Faces Not Places
Why travel is about more than just the sights you see
Travel is one of the greatest pleasures of life. We want to see the world. And there are endless places to explore. But if travelling becomes an exercise in ticking off a bucket list of sights, the real, transformative potential of the experience is lost. After a while a cathedral is a cathedral and the importance of your geographic coordinates is nothing compared to the the people you’re sharing them with. So the last few times I’ve gone somewhere new, I’ve changed my philosophy. Instead of meticulously planning a jam packed agenda in advance, and running around chasing the tourist highs, now, I just wander. I soak it all in. I pick a few ‘must-see’ places but mainly I want to meet people and just appreciate the different frequency of a city. I’ve sacrificed seeing every single tourist attraction for a different feeling entirely. And some of the best experiences of my life have happened because of it.
Let’s unpack (pardon the pun) what inspires us to travel in the first place. I asked a few of my friends and the same reasons came up; new places, new experiences and a new way of seeing the world. We’re hooked on the idea of new things curing our collective boredom with familiarity so the allure of a far away place is strong. Deeper than that, some people travel to lose themselves, and some to find themselves. But whether it’s for novelty’s sake, a personal quest, or just to escape reality, we are all searching for something when we travel. And beneath all of the labels we’ve attached to it, I think that thing is simple. It’s connection. Connection to ourselves, to our fellow humans and to the Planet. Everyone wants to know they’re part of something bigger.
When I went solo travelling in Europe recently, my mind was blown by the perspective-altering connections I made with people. Whether it was locals or fellow travellers, everyone taught me something invaluable about the world, and about myself. On my first night in Porto, I nervously agreed to go out to a bar with two fellow solo travelling women from my hostel room – an incredible Polish yogi who had just come back from a spiritual retreat in the countryside, and a fiery Brazilian social worker who didn’t speak much English. I’m naturally introverted and this was my first solo travel experience, but I decided to just go for it. The three of us ended up at the oldest restaurant in the city, a charming, time capsule of a place, at 3am on a Tuesday night, discussing the differences between Portuguese culture and home, and laughing hysterically at our lost in translation life. Moments like that will stay with me forever.
Of course nothing compares to seeing incredible natural beauty with your own eyes, or being in the presence of a world changing historical landmark, but it’s the distinction between being a traveller and a tourist that counts. Learn about what’s behind the architecture and the attractions because the people are the true heartbeat of a place. And leave time for spontaneity too – afternoons sitting in coffee shops and people watching or unexpected plans with new friends. I had days overseas where I had no agenda whatsoever, I just set out in the morning and let the Universe do the rest. And at first it felt like ‘wasting time’ but I think too often we walk around a city like it’s a museum and trying to make everything fit into the mould of how we live back home.
The Santa Justa lift is a perfect example of the paradox of travelling as a tourist or an adopted local. It’s a huge, architecturally beautiful tower right in the centre of Lisbon – originally built so that the wealthy residents didn’t have to walk up the steep hills to get home. Every morning, there is an enormous queue to go up the lift because the view over the old town is incredible. I walked past multiple times wondering if I should join the queue but never did. On my last day in Lisbon I went on a city tour, and the guide let us know that if you just walk up the steep street (the one that the rich people wouldn’t) and enter from the back of the lift, you don’t have to queue or pay the 5 Euro entry fee but you still get to enjoy the view. Locals knowledge is invaluable and opens up new sides of the city for you.
Every new place we travel to offers the opportunity to uncover truths about ourselves, and the world. And it’s all because of the people who you’ll meet. For the first time in my life, I feel like strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet. The world truly opens up when you’re curious about everything and everyone. And more than that, places are just the backdrops for making important connections with people you wouldn’t otherwise get to cross paths with. You miss out on the real joy of travel if you’re too consumed with the sights. Like my German friend recently said on WhatsApp, ‘nothing makes the world feel more like home than having friends in the distance’. Faces, not places.
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