Travel Young, Even When Old
This past week and change I was on vacation in Spain. It was a new country for me, and with it, and a side trip up into the mountains of Andorra, my "countries visited" tally now stands at 22. And each one of them has been a fantastic place to visit, and in many cases visit again, for one reason or another - be it the food and art in Italy, the history in Turkey, the beauty of New Zealand, or the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal.
As we were driving along the Spanish coast, sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sierra Nevada Mountians just south of Granada, without a plan, without an itinerary, without a destination, and no idea on where we would eat, I was reminded of just how much better and more adventurous the travels of our youth were. We (the collective we of humanity) almost never had a plan. We'd walk through neighborhoods, poke through dive bars, and eat what the locals put in front of us. It was cheapest way to travel, but it was also almost always the better way to travel.
During last week's trip I celebrated my 43rd birthday. It's no ancient milestone by any stretch, but it's definitely an age that comes without a lot of experience behind it. And sometimes, when exploring a new destination, that can be a bad thing. At 43 I'm discovering that it's easy to start caring more about hotel concierge lounge access, a kingsize bed on a high floor with a view, and easy access to nice restaurants and upscale bars. And of course access to tourist sites.
But what a shame it becomes if that is the only way we travel later in life. Or if that becomes how we live in general. How much of life do we miss?
When I was 17 I spent a month living with our exchange student from the previous year in Mexico. The highlight of the trip, hands down, was the 28-hour bus ride from Cancun to Mexico City. Stopping in towns, that could barely be called towns. Eating meals at little holes in the wall, that were quite often missing some of their walls. It was exhausting, frightening at times, and altogether uncomfortable. But also exhilarating. I learned more about the country and its people, and learned to appreciate them more, from that 28-hour drive than I had from the previous 28 days.
The disco techs were a lot of fun - I was 17, after all. And the food and the sites - like the pyramids at Tulum - were all spectacular. But I'll never forget that bus and the accompanying adventure. Or a few nights later when our car in Mexico City broke down five miles from the house in which we were staying, and at 3am myself and two others pushed it through the deserted streets of a city of 20 million people.
Or when my high school German class spent spring break in Germany (West Germany back then), Austria, and Switzerland, and we met an American soldier stationed near Munich who willingly showed a handful of American teenagers around the Starkbierfest (strong beer fest) that happened to coincide with our March visit. Needless to say, it was not easy the next morning to join the class for breakfast. Jet lag.
Or the unplanned four-mile walk through neighborhoods, markets, and random parks and palaces and back to our hotel in central Istanbul from the Hagia Sophia. That walk alone, and the things we saw and the people we met, has kept Istanbul in my all-time top three of favorite world cities since I visited it in the summer of 1998.
Now it's safe to assume that not all of the things I did in my youth were smart. Perhaps in today's world, with my present heart transplant compromised immune system, some of the places I went and the things I ate wouldn't be prudent now. But making allowances for that, it is still better to live and travel like the young. Go off the beaten path. Make it point to go to restaurants and bars where there is no one else speaking your native language. And do what you can to experience life as a local - along with of course seeing all of the cool tourist stuff. (The Alhambra palace and fortress in Granada is not to be missed.)
When we were on that coast drive in Spain, and we stopped for lunch at a place that didn't seem to even have a name, I didn't eat the tapas plate of sardines on a bed of cornmeal that was being served at every table. It creeped me out a little.
But a couple of days later, the next time a bowl of little fish - including bones, scales, and eyes - was placedin front of me, I ate the whole thing. And I loved it.
Well... I loved the experience of it. Of eating like a Spaniard, that is.
In truth, I still like my fish cleaned, gutted, deboned, sautéed, and served with a side of steamed vegetables.
And I do very much like kingsized beds on high hotel floors. But as I continue to travel, and as I continue to age, I will also continue to look for those youthful adventures that supplement the experience.