On the first day of our vacation a few years ago, our camera broke. Standing on the Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee with an unresponsive “on switch,” we realized that we would remember this journey not because we had albums of photographs about it, but because we had really paid attention while we were there.Our broken camera became the catalyst to the practice we call “travel presence.” We will travel with a camera again, but we know that this kind of presence is a more reliable companion. It is also what enables us to turn travel into a pilgrimage.
All too often the typical activities of a trip — especially an organized tour with its stops for photo and shopping opportunities — take us out of the present moment to the future, to the time when we are showing our pictures or looking at our souvenirs.
But a vacation should about being present to a place in a deep way. The real journey is the one you take with the eyes of your heart.
What can you do — camera in hand or not — to be more mindful, engaged, and connected with your heart when you travel? Here are a few approaches we’ve found helpful.
• Prepare for the journey. Just as important as making hotel bookings and gathering maps is stating some intentions for the journey. Why are you going? To reconnect with nature or history? To share time with family? Commit to a purpose for the trip by sharing your hopes with your family, friends, and traveling companions.
• Keep Notes. I was writing in my journal one day when a tour group passed by. A woman exclaimed, “I want to keep a journal too, but I never have time. To write I’d have to miss something.” That is so often true. Many trips are so packed with activities that it’s hard to do the necessary reflecting upon what you are seeing.
One tip to all would-be journal writers: Give up the idea of keeping your trip diary chronological. If you try to keep it orderly, you’ll soon fall behind and end up with a few days recorded in detail and the rest lost in frustration. Practice travel presence by letting your journal just happen. Keep a list of your impressions in the back of your book. Then write about one of them whenever you get a chance, perhaps while sitting in traffic on the bus or when everyone else is shopping.
Making brief notes as you go along helps keep you present. It periodically clears your mind of things you may be struggling not to forget. That way you can be more open to new experiences.
• Participate in present-day life. When you are traveling to a place with a rich past, sometimes that is all you focus on. But presence means being here now. Once in New York City where we live, we were surprised to find a favorite grocery store filled with tourists. “How silly,” we said. “They are seeing a market on their tour.” But then we realized that one of our favorite things to do in a strange place is to visit a market. Our senses come alive as we see the stalls of sweets, touch the unusual fruits and vegetables, and smell the bins of spices. So, on your next trip, experiment with local foods. Have olives and herring for breakfast; get a burrito or shish kebab from a street side stand for lunch. Being engaged through your senses is a good way to stay in the moment.
• Be aware of the other travelers. You will rarely be alone when you travel, and indeed most travel today means dealing with crowds. Enjoy the company. Watch how others are reacting to a place.
• Notice similarities as well as differences. Finally, during your trip, practice travel presence by noticing both the diversity and the unity of your surroundings. What parallels can you make between where you are and where you’re from? What differences?