Monthly Archives: August 2012

Things you just have to do when you travel. Or else?

The trouble with things you just have to do / see / eat is that you have exactly the same travel experience as everyone else. Or worse, you don’t have the same marvellous experience everyone told you about.
For example, Venice is a pretty magical city. Anyone who has been there will tell you that you haveto go on a gondola ride. Grit your teeth, pay the exorbitant price and lower yourself into that gondola. The thing is, some people do love it – they cry from the joy of drifting on the canals of such an historic city. But others hate it. They forget that Venice is still a functioning (just) modern city with around 60 000 permanent inhabitants. The water does not smell sweet and fresh. The washing on the line hanging outside windows is sometimes colourful, but sometimes grey with giant underpants and drab singlets. The gondolier is a little seedy, his singing forced and off key. ‘Really?’, they cry. ‘This is a gondola ride in Venice? Why did I have to do this?’
Well-trodden holiday destinations can turn a little into ‘checkbox’ travel. Did you have Singapore Sling at the Raffles? Have you seen a flamenco show in Madrid? Did you ‘mind the gap’ on a tube ride in London? Surely you had pizza in Naples, right? (For the record, Neapolitan pizza is very flat and usually pretty plain. If you’re picturing a big fluffy base with five different meats and twelve different vegetables – you may or may not like it. Just saying. The gelato, on the other hand, stands a good chance of being everything you ever dreamed of.)
Sometimes you’re made to feel guilty if you didn’t do ‘the thing’ in a particular city. You’re confronted with little crestfallen faces, full of dismay: ‘You didn’t go to the catacombs in Rome? Oh. I see.’. Silence. ‘No time for the Vatican museums, you say? Oh.’ You’ve failed. You’ve failed them and you’ve certainly failed yourself. Never mind that you met a local and consequently ended up an authentic little restaurant for dinner. Never mind you had a personally guided tour of the Coliseum given by an art history PhD student. Never mind you lit candles at church and ended up participating in the local Saint’s Day celebrations. You’ve disappointed those that cannot go and you’ve been underestimated by those that have been.

You actually do have to see the waterfalls when
you go to Niagara Falls. Difficult to avoid. 
Ok, ok, I now confess that I too have been guilty of starting some sage travel advice with ‘you have to’. And perhaps this blog is actually about how I agree with those that urge you on to do what you’re ‘supposed to’. But I’m going to qualify my agreement by stating that I usually only use this statement for those that have researched the crap out of their holiday destination to the point that they can give you the dimensions of the Corcovado, the species of trees growing on the Sugarloaf, and the preferred waxing salons of Brazilians living in the Ipanema area.
If you (think) you know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to see it and how you’re going to feel about it you could, potentially, actually miss the point. There are some things your 72 inch LED HD television screen is simply not able to convey. I found Uluru spiritual and intense (not everyone does, see for example, my mother’s experience in Disappointments). And I found Port Arthur illuminating – it put me in touch with a sense of colonial Australia and connected me to history. Those are two places beautiful to look at pictures of, interesting to read about – I’ve certainly done both – but being there made me connect and flicked on the switch of understanding.
Travel, to me, is about witnessing. There’s something earnest and genuine about witnessing in person. It means engaging all five senses (six if you’re lucky enough!) and really connecting with a place or people. That’s when magic happens and that’s what I’m encouraging when I say ‘you have to’. That picture you’ve seen of the Amalfi Coast doesn’t do it justice – the picture can’t prepare you for the remarkable sunshine, for the glittery effect it has on the ocean, for the brisk breeze, for the lyrical background chatter, for the contrasting colours, and for the smell of food wafting out of restaurant doors. That’s why you ‘have to’. That’s why, despite all your research and your 3D virtual tour, you won’t know, really know, until you’ve witnessed. 

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