For the past few weeks, Hubby and I have been researching where we will go on our next travel adventure. We’ve narrowed it down to two options: Africa, or Croatia and Slovenia. Or both, but not at the same time. In fact we’ve been discussing travel in general ever since we returned from Italy last October. And as a result of some of the issues we had on that trip, particularly with the huge crowds in the cities, we’ve been discussing our travel priorities. What we want, and what we don’t want out of our travel from now on. In other words, we’re trying to nail down why we travel in the first place.
“So why do we travel?” we’ve been asking ourselves. For fun, and for adventure, of course. To see those parts of the world we’ve always wanted to see, to experience new places, and meet new people, to learn about other cultures, try new food, and find out how the rest of the world ticks. We don’t travel specifically to visit family or friends. Sure, we fly or drive down east to visit family, and catch up with old friends while we’re there, and while that involves “travelling” it’s not really “travel”, is it? Or at least it doesn’t conform to our definition of travel. And as much as we love our camping trips, wilderness canoe adventures, and ski holidays, we don’t consider them travel either. Because for us travel means seeing new sights.
Like our trip to South America in 2017 when we saw and learned all kinds of new things. We had lots of adventures on that trip: on the hiking trails in Patagonia, on narrow, bumpy, gravel roads in northern Argentina, in a locked hotel courtyard at midnight when we came close to scaling a brick wall to get to our airport taxi idling on the street outside.
Some of our adventures were in restaurants. I’m thinking of our first meal in Buenos Aires when we arrived at the restaurant unfashionably early at 7:50, sat alone and unwelcomed in an empty restaurant until the stroke of eight o’clock, when the place filled up, the friendly waiters bustled, and chatted, and we had a lovely time and a great meal. Lesson learned. In Argentina, never go to dinner before eight. And in Salta, we learned, eight o’clock stretched to nine. So we implemented an early evening snack routine to be able to last to dinner time without keeling over. Ha. Then came Peru, where we learned many things including how lucky we are to have won the birth lottery. That trip was real travel to us. What my friend Wendy (from York) calls “proper travel.”
So, yeah, seeing new things and places, getting off the beaten track even if it is sometimes a bit iffy, and learning how the rest of the world lives, those are really important to us when we travel. And equally important is meeting new people: our hosts in B&B’s or small hotels, local people and other travellers on buses, in restaurants, over breakfast in our accommodation, wherever.
Hubby and I still speak fondly of the young doctor from Seattle, with whom we shared a day-long bus ride from Puno to Cusco in Peru. A Muslim originally from Iran, with a sister who lives in Montreal, this young doctor and Hubby talked all day about politics, the Canadian and American healthcare systems, and how wonderful Peru was. During one stop, we were swarmed by street vendors as we exited the bus, and a few minutes later Mohammad boarded the bus again carrying about twenty handmade necklaces. A fellow passenger chivied him, “Mohammad, they saw you coming.” And he shrugged and replied, smiling, “So every nurse on my floor in the hospital will receive a necklace from Peru. Ten dollars to me means little, but much more to the lady who sold me these.” What a lovely man.
In Italy, last fall, after almost two weeks on the road, we couldn’t put our finger on what was lacking in our trip. Then it dawned on us, we were lonely; we’d found no one to talk to. Many of our hosts spoke little to no English. We had a few very friendly pseudo-conversations consisting of smiles, nods, a few words, and a lot of hand gestures. But no fellow travellers in our B&B accommodation, or sitting next to us in a restaurant, seemed interested in chatting over a second cup of coffee or glass of wine.
Until we reached the Amalfi coast. On our first morning in Agerola, we met Miguel and Marie, a young couple from Honduras. We ate breakfast with them each morning after that, and chatted over dinner on two evenings. On the second evening, we invited an American teacher and a young German girl, who were staying at the local hostel and had been in the restaurant the night before, to join us. We had a rousing good time, even though Hubby and I were at least twenty years older than everyone else at the table. The couple on the right, below, are Theresa and Darryl from southern Ontario. They were sitting next to us in a sidewalk café one night in Rome. We started chatting and ended up having a great evening with them. Such lovely people, and so much fun.
We’ve met people all over the world, had wonderful conversations, swapped travel stories, and learned about their lives, their struggles, and their political views. Some we travelled with for a few days on a short tour, and with others we shared a meal or a cup of coffee. One of our most interesting conversations was last fall on our first night in Rome. The couple at the table next to us were from outside of Melbourne, Australia; they’ve been just about everywhere, and not only on vacation. They’re both union organizers who’ve worked in some of the poorest and most troubled areas of the world. Their stories were amazing, and Hubby enjoyed enough political discussion to last him the rest of our trip.
