Simple but not obvious and oh so true. When I first get to a new place, I often find myself consumed with getting settled, touching base and riding out the last little crest of that hyper-focused, mission oriented travel mode. The times that I've just tossed the bags aside and wandered about, I've been delighted - luxuriating in the sensory bombardment of a brand new scene before you take too much in peripherally and it begins to melt into background noise.
Savor every moment of your first few hours
First impressions really are worth a thousand others. I often scribble a hundred pages of notes when I visit somewhere new. But then, when I get home, it's always the first page or two -- the taxi ride in from the airport, my first foray out onto the streets -- that captures something vivid and essential before my ideas and prejudices begin to harden.
Embrace the prospect of being a tourist Some snooty types will tell you that they're "travelers," not tourists. But if being a tourist means wanting to see all the attractions that make a town unique, then what's so bad about that?Growing up in a tourist trap, I developed an unhealthy aversion to touristness. But, spending your time trying to be cool and blend in doesn't leave a lot of time for really embracing what you're discovering. Oh how we used to giggle at the sunburnt tourist families in their deafening (and matching) aloha wear with their socks snaking up their glow in the dark legs and the ghosts of recently removed price tags floating around everything in their possession. But, you know what? They were having a blast. They were reveling in their tribe and soaking up the shiny trappings of a foreign culture. Not to say that they didn't take a wrong turn somewhere and end up missing out on a lot of what is really cool about Hawaii. But, I would bet most of them floated home on a cloud and treasured those memories for life. So leaving some room for the idea that I don't have to buy in to a place's hackneyed image-for-sale, I've learned to drop the pretension and be an outsider ready to soak up whatever can be offered wherever I land.
I often get annoyed with these kinds of requests. Last time I went home to Hawaii, a friend asked me to go to WalMart and pick up a Hawaiian print quilt for her daughter. Seriously? Lame errand and a nice pain in the ass trip to the post office. Sometimes, though, I've really enjoyed the hunt. My Dad asked me to pick up a religious calendar at a gift shop for him years ago. The cathedral is one of the most beautiful in Hawaii - but probably not a place I would have wandered through of my own accord. And, as an epic bonus, it's located at the girls' school that my oldest friend's mother works at. I dropped in to see her while there - something else I probably would not have made time for - and had a very nice visit. It was the first time I'd seen this wonderful woman - a huge presence in my childhood! - in years and the last time I would ever see her as she died less than a year later. So, this tip has two sides. Embrace the scavenger hunts of people dear to you. And don't ask your traveling friends to pick up things solely to save on shipping. Save it for special stuff that can't be found anywhere else.
Run an errand for a friend
She's asked you to get, say, macadamia popcorn on Maui or to track down that wise monk she once met in Phnom Penh. The very search for what someone else wants or values (and it doesn't really matter what it is) will lead you to places you would otherwise never see.
Go to McDonald's In Kyoto, you could see chicken tatsuta burgers, corn-potage soup and, in autumn, moon-viewing burgers on the menu, and your fellow diners might be dressed in Vivienne Westwood or Dior. In Bolivia, the McDonald's I visited was so exotic that society ladies sipped their McCoffees under the watchful eye of a security guard. Even in Manhattan, the Big Mac outlet I stumbled into one morning at 3 a.m. was home to an unexpected but very New Yawky kind of camaraderie. The food is cheap and semipredictable, of course, but it's all the ways in which the place is surprising that you will take home with you. What else are we looking for in travel (and in love and in life) but a tasty mix of the strange and the familiar?This last one made me raise an eyebrow and momentarily crinkle my nose. But, then I remembered a trip to Anaheim as a kid. I went in to a McDonalds for breakfast and ordered one Portuguese sausage, eggs and rice please. The kid behind the counter laughed and said rice? this is McDonalds. Ok, apparently that is a special-to-Hawaii kind of thing. But they had burritos on the menu! (This was before all McDonalds had breakfast burritos.) It was one of my first peeks into the ways that different places can be so different and yet so the same. When my Aunt came back from India announcing that Ronald serves lamburgers there, that seemed like a good enough reason to my twelve year old self to check out the place. And the ornately appointed McDonalds right outside the gates of the Biltmore Estate was a real trip. So, going to McDonalds in Georgia when you're coming from North Carolina...? Probably not much of a treat. But, when you find yourself in a whole new world, it can be so fun to check out the way they interpret your regular old world. Gah. Have ideas, will travel. Please.