Friday, October 29, 2010

No Reservations Is One Thing. No Destination Is Another.

Traveling without a plan? C’mon now. If you know me well, or even if you know me a little, you’ll know I have never done such a thing. Or at least not willingly. I’m Type A, after all.

When I have a trip coming up, I research, research, research. Then I research some more. It’s partially out of some deep instinctual need to know what I’m doing (or ahem, shall we say be in control). But it’s also for pleasure. Honest. I love making lists of restaurants we might want to try. I like reading reviews on and I like getting oriented – and anticipating things.

(And, by the way, research shows that anticipation increases happiness – as well as what you gain from the overall travel experience. Don’t believe me? Check out this fascinating New York Times article called “But Does It Make You Happy?” The takeaway for me was that my alter ego Planny Plannerson is not something to be embarrassed about, but in fact a vital component to my happiness.)

That said, I confess that I have often longed to be one of those spontaneous travelers, the kind who just lets fate direct them. Who doesn’t stare at the map. Who doesn’t worry about where to sleep tonight – or at least not until nightfall. Who doesn’t use guidebooks. But who manages to find him/herself in the craziest situations. And thus, who comes homes with amazing stories that make jaws drop and bellies ache.

I guess all Type A’s long to be this person at times, and perhaps that explains the recent trend I’ve seen of “plan-less” travel journalism. In September, the New York Times began a monthly travel feature called “Getting Lost.” The idea is to plop yourself in a foreign destination with no maps, no GPS and zero research – and just see what happens. The first piece was “Lost in Tangier,” a seemingly perfect destination for confusion given its labyrinthine center. The problem? The writer ran into people he knew (and who knew Tangier quite well), and after that, he was no longer lost, I would argue.

But the second piece, “Lost in Ireland,” revealed greater challenges in the “purposefully lost” concept, given the isolation of traveling by car instead of foot. The writer barely interacted with anyone for the first three days and found loneliness setting in until he decided to just accept being alone. For me, this is the part I think I would really stink at. Being lonely on vacation sounds awful. I also don’t like the idea of missing out on something really sublime right around the corner – because I don’t know about it. This writer, for example, never found that classic Irish pub full of storytelling, singing men.

The Times series, however, invokes less anxiety than another article I read in Oprah magazine, which takes impulsive travel to a new extreme. It’s called “Traveling to Toyko Without a Map,” but it’s not just that the author took off without a map. She left home without a destination. She packed a bag, went to the airport and asked a stranger where she should go. The response was “Tokyo,” and thus, she bought a flight to Toyko. From there, she asked people on the plane where to stay, people at the hotel where to eat and so on. Every aspect of her trip was determined by the advice of others.

It’s a head-spinning idea, and of course, it’s only possible if you have the funds to buy a ticket anywhere last minute. But it really intrigued me. Would you find that elusive thing only a local could tip you off to? Is everything you need available from a random person on the street – and you just have to ask? Unfortunately, I doubt I have the cojones. I mean, what if your random stranger said a place where it might be dangerous to show up with no idea what you’re doing and no one around who speaks English? Those type of fears aside, there’s no doubt that kind of trip is going to be a story like no other. Maybe even a bestselling novel, later adapted into an award-winning film.

And that’s why I’ll always wish I could be that kind of traveler. And why I’ll always read these type of travel articles with keen interest and admiration. But let’s face it. I’m not that person. Which is why I have to run. I have research to do for an upcoming trip.

1 comment:

Alison said...

Just watched a segment of "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great," an episode of "Long Way Down" and then read your piece - made me think #1 that I'm watching too much TV and #2 about the difference between a trip and a journey. I think it's easier to start off on a journey and say "this is my goal, to hell with the details" than it is to start off on a trip and say "I'm going to flaunt convention and not research hotels or restaurants before I go." Oh, and I have a weird crush on Ewan McGregor now.