Small steps

Alastair Humphreys: The importance of jumping in rivers

“Don’t listen to your own excuses” – for me, this is the most important lesson from this talk.

Several times in my life I’ve been faced by what at the time appeared to be big changes and scary adventures, and I’d catch myself secretly wishing something would happen that would force me to stop, so I wouldn’t need to “give up” (which, I also believe, is just as courageous a thing to do as to take on a daring adventure) but have a decent excuse to not go on.

Most of the time, nothing would happen, and the “adventure” would start and I’d realize after a while that it wasn’t as scary as I’d imagined. I find that life is often like that. So instead of being afraid of doing something different (and looking for excuses not to do it), I really want to be the kind of person who can “first say yes and then learn how to do it.” (Richard Branson has said something along those lines, I think.)

That’s why the message in the talk about just taking the first steps without worrying about failure resonates so much with me. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that I’m deciding to go bike around the world tomorrow, but I am reminding myself to be less afraid about doing things that are different, things I’m not used to, and even things that scare me at first.

It’s the time of year when I start thinking about these things… life, adventure, and all that.

On traveling solo

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Getting lost is more fun when you have someone to share the experience with. (Trying to figure out walking directions in Nagoya, Japan – a couple of years ago)

“It’s just not my thing”

At a holiday party this weekend, I was chatting with a friend who had just come back from a few weeks’ vacation in Nepal. He had visited Nepal for a shorter period of time a few years ago, and he liked it so much and wanted to return for a fuller experience – which he just did. For the first part of the trip he was with a friend, but for most of it he was on his own, except for fellow travelers he met and shared some time with along the way.

I’ve never been to Nepal, so listening to his travel stories was partly about me having the pleasure of imagining what it’ll be like to be there myself, someday. I’d of course be interested in trying out the local food like he did, taking amazing nature photos (or rather, taking photos of amazing nature), trekking and hiking, experiencing the local culture, and experiencing the global cultures of fellow travelers.

“But I can’t imagine traveling solo,” I couldn’t help but comment. “I love traveling but I’m just not a solo traveler. I’d just feel… I don’t know, lonely I guess.” (Disclaimer: The conversation took place in German, so of course I wasn’t that smooth and natural-sounding, but that’s what I wanted to say, and I think my friend understood.)

I clarified to my friend (or at least I tried, with my limited German vocabulary), that it wasn’t really even about being a woman and safety concerns, which of course I do and should have.

I’ve never had a complete solo trip from beginning to end, but I’ve had some days during different trips that I spent alone. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy being a traveler as much when I’m alone in a new country/city, and that I feel less motivated to do the things I’d normally be excited about and can’t wait to try. In short, I not only become less adventurous, but also less open-minded. It may be that I’m instinctively a follower, who prefers to have the comfort of following someone’s lead. Or it may have something to do with my poor sense of direction.

Whatever the reason, I’d say to myself, if I don’t enjoy it, why even try? I know a lot of people who enjoy it (I personally know many people – male and female – who do), but it’s just not my thing. That’s always been my attitude towards solo travel.

“But in Nepal,” said my friend, “even if you’re by yourself, you’ll enjoy it there. You’ll feel safe, and I think you’ll find the people really friendly and helpful.”

At first, my reaction to his advice and encouragement was “Yeah, I know, but… you know, (It’s just not my thing, I wanted to say, but wasn’t quite sure how a statement like that translated into German. Es ist nicht mein Ding?)”

But I loved it that he used his personal experience meeting local people in Nepal as a way to show that solo travel can be safe, fun, and memorable. And this made me wonder, do solo travelers have different kinds of interactions with local people? Do they build different kinds of relationships with locals?

When we travel with our travel buddies, be it friends, partners, or family members, we arrive as a pair or a group, which consists of existing relationships. To me, these existing relationships are exactly what makes traveling enjoyable, because I have someone to share my experiences with. It may also be the case, I realized, that these existing relationships and group dynamics with which we travel are sort of comfort bubbles that define – and maybe even limit – our travel experiences.

Meeting local people (including meeting up with friends who are from, or consider themselves to be locals) in the places I visit is by far my favorite aspect of any travel. Having a glimpse of the local “way of life” really excites me, especially when I learn something completely new and different about how people do things.

I came to think that maybe solo travelers may have a more authentic version of this experience.

Visiting a local bar and chatting with the owner, for example, is a great way to get to know the flavors and rhythms of the local lifestyle. Instead of “us and the owner”, as in the case of a group of travelers visiting the bar (and hopefully behaving appropriately), a solo traveler would perhaps build a deeper connection with the owner by having a one-on-one conversation that may be a bit more even; two people sharing stories and learning a bit about each other – one happens to be a visitor.

