A whiff of lavender...

In the first year or two of my travel writing career, I met a lovely older lady who’d been in the business for many years. When she invited me to her home for tea, I was at first charmed, then amazed, then frankly horrified.

Her house was a nearly impenetrable maze of souvenir fridge magnets, mugs, stuffed animals, brightly painted sombreros, chunky pottery, posters, rugs, hand-painted figurines, beach mats, backpacks, travel brochures and more. She could easily have had a starring role on “Hoarders”. Narrow pathways led through the amazing collection to a tiny, cramped sitting area, where, in order to sit down and have my cup of tea, I had to shift a stack of newspaper clippings, a serape, and a cat.

“Everything you see,” she told me proudly, surveying the mountains of stuff, “is a reminder of one or the other of my trips.”

That visit made an impression on me – one that’s profoundly shaped the way I collect my own memories from the road. Our house is small, but the ground I cover on my travels is vast so I know that if I brought home every tchotchke that caught my eye, in no time, we’d be up to our eyeballs. 

Still, we cherish the memories made, the new friends met and the fascinating adventures experienced and want to keep the memories fresh. My articles are my best record of things seen and done, of course, and as I’m writing what ignites the sharpest, clearest memories are tastes, sounds and aromas.

A few drops of lavender essential oil in a scent diffuser and we feel the sense of bliss that comes from wandering the fields of France, with a soft purple haze of flowers surrounding us. A plate of decadently rich pasticcio or moussaka, a dish of kalamata olives and a hefty chunk of feta and we’re lolling in our chairs at a Greek taverna, raising our glasses in a toast to life. The sound of a brass band pumping out “When the Saints Go Marching In” sends us back to the steamy streets of New Orleans with strands of shiny beads hanging around our necks. Even a whiff of coconut oil can makes us feel happily beachy, as if we’re about to sink our toes into white sand and head for the turquoise waves.

And then there are photos – the visual reminders. A laughing face, a sunrise, the view from the bow of a ship…images can bring memorable moments roaring back to life with a power no souvenir can ever match.

Capturing those sights and sounds and tastes and aromas is the best way to bring back all the color and fun some long wintry night down the road.

Travel déjà vu

Even as the wave of familiarity hit me, I knew I’d never actually been there. The tiny, over-crowded stall in the Marekesh souk was as far from my small-town eastern Ontario roots as it was possible to be….but the feeling that I’d been there before was overwhelming. I felt certain that I’d watched the gnarled brown hands of the old couple serving me grasp their wooden spoons and ladle pungent powders into small bags. I’d smelled the heady mix of cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and saffron before – but when?

Travel déjà vu isn’t rare – every adventurer feels it from time to time. An inexplicable sense of having walked a certain path, seen a particular face or heard echoes of a familiar-and-yet-not familiar tune can overtake us in a moment, making us feel curiously at home when we’re anywhere but.

Days or weeks later, when your bags have been unpacked and you’re settling back into the routine, your mind and memory plays another set of tricks. A whiff of coconut sends you reeling back to the beach, and the sound of church bells makes you expect to see well-worn European cobblestones under your feet. It’s the power of transformative travel – a life-changing experience that enriches your life far more than any bank account ever will.

 

Transformative travel experiences occur when you’re whisked from your comfort zone and taken to places where you can’t logically expect to find any connection to your own life – but do.  It requires some confidence and a touch of courage to explore challenging places, but what you’ll learn there – not only about other ways of life, but fascinatingly, about hidden aspects of yourself – will make it all priceless.

 

Fortunately, you don’t have to load up your backpack and hike out into the wilds alone in order to experience transformative travel. Creative cruise lines and tour companies and clever travel advisors are now offering opportunities that give guests hands-on experiences, introducing them not simply to tour officials, but rather to working artisans, farmers and more – to those who actually live in the exotic destinations visited. Those introductions to the people, the food, the art, the music…the entirety and immediacy of another cultural reality…are what will spur those moments of déjà vu, awaken new understanding, and fuel years of memorable travel stories.

 

One hot afternoon, you’ll escape the Grecian sunshine to stand in a weaver’s tiny workshop on the island of Mykonos. You’ll watch as she tosses the shuttle back and forth and suddenly you’ll know exactly what those fibers she’s working with feel like, and will be able to picture the fully finished pattern, though it’s only just beginning to appear. Perhaps you’ll buy the scarf she’s making and each time you wear it, you’ll hear her soft voice, speaking a language that’s not your own but that you understand perfectly well all the same. That scarf will become a treasure and perhaps a symbol for you – a way to wrap yourself - both figuratively and literally - in lasting travel memories.

 

 

 

Forget the past...now is the best time to travel

The starry-eyed woman beside me was gazing at the museum display of a grand 19th century horse-drawn carriage.

“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have lived a couple of centuries ago?”

No, my dear, it wouldn’t. Think about it.

Unless you were born into money – and lots of it – life then was hard, nasty and dirty. The owner of that grand carriage had servants, but the vast majority of people lived with the endless drudgery of survival sans central heating, running water and electrical appliances. Travel, if you could ever afford it, involved whole new levels of discomfort and inconvenience.  

