I love meeting new people, even though most always ask me the same questions about what I do and how I managed to make this weird world of travel blogging a full-time career. And that’s fine; I understand where the curiosity comes from. But I much more enjoy when people want to talk about the travel experience itself and how we can all become better travelers. That’s what is ultimately at the heart of my own personal life experience – an intense love of travel and learning more about the world. I’ve spent a long time watching other folks like me, people who can’t seem to get enough of the travel experience and I began to wonder what it is about all of us – from those few nomads out there to the many more who take one great vacation every year – that drives us. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we all have one thing in common, a single characteristic that not only propels us to explore this big and beautiful planet but which also makes us I think smarter travelers. (Note I didn’t say better.) That one characteristic, that one thing that moves us more than anything is a fierce curiosity and in that curiosity I’ve learned is a great power.
As a kid I remember being frustrated because I knew no matter how much I studied and learned that I would never be able to consume all available knowledge. Yeah, I was a fun kid, but that same intellectual curiosity has helped me countless times in my life and is, I think, a defining characteristic of most travelers. We want to explore and see the world not just to dip our toes in the warm waters of the Caribbean or to see famous buildings we’ve heard about all our lives – we also desperately want to learn. We visit museums, historical sites and take more tours than we can count. Why do we do this, except to broaden our horizons and learn about disparate places around the world? There are some of course who could care less about such things, and I honestly don’t understand why they even leave home. The world may seem smaller than ever, but in all reality it’s an immense place and even those who think they have seen it all, have only hit upon a small slice of the centuries of human and natural history available to us to learn about. Having a certain level of intellectual curiosity is vital to any good traveler and those who pursue these educational exploits greatly improve their own personal travel experiences. By learning the histories of different places, we also deepen our own personal understanding of them, creating not only cultural empathy but also a great bond and connection with those places. So it’s not just a nerdy way to increase our chances of performing well on Jeopardy, it’s vital if we really want to maximize our travel experiences.
Of course visiting museums is just one aspect of the travel experience; another essential type of curiosity is of the cultural kind. I remember way back when I was fresh out of college and backpacking around the UK being amazed at some of my fellow travelers. Their only goal every day was to sleep in, go drink and then repeat. They had little interest in the actual destination and I still am confused why they decided to leave home in the first place. I daresay they got nothing from their travel experience except perhaps cirrhosis of the liver. That’s why smart travelers always possess an incredible desire to not just observe and learn about new cultures, but to get as close to them as possible. Famous sites and landmarks are all well and good but over the years I’ve gradually learned that what is arguably the most important aspect of the travel experience is the people we meet. Nearly everyone I’ve met in all corners of the world have a fierce desire to share their cultures with outsiders – to teach them about their traditions and what their daily lives are like. This is as true in Sydney as it is the remote highlands of Peru. As humans, we deeply value connecting with others and that is never as important as when we travel. And yet I have seen many, many, travelers spend a week or two in a new place and never speak to a local resident, except to order food or to ask directions. Not nearly enough people take the time to sit down and talk with others, to ask them questions and to suss out what it is about where they live that is so interesting. You’ll learn more from a five-minute conversation than you ever will in a museum if you just take the time to ask a few simple questions.
This is admittedly a more amorphous concept and to be honest, it’s still one I’m starting to define so please bear with me. In addition to being curious from both an intellectual and cultural point of view, I think that smart travelers also desperately want an emotional bond with the places they visit. It doesn’t always happen, but I think that’s because we don’t always try. In order to really connect with a new city or even a new region, we have to have a certain level of emotional curiosity; we have to WANT to connect with these places. I’m guilty of not usually exercising this aspect of my curious soul, content to just join in on walking tours or to follow a guide book’s advice on what to see and do. What I have failed many times in doing is finding the parts of the city or place with which I could connect emotionally. I’ve had the best experiences not just when I’ve stayed in nice hotels and been upgraded to business class, no, I’ve had the best travel experiences when I have been curious about how I could love the new places I visit. Paris is my favorite city, the reason for that isn’t just because of the food and the jaunty berets, it’s because it was the first place outside of the U.S. I ever visited and I spent a month living there as a 17-year old kid. I bonded on a very deep and emotional level with the city, it’s a connection that we will always have. But it almost didn’t happen, I hated Paris at first and I absolutely refused to try to get to know it any better. Then one day, I broke away from the pack, got lost and found an entirely new city, one I had been missing for weeks. I discovered what it was that I could love about the city and ever since then, thanks to that emotional and not just cultural curiosity, we’ve been linked for life. That is what I mean by emotional curiosity. I think; like I said, I’m still working out the theory.
The Power of Curiosity
Last year I wrote a cheeky post about the superpowers travel gives all of us and while it was a little silly, the points are I think all true. We necessarily become better people thanks to the travel experience whether it’s due in large part to our intellectual, cultural or emotional curiosity. But that’s the one connection between most of the benefits we derive from the travel experience –we have to have that curiosity. There’s incredible power behind that base and special human trait. It’s thanks to our curiosity that we seek to leave home in the first place and once we do take that first and most important step, it’s that curiosity that propels our explorations and ultimately makes them the enriching experiences they are. Our curiosity also touches others. Tourists are citizen ambassadors; we represent our respective countries and cultures no matter where we go and by exhibiting these various levels of curiosity, we’re showing others that we really do care about them. Not from a voyeuristic or selfish reason, but because we honestly want to know about them, their lives and their cultures and so it’s this curiosity which doesn’t just change our own impressions about the world around us, it also changes all of the places we touch without us even realizing it.