The funny thing is, I still can’t imagine myself traveling solo. When I think about any destination on my ever-expanding travel wishlist, I almost automatically envision traveling with my partner (who is blessed with a very good sense of direction and the confidence that allows him to venture into any street or any path that looks walkable – and somehow always find the way) and with friends, preferably when possible, also with our dog.

But I feel I’ve gained a new insight into the art of solo travel, which still remains largely mysterious to me, but seems perhaps a little bit less unapproachable.

Why do we travel?

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A hiking trip in the Piatra Craiului National Park during my stay in Romania earlier this month.

“Why on earth did you walk that much when you didn’t need to?”

After about 5 hours hiking in the mountains, enjoying the view, searching for mushrooms (without much luck) and occasionally spotting animal footprints along the trail or birds in trees, we met a local man – probably in his 70s or 80s – from one of the small villages that we passed by, and that was his question to us.

He asked where we’d come from, and Hermann and Katharina, my hosts and guides in Măgura, told him our hiking route (I didn’t, of course, understand what exactly they were saying but I could tell from their gestures). He looked surprised, and didn’t seem to think we could have walked that much. The Q&A was repeated: (the village man, with a confused expression) “where?” and (Hermann and Katharina, pointing the way we’d come from) “from over there, we started down there, came along this way…”, and they did this a couple of more times, and the man, who finally seemed to believe that we really did walk that much, asked “why?”

Katharina later translated the conversation to me and explained that the man found it surprising that we would walk that much, up and down the slopes, voluntarily.

As with most things in Romania, opinions about life that the old man from the village has seem to be influenced by the experiences of “the communist time”. “In the communist time…” was one of the phrases I most often heard during my stay in Romania, whether it was on the volunteer city tour of Bucharest, through conversations with my hosts, or discussions about today’s economic challenges in Romania. The “red” history is still very much a part of life, it seems, whether anyone likes it or not.

The old man from the village along our hiking route, it turns out, had a very understandable reason for being puzzled at our voluntary half-day trek in the mountains; as a young worker in the communist time, his experience of walking the rough mountain trails (obviously in a much tougher condition than my hike – with an expensive pair of hiking boots, energy bars, and what not) was decidedly non-voluntary. He and his fellow workers had no choice other than to walk up and down the rugged mountain slopes – rain or shine, cold or hot – and this was hardly a fond memory for him.

Once I understood why the old man was confused, I was fascinated by his question.

Why – really, why – do we walk, trek, hike, swim, ride, paddle, and partake in these activities, subjecting ourselves to conditions outside of our comfort zones? Enjoying nature, discovering beautiful scenery, seeking physical fitness, seeking mental relaxation, or “getting away” from whatever we feel the need to once in a while get away from…?

The Descendants

On my last day in Romania, on the way to the airport through beautiful mountain views (occasionally interrupted by uncomfortable and ugly remains of failed attempts at rushed “luxury” development projects – half-built vacation homes in the middle of nowhere; abandoned billboard signs announcing ambitious construction projects that were due a few years back), I was thinking about the question in my head.

Why do we travel?

My “taxi” driver, a friend of Hermann’s who lives in a nearby village, shared with me his undying love for his home village. Brașov (the closest place from Măgura that would be considered a large city) is nice, he said, “many of my friends now live there and like the city, but I’ll never leave my home – this is where I will die.”

As someone who hasn’t really stayed in one place, I don’t necessarily agree with this view, but I definitely understand and appreciate it. Knowing that a large part of what I appreciate about my home (Japan) has been influenced by my being away from home for a long time, I think it’s exciting that someone who’s never left his hometown feels such a strong affinity with the place.

“Well, I wouldn’t leave this place,” he added, smiling shyly, “but if I could live in Hawaii, I would.”

Hawaii, of all the places. Not Bucharest, not Berlin, not Rome (he speaks German and Italian, on top of Romanian and English), but Hawaii. Pointing to the CD player, which was playing the soundtrack from the movie “The Descendants“, he said he loved the movie so much, and believes it’s true that “people’s characters reflect those of their land.” In Hawaii, like in the movie, where the landscape is so gentle and relaxed, so are its people; life is slow paced, just like how he likes it in the Romanian countryside, and the weather is always nice.

Admiring the fall colors as we drove through the old highways along the Carpathian Mountains, with Hawaiian songs and beach sounds in the background, I felt that maybe somewhere in the middle of this funny mix was the answer to the soul-searching question, “why do we travel?”

To me, at least, being surprised, puzzled, and fascinated by the things I encounter while traveling (like the old man’s question on my hiking trip) – and the occasional feeling of “where am I, really?” – is what makes me want to venture into the unknown. No amount of online or offline reading could have given me the weirdly exciting feeling of being the curious foreigner who wants to voluntarily trek for hours – and thus being able to see (or, maybe more like have a peek into) the same moment in the same world from a very different perspective.

More photos from Romaia