POP THE BUBBLY, denizens of Planet Earth. You’ve made it through another year on this crazy little space rock. It wasn’t the easiest one we’ve ever had. We lost Nelson Mandela. We found out our government has been spying on us all along, and even worse, some even tried to take away our porn. But amidst all that, the world remained a gorgeous place to live, and with any luck, you managed to see a chunk of it outside your own backyards along the way. How’d that go? Did you learn a thing or two about a thing or two? Have you sated that endless wanderlust that’s swirling like yesterday’s breakfast burrito in your brain?
I doubt it.
New Years are about new beginnings. And hangovers. But the benefit of spending January 1st groaning in bed is that it gives you time to think about those new beginnings. What are you going to do different? Travel isn’t a video game you can finish — it’s about constantly refreshing perspectives, pulling the outside world into your chest and feeling the pumps and bumps of your heart changing beat ever so slightly. There’s no such thing as “being done traveling.” You can only hope to improve. Here are some ways to be a better traveler in 2014.
1. Walk a mile in another traveler’s shoes.
For being, by definition, an open-minded bunch of people, travelers can be such douchebags to each other. There’s something disheartening about watching a guy eat a fried cricket on a stick and then act like he’s better than everybody else because he’s staying on a couch instead of in a hostel. But hey, we’re all guilty of it occasionally. That ugly mix of jealousy and disdain when hearing of somebody else’s preferred method of border hopping. Everybody thinks their own style of travel is the right one.
But what if it’s not? We’re all so willing to walk in the shoes of the people we come to visit that we forget to walk in the shoes of the people on the plane with us. In 2014, shake things up a bit. If you’ve been hitchhiking and couchsurfing for the past year, hit up a hostel. Hell, go on an organized tour. Those 80-year-old grandparents with the dorky matching shirts have a story to tell just like anybody else. And if you’ve been living off dad’s credit card for the past few years, grow some balls and slum it, Pulp’s “Common People” style. You just might learn a thing or two about the real world.
2. Read more travel literature.
I finished The Motorcycle Diaries recently. I don’t know why I put it off for so long, but as I dropped the book off in the hostel’s take-one-leave-one exchange box, I suddenly found myself with a burning desire to sell all of my belongings and take a motorcycle around the edge of South America. As I absorb more and more stories of the world, I find it growing far too vast for my ambitions. I’ve had my moments of stagnation in hostels, and with the end of Che’s journey, there was a revitalization of my own.
That’s the point of stories — to transport you to a new world and make it breathe for you. With travel stories, that world is real and waiting for you to create your memory within it. Travel literature takes a lot of forms: They can be the beat epic of the road, they can be a GIF-laden list of cool places to eat weird things. They can be an incredibly written tome of the best places on Earth to get fucked up before you die. They can be delightful and they can be shocking, but to somebody intent on seeing all there is to see, they’re always inspirational.
3. Keep your travel journal up to date.
People love to find patterns in things. It’s hardwired into our brain — helps us see when something’s wrong. Memories come and go, they change with age, but that ability to see patterns sticks with a person from crawling to the cane. But when traveling, that ability is dampened. Being inundated with so many new experiences puts the brain into overdrive just to file them into the right synapse, let alone find some patterns in how you deal with them.
Your travel journal is like your second brain. By writing down exactly what you think — while you’re thinking it, mind you — you can sift through the memories without the subjectivity of time and nostalgia. You can find the patterns. Things you did wrong, things you’d like to change about yourself, about the places you go. Maybe a new passion will pop up. And come 2015, after a year’s worth of fond memories and bitter moments locked away in leatherbound, you’ll find ways to travel even better in the next year.
4. Slow down.
When I was in London, I was grabbing a bite to eat at a stall near Big Ben. A bus pulled up and vomited a clown car’s worth of Chinese tourists, who swarmed the area with DSLR flashes for five minutes before piling back into their ride and disappearing as quickly as they came. Foot traffic returned to normal and I took another bite of my sandwich, wondering if I had imagined it. Apparently there are companies that specialize in the art of the “pose with a landmark and go.”
It’s unfair, I know. The world is too big, there are too many amazing places out there, and barring some kind of amazing medical breakthrough (hey, we can all wish in the New Year), you’re never going to get to see them all within your lifetime. There’s an urge to say “fuck that” and blast through as much as possible, like a dog that’s figured out how to open the fridge. But in doing so, you miss the forest for the trees. In 2014, slow down your travel. Spend a little longer in each city. Get off the beaten track. Don’t just photograph it — become of it. If all you want is a picture of yourself in front of a landmark, Photoshop is a hell of a lot cheaper than a plane ticket.
5. Speed up.
There’s a reason so many people sign up for the gym this time of the year. With the coming of 2014, you’ll probably realize you’re not getting any younger. And yeah, picking up a bunch of heavy things before pounding a new fad diet protein shake will make those crow’s feet a bit less noticeable, but when you’re sitting at your 9-5 desk counting the hours to Friday and wondering if your back is straight enough, you’ll still wonder…what if?
You’re saving money to travel. That’s fine. But at a certain point, that cliff is gonna stop calling you to jump, and if you finally do, you’ll find your knees aren’t strong enough to toss you all that far. This year, take a look at your life. Maybe it’s time to try something new and just go for it. Nobody sits on their deathbed and wishes they spent more time working to save money. So stop telling people you want to travel, stop reading all those brilliantly written articles just to get a proxy-rush, and buy a ticket already. Speed up your plans. The first step to being a better traveler in 2014 is to be a traveler in the first place.