Years before I made it to Scotland, I bought a giant guidebook hoping that it would inspire me to get there someday. I read that sucker cover to cover, highlighting, dog-earing, studying and memorizing every last detail. I knew which pub to haunt, which castle would haunt me, the creepiest graveyards to tiptoe through and the most frightening of catacombs to explore.
Eons later, when I was able to make the wee jaunt across the ocean with my mother in tow, the trip went off without a hitch. Well, with the exception of broken pottery and a very much tested relationship with my mother. All in all, it was great, we saw the spooky stuff, discovered the lost grave of our ancestor, and spotted a couple of hairy coos.
But something was missing.
If you asked me how Scotland felt, I’m not sure I could have told you. I could recite facts and figures, but not describe the vibe, or energy a place gives off. And isn’t that often the best part of a place?
On a subway in Toronto, the cultural diversity surrounds you like your favourite multicoloured sweater – it smells a little funny and stands out, but you love it anyway. Wandering the streets of Havana, music fills the spaces between your steps and makes you want to wiggle. The singsong chatter of a village market in Africa feeds the urge to leave it all behind and start anew in this unfamiliar land, even if the spiders are horrifyingly large.
While in Havana, I still relied on the trusty guidebook. I had been studying it for weeks. My greatest fear is landing in a place, wandering about and discovering the day after I left that there was a giant chocolate festival only a few blocks from where I was staying. I don’t need to know my next move, but I still want to know what’s available to me. But, in a mad escape from a man who was keen on showing me his, uh, assets, I left my oh-so-essential guidebook in a taxi. On day 2. Now I’d never find the playing card museum, or more importantly, the chocolate museum. I was horrified.
Thus began a new style of travel for me. I have always been a wanderer, but now I was solely relying on the wander. It was liberating. None of this ‘I have to get to that part of town to see this feature’ nonsense, now I would have to follow the voices – both in my head, and on the street. “Hmm, I wonder what’s over there?” became my mantra. I would stop in any random store (ok, shoe store…) and ask where I should have lunch. When you don’t have your nose buried in a guidebook, you become inviting. It’s already clear I am a tourist – where I travel the locals don’t often wander around with serious hiking shoes, an imposing camera and a tote spilling over with bottled water and maps, and a look of awe. Sans guidebook, I become more approachable, and people are more inclined to come chat with me without fear of interrupting my guidebook studies. These people often reveal the hidden gems a place has to offer.
Talking to people, riding their transit, lingering in their parks, crashing their weddings, eating their street meat – that’s how to discover what makes a place hum. It’s that buzz that feeds my addiction to plane tickets.
I’m just back from an extraordinary visit to Moldova. (Ya, I had to look it up too – it’s a small country smushed in between Romania and Ukraine) I had tacked on a couple of days at the end of the guided tour to wander about on my own, and I’m so grateful I did. While the tour was exceptional (wineries, monks and Russians – oh my!) it was the moments I slipped away from the group, or spent on my own that revealed what I believe to be the true spirit of the place.
I had misplaced my phone on a park bench, only to be chased down a half hour later by a young lady and two men who had been searching for me, to return my phone. I was unable to communicate with a book seller, but she insisted I wait while she called her french-speaking mom who, ten minutes later, came rushing to help. I sat for hours on a bus with a man who was filled with passion for the history of his country, the changes it has endured. I saw protests in the streets, people singing, carrying signs championing ideas they thought were important. Graffiti exclaimed “Iubesc Moldova”, I love Moldova. You can ask me how Moldova felt, and I can tell you in a heartbeat – it’s kind, welcoming, traditional, and passionate.
And you know what? I can’t even find a guidebook about Moldova. And that’s just fine by me.
(I know you’re curious, I’ll write all about it soon – you must add it to your travel list, trust me!)