Like many travelers, I’m always on a hunt for the elusive, hard to define, perfect travel experience. The destinations we choose often arise from places that have something we want to see. But traveling is about so much more than just seeing the live version of the postcard you send home. I tend to avoid tour groups; too often you end up sheltered from truly experiencing a place or its people when being shuttled from site to site with a group who likely come from your home country. True, there can be advantages. On our recent trip to Egypt, we went on a Nile cruise and our guide was a knowledgeable Egyptologist who gave us a depth of understanding we never could have arrived at on our own. Still, I usually prefer to get my hands dirty, get a little lost, find my own way.
I’ve had several of these “perfect” experiences – each of them unique, but all of them having the same basic element. Connection. Connection to a place, to people, to the history embodied in a location… connection is key. I know I’m having a perfect travel experience when I find myself lost in a moment, captivated by whatever it is that I’m doing or seeing or hearing or discussing, and the rest of the world, the rest of my life, the before, the after, all slide away.
The first time I saw Yosemite Valley, it stunned me. I just wanted to sit and stare. And breathe. While I was living in Paris and studying French, we had a British pub we frequented in the Latin Quarter. One night, a group of us stumbled outside and gathered, without really planning to, around a few sidewalk benches. A classmate from Brazil had a guitar with him, and he began to play. So there we were: me the sole American, several Brazilians, a couple Dutch girls, my sweetheart of a friend from Switzerland, a couple Germans, and a guy from Japan. My classmate began to strum his guitar and sing a Jack Johnson song. We all smiled and sang along, laughing and loud, without a care in the world. Or there was the time Stéphane and I trekked around Machu Picchu all day in drizzling rain with a detailed guidebook. We studied what each structure had been and hunted down the hidden symbols in the rocks. The rain kept many others away, but every once in a while a llama would wander through. We’d step aside, smile, then continue to learn the secrets of those stones. In my mind I saw Machu Picchu at the height of its glory, with kings and queens and visitors roaming the grounds. Recently, we were wearily sipping tea at Fishawy’s in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili, when a girl from Australia offered to let us try her sheesha pipe. At first I refused. Having just lost an uncle to lung cancer, the thought of puffing on a pipe that reportedly delivers the punch of 20 cigarettes held no appeal. But we kept chatting with her, and her Egyptian guide, and we ended up leaving our table to join theirs. And to try the sheesha. (I’m not always so weak-willed. But the writer in me feels the need to experience everything.) We talked with the Egyptian guide and his friend who came to join us about their lives, we talked with our new Australian friend about her recent travels through Africa. And there I was, taken by surprise, and realizing I was having another perfect travel experience.
These experiences sneak up on me, and can’t be forced. They are different every time. But I know it when I’ve found them. And those moments stand out to me, perfectly preserved even years later, when I think back over the places I have been, the things I have done, and the people I have met.