Traveling with purpose is a matter of attitude and intention. Whatever your travel goals, the common denominator of purposeful travel is what novelist and travel writer Lawrence Durrell called an ability to “tune in” and understand what makes a place and its people special and unique—its “spirit of place.”
Going places that are new and different can be mind expanding. But, unfortunately, finding unspoiled, unique places is becoming a challenge these days, given the homogenizing effects of globalization. As writer Thomas Chatterton Williams recently wrote in the New York Times, “We should be grateful to be jolted from our anesthetized routines…but the sad truth of our contemporary moment seems to be only that you no longer need to be anywhere in particular anymore…the brunch is all the same.”
But we’re convinced that it’s still possible to travel with a purpose and discover unique places that open our minds.
Following are steps that may help you travel with purpose:
1. Choose a destination carefully. Go to a part of the world that intrigues you enough to explore beyond the superficial, to interact with local people, and to understand the place’s unique aspects.
2. Pre-visualize your journey ahead of time. Read about your destination and talk to people who’ve already been there—or who live there. There’s plenty of information available both online and elsewhere. If you’re a photographer who wants to offer a fresh “take” on a destination, research existing imagery on the web, in books and in stock agency archives. You’ll get a sense of the best locations for photography and what types of images have already been taken.
3. Decide what’s important. Make a wish list of “don’t miss” experiences and ensure they’re on your itinerary. By knowing ahead of time what you’re seeking, you’ll be prepared. Also, it’ll be easier to seize the moment when spontaneous opportunities come your way.
4. Once you arrive, don’t waste time. Be ready to “hit the ground running.” This doesn’t mean racing around frenetically. It means getting focused quickly and using your time efficiently. Use your first day to get an overview of the destination and learn how to get around. As long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad says: “The clock is ticking fast, burn the candle large, dig down into that potential…I can’t tell you how alive it makes you feel!”
5. Take time to smell the roses. Keep the big picture—your overall objective—in mind. But allow time to observe details that help you understand the spirit of a place. For example, we once discovered near Shanghai what seemed to be a very beautiful village simply by observing a small, dusty painting on a restaurant wall. After a few inquiries about the painting, we spontaneously adjusted our itinerary to go to the village a day later—the side trip was an unforgettable experience!
6. Document your trip. By writing down your observations and reactions, you’ll remember details. Then you can communicate your travel experiences more vividly than with a simple tweet or Facebook post. If you’re a photographer, keep an eye out for the unusual. When you see something special, act quickly, with the concentration of an animal stalking prey, to capture the moment for posterity.
7. Allow time for fun and relaxation. This is important to understanding a place. Do what the locals do—like taking a hay bath in the Dolomites or simply going to a local pub anywhere. Leisure time also helps re-charge your batteries after an active day.
8. When the journey ends, organize your notes and images as soon a possible. This discipline helps you clarify, understand and ultimately share with others what you’ve experienced. It was Anais Nin who wrote, “We write to live life twice.” (The sentiment also applies to photography.)
According to journalist Pico Ayer: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world. The first lesson we learn, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.”
Traveling with purpose inspires us to both celebrate the world’s diversity and appreciate the similarities among people across the planet. The end result is greater knowledge— and, ultimately, wisdom.