Opinion: Spending More Time In Each Destination And Less Sightseeing

I was out with a group of friends at a pub chatting the other night when the conversation turned to traveling.  I mentioned a few things that impressed me about Japan and a girl who I had just met and had also been to Japan quizzed me, “Did you climb Mt. Fuji, did you see a sumo wrestling match, did you go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market at 4AM?”  I hadn’t done any of that stuff, and it didn’t occur to me, as I was more interested in meeting some local friends and talking to them and meeting their friends, over shochu drinks and sashimi dinners in the cozy Tokyo neighborhoods of Shimo-kitizawa and Kagurazaka.  But her comment made me think about how we all view traveling with a different purpose.  She then went on to mention, “I’ve been to thirty-three countries.”  I have been on quite a few interesting trips, but I have never actually counted the number of countries I’ve been to, nor do I really care to.

I’ll be honest, I do roll my eyes at people that name-drop and country-drop like that.  In the past two years, I have spent two months in India, one-month in Tokyo and a bit more than a year in Athens.  That’s just three countries!  The “I have been to 33-countries person” could have just taken a three-week Euro-rail trip hitting up Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech and then over to  Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.  That’s almost ten countries, but what does that even mean? I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with this trip (and I would have done the same thing as an exchange student), but I’m more concerned when travel becomes a competition and we talk about ticking cliché boxes, counting countries and “checking-in” to locations on Facebook at the Hong Kong Cathay Pacific VIP Lounge or uploading photos from bungee-jumping over Kilimanjaro and being more concerned about the number of “likes” we get then the value of being in Tanzania.

When I travel, I have realized the most precious thing that defines my experience is the amount of time I have.  Money can be a constraint, but you can do a lot with not that much cash. I backpacked for two-months with my brother and criss-crossed half of India- that only cost $1500USD per person, besides the airline ticket- and we traveled comfortably and splurged a bit too.

The travel scenario that I keep in the back of my mind when I take a trip is three likely outcomes (1) glimpse: a week or so (2) experience: a month or two (3) integrate: living somewhere for a year.  This may not be possible for everyone with permanent jobs and responsibilities of a family, but for those a bit more flexibility, I think going to the same exact location in a longer-time frame gives me a drastically different perspective of the same place.

INDIA:  One example of where giving a place a second chance or slowing down and adapting to local rhythms changed my perception of that country was India.  Two years ago, my brother and I flew to Delhi in February and had an exit-flight out for April.  Our initial reaction in this mega-city was intense noise pollution from all the beeping rickshaw drivers, very tiring haggling from everything from a hotel room to bananas from fruit vendors.  The fact that we experimented with street-food and got explosive diarrhea for a few days didn’t help either as we sat  on our beds watching Bollywood films in our tiny hotel in the alleys of Pahar Ganj.  The next week, we visited the Taj Majal and some of the well-known towns on the tourist-circuit of Rajasthan: Udaipur, Jaipur, Pushkar.  It wasn’t a good first impression and like quite a few other travelers I’ve met, we seriously considered cutting the trip short and heading somewhere beautiful and fun, like Australia, New Zealand or Thailand’s beaches.  I’m glad we didn’t.

In a half-way limbo deciding to leave or to stay, we hopped on a 12-hr train-ride to Goa to re-analyze over some sun and waves in the Indian Ocean.  There, we met more travelers, giving us a glimpse of how the tourism industry and demographics were changing every year- backpackers from Uruguay-Kenya-Belarus-South Korea.  And I reflect now too another point- for me when I visit a country, the lasting memory in my mind isn’t a monument like the Taj Majal or a famous Michelin-star restaurant.  Its the people- the group of fun, out-going Ugandas in our hostel in Bangalore who wanted to chat non-stop; the young, social, trendy Indian couple in Mumbai that took us under-their-wing for dinner and drinks in cool spots tucked away in their hyper-dynamic mega-city.

In the end, we continued our India journey and whenever we faced a glitch, like missing a train or not being able to find a hotel we changed our approach to, “let’s have a chai and enjoy the moment and we’ll figure it out in a bit”.  And it worked brilliantly. After a few days in Mumbai and chill-out beach Goa zone, we took off for tech-hub Bangalore, then spent a week in an ashram (monastery) in Puttaparhi, down to the tropical backwaters of Kerala and Ft. Kochi, then a 24-hr train ride north to the surreal religious mecca of Varanasi, the hippy-yoga global travel hub of Rishikesh and other little Indian hill-towns and cities scattered about.  It was all quite stimulating, unpredictable and with the right mind-frame, smooth-sailing.  As the 2-month point neared, we had gotten into quite a rhythm and I wish we had a few more weeks to continue exploring at this pace.

If we hadn’t given India another chance from the beginning and didn’t adapt our psychology – we may have left with a superficial image of “yeah, it’s a hot, loud, chaotic place with a lot of inequality and weird temples.”  But after two months, I know India is a cool, unique, complex, diverse rich civilization with many peculiarities – and I strongly recommend it to anyone who has a curiosity to see what a one-billion person civilization lives like in dense South Asia.

GREECE:  In the case of Athens, as a Greek-American, it was my wish since I was a teenager to live in the Greek-capital for a full-year and see what life is really like after the beach, sun & frappe crowds clear out in September.  And so in the summer of 2012, I packed two suitcases and flew to Eleftherios Venizelos Airport with a one-way ticket.   Staying in Greece for an extended-period, gave me the opportunity to see the country and do things that aren’t possible in the fast-flowing, hot, Mediterranean evening seaside meet-ups over Fix beer, calamari and ongoing parade of social, double-kisses on the cheek with the in-and-out of Greece summer crowd.

After my second month in Greece, I started this blog and began interviewing the new generation of go-getters trying to rebuild the country in the face of so much adversity: social entrepreneurs, urban activists, the tech community.  Every week, I went to different start-up networking events, seminars at the international archeology schools and tourism & food shows.   I also had the time to join an improv comedy theater course and a creative writing group.

When I told local Athenians- my cousins, neighbors in my apartment building about all the exciting and progressive stuff going around in their city- they looked at me in disbelief, “where is this happening?” as if I was talking about Barcelona or some other European city- since in their daily, routine lives they had not taken a break to see their surroundings with a refreshed perspective. In the end, after a little more than a year and after completing my military service, in November of 2013, I decided to leave Athens to continue ‘seeing the world.’  But I saw and experienced Greece in a way that I can make my own opinions about the supposed Armageddon-like-climate there and I also made good quality friends that I keep in touch with and will see on my next return-visit.

In the end, for me whenever I come back from a trip, it’s the people that I met and the stories that I have, that stay with me- not the photos jumping backwards over a waterfall or the number of stamps on my passport.  I look forward to one or two big quality trips a year- to see a new place with open-eyes and come back with hopefully a richer perspective, that’s what traveling is for me.