Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness—the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you.
– Robert Kaplan
It’s de rigueur to speak of “creating memories,” particularly when it comes to travel. This tendency has only been intensified by and through social media and online sharing. Similarly, we've written about creating a story-filled life, the idea being that experiences rather than material goods are what truly shape who we are. While I still believe that implicit underlying premise to be true, something happened recently that nudged me to consider the idea of creating memories in a different light.
Before sharing that story, two questions occurred to me:
1. What if in our quest to create memories, we inadvertently sell the actual experience short or diminish its importance as it happens? That is, we forsake the experience for the metaphor.
2. How can we be more present during our travels so as to savor those experiences for what they are in the moment while also deepening how we might recall and share the memory of them later?
What if accessing memories isn't an option?
Last month, I returned to the United States to spend time with family, including with my stepfather who now suffers from Lewy Body dementia, an Alzheimer’s-like disease. He's led an incredibly full life, one flush with experiences that span growing up in small town Arkansas to serving as an ambassador in Africa, with all manner of storied twists and turns along the way that were both a function of who he was and also made him whom he came to be. He could fill a room with his stories and presence; he kept everyone laughing, wondering which story might come next.
He’s pretty far along in the disease right now, so it is unclear if he still accesses his memories since he is no longer able to share them.
In spending time with him recently, I realized that in our interaction with one another, what really mattered was what happened in the moment. The experience was about being together, the power of touch, and presence – or perhaps more precisely, presentness. All the while, the world outside of me and my stepfather moved along at pace with its typical rapidity.
As this unfolded, I was struck by the realization: being present is about slowing things down enough to truly feel, experience, and sense them – to grasp them in full. To think of it another way: to slow things down so that life begins to feel a little like one of those film reels where the bullet from the gun is slowed to such a speed that it might be plucked from the air by the human hand.
That kind of attention. That kind of grasp.
In full disclosure, none of this was easy or comfortable for me to process. As I focused on trying to be present with my stepfather, the urge to “escape” the situation by considering my to-do list or pulling out my phone to check my email was difficult to resist.
In this life, it's far too easy to buzz around, to drift into the busy. This racing around grants me the permission to not focus on what’s in front of me. It also provides a retreat from possible productive discomfort, something I must face if I ever hope to sort this world.
This experience caused me to wonder: What if amidst the noise, the din, the speed, we could slow down and be more deliberately present — with our life experience, our travel experience?
Being Present in Travel: Why?
Being present and practicing presentness is hard. So why burn cycles trying to do it, especially while traveling? After all, travel is supposed to be unadulterated bliss, no?
My first answer to this is: “Because it’s a ‘good’ for us, of course.” But I realize that’s not a particularly convincing argument so I dug a little deeper.
Here's my why.
1. To create calm or peace in an overwhelming (too) fast-moving world.
This is one of the reasons why many of us travel in the first place, to get away from the day-to-day “busy-ness” of our lives, to recharge creatively, mentally.
So then what’s the point of “getting away” only to re-create the same circumstances from which you were hoping to escape?
2. To avoid missing the present by constantly pondering the future.
If we are busy “collecting memories,” something inherently future-oriented, are we truly immersed or fully engaged in what is happening around us during the actual experience? Once we begin to measure or capture an experience, we give away fragments of it in exchange for its capture.
Sure, you can make the argument that capturing the experience is in fact part of it. I’ll buy that to a limited degree.
3. To find deeper connections with people and place.
It takes time to fully grasp a place and its people, to push through the confusion and difference and discord that first greets us upon our arrival — all so that we may depart with greater appreciation, connection, empathy and something even stronger: care.
4. To judge less, to be more open.
I’d argue that simply observing and being present actually tones down the rush-to-judgment tendency of the human brain. If we take things in as they come instead of trying to evaluate them all against our preconceived notions and measuring sticks, maybe we'll make more room for others and for ourselves.
5. To deepen our observation, to heighten our awareness.
Being present surfaces previously unseen details. It also exposes the depths. Presentness gives us a chance to connect heart and mind in a way that no photograph, no matter how well composed, can ever capture.
6. To build patience for learning and reward.
If you’ve ever tried yoga or experienced very slow movements of the body in physiotherapy, maybe you’ve understood how coming to terms with a little pain or discomfort is necessary to make progress. It’s also not surprising that exceptionally slow body movements can paradoxically make us feel disoriented or even ill. Same thing applies with slowing down the world around us. It forces us into a different mode of operation and to deal with new and sometimes uncomfortable data and circumstances.
