It’s sunset, and you are watching the last of our star’s orange glow fluoresce against the horizon before it dips out of view. You’re sitting on the stoop of a 400-year-old stucco building in Cinque Terre, Italy, swigging Chianti straight out of the bottle like a college sophomore. A light breeze blows past. Giggling couples begin returning from the rocky shore towards restaurants lit with dancing flickers of candlelight, ready to gorge themselves on fresh seafood. You take a deep breath and exhale proudly, “Now this is living!”
Anyone who has traveled knows this feeling too well: the rush of sensation that bubbles up when we are immersed in the new, the unexpected, or the sublime. It’s often so tantalizing that many people are tempted to bottle it up and experience it 24/7. The desire to sell everything and live full-time on the road for a few years is a pervasive one for lots of my close friends. Even on social media, I get frequently bombarded by strangers asking me how I can afford to backpack and travel full time.
Do you want to know what my secret is? I can’t.
Rather than ruin my future prospects of early semi-retirement (more on that here) by blowing my life savings in one go, I’ve opted to stay put in the big city, reap the rewards of sticking to one career path for over a decade, and find adventure when and where I can. It may sound like a complete snooze-fest at first, but hear me out. I’ve cracked the code to ending city life monotony – by consciously cultivating the mindset of a forever traveler.
What are we doing so differently when we travel, anyway?
If you’re like most people, you probably visit cities when you travel, sleep in beds (rather than tents), and take cars and buses in between your activities and restaurants. At first glance, it’s quite similar to the day-to-day life you likely lead in your hometown, minus going to work at a 9-5 job. But, if we gaze a little deeper into a few things that we all unconsciously do whenever we travel, we can unlock the secret to living in the mindset of that blissful porch in Cinque Terre whenever we want.
When most of us travel, we are walking through neighborhoods and eating in restaurants we’ve never even heard of. We are marveling at architecture and promenading through museums rich with history. We make up stories about old people sitting on park benches and we laugh at ourselves when it suddenly starts raining and we’ve forgotten the umbrella or when our stiletto gets caught between 16th century cobblestones. We take risks. We go with the flow.
What’s stopping us from being this curious and carefree in our ordinary lives?
I propose we consciously make moves to keep our minds active and cultivate little, magical pockets of newness wherever we can. Start by taking a different route to work. Gaze out the window at stores, restaurants, and architecture that exists mere minutes from your ordinary commute. Or, better yet, start biking to work and feel the surge of adrenaline pulse through your veins when traversing your old neighborhood in a new way. If your job is too far to bike, start walking. Go for an evening walk of 30-60 minutes three times a week in varying directions all across your area. Worst-case scenario – you burn a few calories.
Now, with your newfound neighborhood knowledge, you can start exploring the culinary delights hidden all around you. When I travel, I’m constantly jumping into bakeries and eating unassuming kebabs off of street carts. Let’s bring that level of experimentation into our weekly date nights or our weekend plans! Duck into the Vietnamese noodle bar during your lunch break. Try the weird, bacon donuts from that hipster shop around the corner. Make a reservation for Indian food and let the waiter order for you. You could even join a foodie group on Meetup and make these edible experiments into social gatherings.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is walk around public parks or farmers markets and people watch. It sparks a kind of childish imagination that few other things can, and weaving playful stories about interesting strangers while a friend chuckles on the bench next to me is a cheap form of entertainment that leaves me smiling all day. It’s a quirky pastime that I see dozens of people engaging in when their mind is alert and darting around a new city or country, but one that happens less often at home. Why must normal life cut us off from fun, imaginary activities like this? Go ahead. Grab a pastry with a girlfriend and watch old men play chess in the park while lovers cuddle on the lawn off in the distance. Allow yourself to take pleasure in the mundane details of ordinary life. The closer you look, the more engaging this game becomes.
Something I find myself doing when I travel that I don’t engage in enough at home is visiting museums. Museums coax our minds into new ways of thinking or into learning something unexpected. They open windows to genres of art and eras of history previously unexplored. And why stop there? Cultural street fairs, art galleries, and botanical gardens can all achieve a similar bliss-state, simply because they slow us down and make us listen and look at things in a new way. Think you’re off the hook because you live in a tiny city with no exhibits to see? Nope. Do your research. Become a cultural detective of your hometown. So what if it’s small? Maybe there’s an old pioneer house you can tour or an avant-garde photo gallery or poetry reading at the local college.
And, finally, hike, backpack, and weekend warrior your heart out! This is by far the biggest life hack for me. A trail is the quickest way I know to feel like I’m eons away from Los Angeles, even if only for the afternoon. Perhaps it’s a bit of a cheat, because a backpacking trip is technically a form of traveling, but I find that even when I’m heading out on a quick overnight in the San Gabriel Mountains (only 1 hour from my house), my heart is practically bursting with a sense of renewal by the time the weekend is over. Nothing makes me feel as small or as at peace with my place in the world like nature does. Taking time to marvel at a forest, a meadow, or the hills and mountains closest to your town will never steer you wrong.
When you learn to cultivate a traveler’s mindset in your day-to-day life, something remarkable happens – you become more present. You begin paying attention to and enjoying the little marvels hidden all around you. Of course, a big trip to Germany or India will always carry with it a special sense of awe. But, when you master the art of curiously listening and seeking the new inside of your ordinary life, you give yourself the greatest gift – the gift of living now, rather than waiting for the plane to take off.
You realize that travel is a mind’s journey. It’s here whenever you need it. Right now.
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