you should probably pay the tourist price and it accept it as part of the cost of travelling, especially in a country where it amounts to less than one of your dollars.
As you walk through the world, do you want to be a generous person, or an angry stingy person? It took me a while, but I now know what side I’m on. The khamsa on my body represents several things to me, including a reminder that money isn’t everything.
6. Sunsets are the best free show on Earth
They say the best things in life are free. For the most part, that’s a lie. But nothing compares to the simple, wondrous pleasure of watching the sun set. We often forget that in our daily life, but travelling reminds us to take the time, to make the effort, to find that perfect sunset view. Whenever I’m lucky enough to be near the ocean, I plan my day around making it to the beach in time to watch the sun slowly disappear on the horizon.
It’s not just the beauty of the light, that glorious interplay of oranges, yellows, pinks, reds. It’s how in that moment I feel hyper aware of time, and how fast it goes. Whatever I’m carrying inside gets reset. The day is done. There will be another tomorrow, but for now….welcome the night. Back at home, I try to make it a habit, too. It’s not always a glorious view but in that moment where I catch the sunset I feel connected to all the perfect sunsets of past travels, and the ones I dream are yet to come.
7. The store you pass by today will be closed tomorrow
What’s the name of the law that says if you pass by a shop selling some beautiful thing you decide you don’t have time to buy now but will for sure come back and buy tomorrow, that place will for sure be closed tomorrow? I don’t know, but it’s definitely a truth.
This is definitely a lesson I should have applied to life at home during pandemic times. New bicycle? Outdoor patio furniture? Hammock stand? I thought about all of these things for too long, and then they were completely sold out. Don’t put off til tomorrow what you can buy today!
8. “Without meat” does not mean it’s vegetarian
I’m lucky to live in Toronto, where you can find delicious vegetarian food almost everywhere. But the concept of vegetarianism is still foreign to many places in the world. So when travelling you need to be specific with your server or host. Do not assume that asking for food “without meat” means you won’t get chicken or ham. (This is where learning some of that local language suggested above comes in especially handy.) Do appreciate the glorious nutrition in the humble and plentiful potato. Signed, the girl who lived on patatas bravas in Spain.
9. Guided tours are not terrible. In fact, when you’re single, they are great.
Twentysomething Liisa would never had taken an organized tour. I don’t even like self-guided audio tours! I want to be alone with my own thoughts, on my own schedule. Except, as it turns out, sometimes I don’t. And how lovely that there’s a middle ground between solo independent travel and all-inclusive tours with behemoth buses and guides that have to carry bullhorns and flags because the group is so big.
I’m so happy to have discovered small group tours. So far, I’ve only done two, both with Intrepid Travel (read about those trips here), but I’m firmly sold on the pleasure of letting someone else organize most of the logistics, who can take me (a non-driver) off the beaten paths, with a sensitivity to the environment, still with enough free time to wander. I don’t need a date, or a friend on the same budget and vacation schedule as me. And I don’t need to control and plan every single thing, I can just trust in the flow — which is a helpful lesson at home too.
10. Go see your friends’ favourite bands
I’m blessed to have travelled with a lot of my best friends. And become greater friends with others after we’ve travelled. It’s often to see a band play. It doesn’t matter if it’s my favourite band or not, what matters is the shared experience. “Want to fly to Oslo with me to see A-ha play?” asked a girlfriend. Sure! It ended up being a four-Canadian-girls weekend packed with saunas, sledding, art and music. I’ve lost count of the rock ‘n’ roll road trips I’ve taken over the years, but the silly in-jokes remain. It really does seem that concerts are going to be one of the last public gatherings to return safely, so when that happens I’ll be especially ready to say yes to any gig, anywhere!
11. Learn history from the dead
There are many reasons I hang out cemeteries. They are often in beautiful, quiet parks. I like sculptures of weeping women and skulls. And when you’re in a new city or country, cemeteries can be a great history lesson.
One of my favourite places in Cuba is El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana. First off, it’s huge, with more than 800,000 graves — one of which is shaped like an Egyptian pyramid. And if you pay attention (or pay a guide) you’ll learn so much history. I liked the Masonic section, which reveals how big freemasonry was in Cuba in the 1800s. And those abandoned and broken tombs remind you of how many families were exiled after the revolution. Now more than ever, when looking for things to do that are outside where you can safely distance, don’t forget cemeteries are open air museums!
12. Take more naps
Actually this one I learned specifically from Mexico: the world would be a better place if we spent more of our afternoons in hammocks. In this summer of pandemic stress especially, one of my best pieces of advice is to go hang out under a tree. (Does anyone know where I can buy a hammock stand?!)
13. There’s always time for tea
Tea is one simple, cheap, ingredient, plus boiling water. It can wake you up, or put you to sleep. And it’s plentiful everywhere in the world. Which means it’s perfect for sharing. So if someone offers to make me a tea, I always say yes. Even if sometimes it’s just a ruse to get me into a carpet factory or perfume shop. So what? I’ve spent an hour of my life having a tea on the other side of the world in conversation with a stranger. I smile, resist any hard sells of things I don’t want, and carry on my way.
Tea also makes a perfect souvenir. I like to stock up on cheap tea with neat foreign packaging at grocery stores, or when I’m in Paris splurge on exquisite tins of Mariage Frères. Then when I get home I can make tea from my travels for my friends while telling them about my travels. (They don’t even have to buy anything from me.) When Toronto went into lockdown and closed off access to the cherry blossoms in High Park, I mail ordered some Sakura cherry blossom tea from France. Proof that you can actually travel the world through a good cup of tea without leaving your home.
What have you learned from travelling that is making your life better at home? I’d love to hear it in the comments below.