I love camping and water activities. I used to enjoy sharing these experiences with others. During this pandemic, though, I have severely limited my social engagements. Since returning from Japan to Atlanta in April 2022, I have prioritized reconnecting with my family. So when a close friend told me about some fellow travelers gathering to camp and hang out along nearby Lake Hartwell for the weekend, I could not resist coming out of mini-isolation. On this second camping trip of the season, I ended up having a fantastic time by practicing some elements of mindful travel. The `Lake Crash` met several critical criteria; I could camp, play in the water and meet many old friends all in one go!
In the first post of this three-part series exploring meaningful travel, I considered how preparation and planning with a few good questions could help shape a significant experience. In this second post of the series, I focus on how to make the most of your time once you embark on a journey. I suggest these pointers to help lean into time away from home. I make it a point to: (1) be truly present in your surroundings, (2) remain flexible when circumstances change, and (3) try to connect with locals.
Traveling can be a spiritually transcendent journey. Doubt that? Show up in Pakistan with your luggage missing, at the mercy of friends and family, and stripped of American luxuries. Is there any better way to know yourself? In exchange for your lost stuff, you get the opportunity to see yourself through your travel interactions. In a talk on observing the self, Tara Brach recounts her inner struggle with control when she traveled abroad. If we pay attention to what arises in us, travel becomes a transformative educational experience.
1. Be Present
Thankfully, you do not have to lose your luggage or feel socially awkward to get the most out of your travel experience. While I am on an adventure, I find joy in being fully present. I am mentally and physically attentive. I tune into my senses. I pay attention to the small details. I notice light sounds; I take in vistas. I listen to the local dialect.
By far, though, my favorite practice to help me stay grounded in the present is to go sans phone. I often tell people I will not be available by phone and then turn on airplane mode. For many modern travelers, I know this is a bit of heresy. Of course, I have used Google Maps to find a great restaurant in a city I did not know well. However, when I backpacked India, I was proud of my ability to find a great restaurant without Google Maps. I learned to look for external indicators in finding a good restaurant. By watching the crowds and seeing what looked hip and alive, I tried some strange foods and enjoyed the mystery of being a little under-informed.
Nowadays, I find it harder to turn off the phone. On my trip to Lake Hartwell, though there was service at the lake, I was determined to stay present. After checking in on my step-dad, who had some health issues, I turned on airplane mode and left my phone in my tent. By cutting the wire, I avoided the inexplicable desire to scroll Instagram. Instead, I pushed myself to meet people outside of my bubble. Overall, just turning off the damn thing brings a new way to navigate the world and a sense of surroundings.
2. Be Flexible
Robert Burns, an 18th-century poet, once wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” In modern words: regardless of how well you plan, things will go awry. In my mind: when the plan is interrupted, things get interesting.
On my road trip to Maryland, the night I was meant to sleep on Kent Island on the eastern shore of Maryland, there was an incredible rainy downpour. I first heard about it casually cruising the FM stations in the area. When I arrived at the highway passing through DC, it was dark, and I could not see three feet ahead. So instead of staying on a strict timeline, I modified my plan. I pulled over and read in my car for a while. A few hours later, the rain eased up. I drove to the edge of Chesapeake Bay and watched the sunrise from a state park. Instead of being grumpy about the change, by being open, I lucked out with a beautiful morning. I saw an eastern sunrise, wandered on a beach by myself, and spotted a fox and many deer.
More recently, I had (three!) light-device failures during my camping excursion on Lake Hartwell. After tubing with the group on Sunday, I arrived at my campsite without a working lamp. Instead of concocting a light on the fly, I enjoyed the pitch-dark night. That Sunday night, there were few nearby campers, and the silence became louder with the sounds of the critters in the sky and the murmuring of water lapping the nearby shore.
3. Connect with Locals
The best way to get a pulse on local life is to put yourself in the current. Exactly how to find that flow depends on where you go. Indeed, going to a local place for a bite (instead of breakfast at the all-inclusive resort) can be the difference between night and day. If you are in Italy, you want to pop into a café for a cornetto in the morning. Listen to the surrounding chatter and try to strike up a conversation! There is no better way to get a sense of the character of a place. The richest literature is filled with choice idioms, odd references, and stories that live in a community. Get a take on the local events, festivities, and even politics by chatting with people in the street. Sharing your own insights might even help you find common ground with a stranger.
Long before I became an Airbnb host, I traveled and met locals through an organization called CouchSurfing (CS). Over the years, thanks to CS, I have enjoyed heart-warming connections and participated in local treasures across the globe. For example, I watched the Fêtes de Genève fireworks on Lake Geneva from a choice spot on a finger jutting into the lake. In Tokyo, a friendly CS spirit doubled as a salsero. During my Indian backpacking adventure, my host invited me to play Scrabble with a vacationing Englishman on a pristine beach in Goa.
A group of tenacious CS hosts organized the Lake Hartwell camping. There, I met CS hosts from across the region and other like-minded travelers. Among the joys of the Lake Crash, I saw some friends that I had not seen in over five years while also making new friends. Through former strangers, I learned a bit of history about Lake Hartwell and about a mysterious cemetery island created when the area was flooded. I also got the coordinates for a tried-and-tested swim hole in Alabama to check out on an upcoming adventure.
By planning well and participating wholeheartedly, travel shifts from just a simple change in setting to a meaningful experience. As I am on the road on an adventure, I make it a point to bring my heart and mind to the moment. When I focus on the little details, I find joy in presence. As I interact in places, I welcome the opportunity to chat with strangers. Often, long after I have gone, the unexpected encounters become part of the treasure I carry in my memory.