4 Ways to be Present in Travel
If you're still with us (and we’ve hopefully convinced you of the benefits of being present), here are some ways that may practically help you put this all into play while you travel.
1. Just sit, be and observe for a while.
Be perfectly still — for at least five minutes, taking in all that is around you. Don’t try to judge or make sense of what you’re seeing, but notice and appreciate the details, the once insignificant.
Let it go by.
In urban areas, I like to find a bench in a park or busy city street. Or I’ll lean against a street corner wall of a market to watch without attracting attention. Like being in the middle of it without being the center of anyone's attention. Perhaps like a fly on the wall.
Later I engage and I find that my engagement is more informed, more connected.
If I feel over-stimulated by a place (e.g., the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh or Mumbai, India) I find that this approach helps me to to better take in the big picture so I’m not as overwhelmed by the action, the sensory overload that comes with immersion.
In nature, this means finding a spot to sit. Give this one at least 15 minutes, longer if you like. All day even. You may be overwhelmed not only by the greater range of sights, smells, and sounds available to you, but also their intensity. Why? Because you’ve begun to notice and pay attention to what has always been there, yet was somehow deprived of your attention.
2. Have a destination in mind to allow “productive” wandering.
This may sound like an oxymoron, but stick with me on this one. Choose a destination (e.g., bakery, cafe, temple, sight, etc.), but free yourself from the expectation that you must actually arrive.
I find that some of our best experiences are the unexpected ones, ones that happen when en route we’ve allowed ourselves to stop, get lost, follow our curiosity and in some cases, granted ourselves the freedom to never even arrive.
However, while setting off to wander without purpose may work for some, for others it can result in a feeling of pointlessness. Having some destination in mind, even if loosely, allows us to focus less on where we’re going and enjoy a little more of what’s around us.
During our recent trip to Strasbourg, we found that some of our most satisfying moments of exploration and immersion occurred en route (usually to something food-related), in the little things.
3. Put down the device, for a few minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, photographing and documenting a place, an experience is important to many of us. If anyone can appreciate that need, that impulse, we can. Very much so. Consuming an image-memory is also satisfying.
However there's a difference between taking things in from behind the lens and engaging with them barrier-free with our senses only. Recognizing that difference seems crucial to our maintaining our humanity, our human-ness.
Blink. Take a photo with your mind. What you observe will be more, different.
When we were invited to an evening Ramadan gathering in Kyrgyzstan, we resisted the urge to pull out our camera and take photos, despite the spectacular uniqueness of our circumstance: a gritty, candlelight meal in a yurt. We aimed not to break the atmosphere of our welcome and treatment as one-part honored guest, another part family. There were many unusual moments during that meal, including being handed the jawbone of a goat to gnaw on, but enjoying the experience without escape delivered a deeper connection with the place and the people around us.
Furthermore, if you embrace this, you just might find your photos appearing strangely three-dimensional when you view them later. That other dimension? It was formed and informed by the depth of your connection to the experience.
4. Go light on the itinerary.
I’ve found that in most parts of my life, the concept “less is more” reaffirms itself with each new experience. In travel, definitely so. The flip side: this one is strenuously difficult to put into practice.
In the face of limited time and resources, it's tempting to try and pack it all in, to shoehorn the Top 10 list from your favorite guidebook into your itinerary — because it's what you ought to do to maximize your experience. Been there, done that. While checking the boxes may provide some satisfaction and a series of photo ops, the question you might consider asking yourself: Will I really come away feeling refreshed, recharged, exhilarated, renewed?
And: What is my unique story to have emerged from all this?
Our advice, just as it is with packing: put everything you want to do on a list and then prioritize the top half. Then begin to let go of even more. Try to plan only a visit or two a day and leave room for those in-between times lounging at a café, sitting on a park bench, diving into an unexpected conversation. Take in the people and place, the living history around you.
Just as it’s easy to find ways to be busy in our day-to-day lives, a similar temptation exists while traveling. Despite all our own travel experiences, Dan and I continue to struggle with this.
It's difficult to fully be where we are and to appreciate the simplicity of the moment. There’s fear of missing out (FOMO). Ironically, this fear may stand in the way of some of the most rewarding experiences travel has to offer.
Being present is not only key to accessing experience and memory creation, but it's also an end in itself.
How do you remain present in your travels?