Airplanes didn’t exist, so the masses traveled by rail or water – and neither was pleasant. Trains belched nasty great clouds of soot and steerage class on ships – the common method of trans-Atlantic passage for the lower classes – was unspeakably miserable.

Traveling today? Life is good. Yes, there are long lines to get through security and no, there isn’t much overhead baggage space in planes, but on the whole, travel by train, bus, airplane and ship is clean, fast, efficient and safe.

(I know…there are occasional plane crashes and terror attacks but those represent a tiny, tragic, percentage of the travel total. The vast majority of planes, trains and ships do their business safely and without incident.)

As I write this, I’m sitting in a sleekly modern train, gliding through the French countryside between Cannes and Marseilles. My comfortable seat is equipped with a foldout desk for my laptop and a plug so I won’t run out of juice before I finish writing this editorial. Through the large windows, I catch glimpses of sun on sea, rows of grapes in the vineyards, and the leafy green countryside. I’m hearing….nothing. The car is blissfully quiet, filled with sophisticated French passengers who have no interest in talking to me or anyone else. It’s lovely.

I flew to France earlier this week and while I wouldn’t have minded a bit more room in my seat, I did cross an entire ocean – from Toronto to Paris and then on to Nice, in a matter of hours. Apart from getting through airport security, I did absolutely nothing and still managed to travel halfway around the globe. 

In a few days, after another train trip – this time to Basel, Switzerland – I’ll board a river cruise ship to sail to Amsterdam. My stateroom will offer not only all the comforts of my house, including a well-appointed bathroom and free wifi, but also the services of a room steward who’ll materialize with water, fresh towels and treats each evening and tidy my room each morning. The chef will cook delicious meals and charming servers will spoil us rotten in the glitzy dining room. 

And I’m not a member of the aristocracy – just a lucky peasant.

Admittedly, river cruise travel is expensive and not something the average person does without serious investment, but train, bus and even plane travel is within reach for many of us. 

Recently, I heard a very funny comic who talked about sitting beside a guy who was ranting about the slow wifi on their flight. The comic said, “Slow wifi?! We’re drinking coffee in a big silver tube that’s rocketing us around the world in a few hours – and you’re griping about wifi?! Get a life!”

I’m with him. Travel technology today makes it possible for us to be at home for breakfast and in a different corner of the world for dinner, completely unruffled. Forget romantic views of the past, fellow wanderers – we’re lucky to be alive today.

Let's get transformative

The hottest buzz words in the tourism world today are ‘transformative travel’, as cruise lines, hotel and resort companies, and tour operators strive to capture our attention with exciting new, educational, adventure-packed, horizon-expanding experiences designed to both entertain and change us.

It’s working.

Many of the life experiences that have dramatically altered my world view happened while I was in another country and another culture – in places where the language was different, the usual rules didn’t apply, and everything tasted, felt and sounded strange and wonderful. When travel challenges demanded new approaches, strange paths and new possibilities, I jumped in. When wonderfully welcoming hosts introduced new foods, I tried them - not always loving everything but certainly appreciating the spirit of the offer. When guides assured me I could surf (well…sort of…), ski the steepest double black diamond runs (ummmmmm……), drive a Land Rover down the side of a sheer cliff (there’s a special gear for that…) and jump off a 40 ft. platform (hooked up to a cable, of course), I gave it my best shot. When safaris and wilderness tours offered the chance to see lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, whales, polar bears, narwhals, giant tortoises and more in their natural habitats, I crouched in hides, floated in Zodiacs, and hiked jungle paths, mesmerized and grateful for the twists of fate that made that all possible. Travel has changed me in ways I could never have imagined, making me more open, less afraid and more eager to stretch the boundaries. That’s one side of the important transformative travel coin.

Here’s the flip side.

If we are sensitive to preserving and protecting the places we discover – both ecologically and culturally - we have the power to make a difference. Though sustainability and preservation are by no means a new concept, as you’ll see when you read our article on UNESO World Heritage sites in this issue, the concept of average travelers taking part and contributing to that cause is vital.

The natural disasters of 2017 were devastating – particularly for many of our favorite warm-weather destinations. From the hurricanes and flooding that pummeled Houston, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Florida and many parts of the Caribbean, to the earthquake in Mexico, last year was heart-breaking. China and South East Asia also experienced horrific flooding, as did Peru while a massive landslide claimed hundreds of lives in Columbia. Though we contributed to fund-raising efforts, didn’t we all wish there was more that we could do to restore these places and help the friends there to rebuild their lives?

There is more.  We can do more.  We can return.

Instead of abandoning our usual beach-in-the-sun winter plans and heading for destinations spared by the bad fortune of 2017, we can return to favorite beaches and cruise to familiar, well-loved islands. We can spend our time and our vacation money there, helping to rebuild economies and lives. We can show our faith in the power of renewal and believe that the destinations we’ve always loved will rebuild and rebound, with our help. 

The most powerful medicine any recovering destination can receive is an infusion of loyalty supported by vacation dollars – and that is the flip-side of transformative travel at its very best.