When I was 20 years old I lived in Europe for 5 months. Smartphones did not exist. Travel review sites were still in their infancy. Where I went and what I did was dependant on my guidebook and recommendations from people I knew or met.
I had two distinct desires while I was traveling. The first was to avoid appearing like a tourist so I wouldn’t get pickpocketed or scammed. Without GPS, I spent a considerable amount of time consulting a map I had torn to only the section I truly needed. This way I could look at it discretely and slip it back into a pocket so as not to attract attention to myself. Looking back now it probably wasn’t the map attracting attention as much as my sizeable fanny pack. A very rugged, outdoorsy-looking one but, still… a fanny pack.
The second desire I had was to meet interesting strangers. I would chat with those people I heard speaking English but worried about my ability to communicate with anybody else. I spent a lot of time going back and forth in my mind if I should speak to somebody sitting next to me.
It is difficult to be wary of some without being wary of all.
I learned to ask “Do you speak English?” in the language of every country I visited. By the year 2004, so many of the people I encountered in Europe had at least rudimentary English, capable of broken sentences.
Since I was traveling solo, I did most things by myself; meals, museums, and the sites. This incredible journey was so enthralling and yet, isolating. Walking for hours through these magnificent cities clad in my wind pants and windbreaker (I apparently found it very important to be windproof) and my fanny back, I can only imagine the look on my face was one of big open cluelessness. I was a sponge – hyperaware and curious – always hoping to hear somebody speaking English.
I was 4,000 miles from home with the intent of having an intentionally foreign experience and yet I kept seeking out American emissaries. Being by myself meant I was very reliant on strangers from around the world.
My two-megapixel camera was relatively compact, but any attempt at the (as yet unnamed) “Selfie” was essentially a crapshoot. It often took several tries for me to even end up in the frame. If I wanted to be in a picture I needed to find a rock or a bench to place my camera, set the timer, run into position, and smile like an idiot for longer than I needed to since I couldn’t hear the shutter click.
Most of the time, I asked strangers to take my photo. The offering of the camera is an international gesture. A stranger took my picture in most of the cities I visited. In that way, my camera became this collection of fingerprints from around the world. It was this group tool we collectively used to prove the existence of my adventures, or at least help me remember them.
Sometimes the pictures were crap, but generally, they were fine. We were all a lot less critical of how we looked in photos back then.
Traveling by myself was a crash course in forming connections disconnected from any sort of structure or support. No clubs. No mutual friends. Just strangers starting from scratch.
I met plenty of wonderful, interesting people from around the world largely due to hostels which provided me a base of opportunity in every city I visited. I ate dinner, went to bars, visited jazz clubs, all with people I had met that day. The guidebook I had provided only a framework for my experiences; where to go and what to see. The cities I visited and my memories of those times are colored much more richly by the people I met by happenstance.
Today the internet can invalidate the need to talk to the strangers around you. Travel blogs tell us where to everything. GPS points the way. The pictures others used to take of us we can now take ourselves.
The happy accident, the missed exit, the unexpected street. They have fallen by the digital wayside. Adventure has been substituted with execution. We travel with shocking ability. No place is unreachable.
The world has shrunk fast. A startling homogeneity has taken hold of the places we all visit.
To what end?
I wonder if travel still provides the same fulfillment it used to, or if everything has become a permutation of the same curated digital experience. Do we return feeling changed? Or do we return merely feeling like we checked off another important box? Anything off the beaten path quickly becomes its own path, popular because of its previous anonymity. We go where our friends go. We join a club not of adventurers but of belongers.
I went to a travel conference once where they gave the statistic that people visit 22 different travel sites before they book a trip.
I get it. I’m that guy.
By the time I started staying in hostels I was already able to pick the best ones based on the reviews they had. I always sorted by review ranking and then scrolled down until I found the one in my budget. It was the beginning of years of pre-reviewing the trips I was planning.
But something has changed in me lately.
For a couple of years now I’ve been thinking about taking a vacation based entirely on immediate referrals; where everything we do is based on a recommendation from a person we just met at the previous thing we did. It would require a bit of trust and a lot of openness. But mostly it would require us to just chat with strangers.
It will always be valuable to know a certain amount about a place before you encounter it. If for safety’s sake alone. But my hope is that my ability to heavily research a place does not prohibit my ability to immerse myself in the unknown. To ignore the need for everything to be amazing, incredible, perfect, and instead to trust, be present, and let go, if only just a little bit.
To be as bright-eyed as that windproof kid with the fanny pack, less worried about the curated adventure, and more excited about the unexpected one.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project, please join like-minded individuals in The Good Men Project Premium Community.