Some people we’ve encountered have had connections very close to home. Like the garage owner in Alaska who fixed a tire on our rental car, and whose wife is from Hainesville, New Brunswick, about ten miles up the road from my parents’ farm. And amazingly some of the people we’ve met might even be relatives. When we stayed in a cottage in Bantry, Ireland for a week, we developed a nightly “tradition” of stopping for a pint at a near-by pub that Hubby loved to call “our local.” Since County Kerry is Sullivan country, I of course filled the bartender in on my Sullivan ancestors. And one night, when the man grinning at me below, weaved his way up to the bar, the bartender quipped, “Here comes one of yer coosins, now.” Ha.
You know, deciding what we want is only part of establishing our travel priorities. It’s just as important to know what we don’t want. We don’t want to lie on a beach. We both love the ocean, and love to swim in the ocean, but beach, and beach only, holidays do not interest us. Resorts or all-inclusive anything doesn’t interest us. Similarly we are not interested in taking a cruise. I’ve written about our cruise aversion on the blog before. Yes, I know that the boats are beautiful, the food good, the accommodation top notch, “five star” as a friend said to us. But five-star accommodation is not why we travel.
Similarly, we have limited patience with guided tours. In Rome last year we did not take a guided tour of the Vatican or of the Colosseum. We did hire a private guide for a tour of the city on our first day there. We did take a guided walking tour of Florence and of Venice. But that was it for three weeks. The rest of the time we were content to hike and walk, or drive, and stop when we chose. Or read about something and then go look at it. We don’t feel the need to see every historical landmark or visit every museum or gallery, no matter how famous.
Instead we often choose our trip highlights for very personal reasons. Like our decision to visit Tralee, Ireland where my Sullivan ancestors embarked from in 1819. In Wellington, New Zealand I had to visit Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace, and in Haworth, Yorkshire, the Brontë Parsonage Museum. In Paris, I wanted to see Hemingway’s apartment and some of his old haunts, and visit the flea markets or Marché aux Puces, which I’d first read about in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist.
Of course, everyone’s travel priorities are different. If stress-free relaxation is your priority, then a beach holiday with an all-inclusive deal will probably check all your boxes. If you have mobility issues, cruises are way easier than making your own way around an extended area, even if you have to miss out on the small villages in out-of-the-way places. And if you prefer high culture, opera, great art, and museums, then exploring lonely mountain-top plateaus will not suit you like it suits us. Everyone who travels should try to establish just what their priorities are before they leave home. Especially if you’ve never travelled with your companion before.
Several years ago, I visited London for a week with three women friends, and there were enough of us to be able to split up and do what we wanted with no hurt feelings. One day, two of my friends visited Kew Gardens, and having no interest in Kew, my friend Susan and I took the train to Cambridge. We all had a great day. Such was not the case a couple of years ago, when a friend and I found we had quite different priorities about how to spend our time.
I have another friend my age who is single and who has tried to find someone to travel with, to no avail. In the UK the last few years, she has booked a package tour, and then does her own thing for a few days on either side of the scheduled tour. That way she doesn’t travel completely alone, but can satiate her love for theatre, for instance, by staying on in London for several days. It’s a compromise that works for her.
Hubby and I have realigned our own travel priorities slightly since our experience in Italy last year. We’ve decided that avoiding really big crowds, is a very big priority. The relief which we felt when we left Florence, beautiful as it is, and headed into the hills on our way to Urbino cannot be overstated. As a result, we began to discuss our least favourite travel experiences. With the exception of Hell Hole Hotel in Goomalling, Australia, a story which I related to you before, most of our cringey experiences involved big, crowded cities.
And so we’ve decided to stroke several cities off our list for that reason. They will be sacrificed in favour of a slower pace. More chance to breath, and just be, wherever we are. And while we often consult other travellers for advice or suggestions, I’m afraid my friends, we won’t listen to you when (and if) you say, “Oh, Sue, you can’t go to blank and not see blank.” “Yes… we can,” I’ll reply, with a smile, “And we will.”
I guess the only reason for travel that I haven’t discussed is perhaps the most important one to us. Extended travel to new and interesting places, seeing sights we’ve always wanted to see, learning new ways, and meeting new people adds richness to the fabric of our lives. The places we’ve seen and the people we’ve met form part of our shared history as a couple. And as my friend Frances said when we discussed our ideas about travel in an e-mail exchange the other day… this shared history helps us forge stronger connections as a couple. And that, my friends, is the coolest thing of all.
Hubby and I know that as the years pass we will have to modify, even more, where we go and how we see what we see when we travel. We’ve been thinking about options. We’re still talking about that. We realize we’ll have to compromise on some things. But we both agree that travel enriches our lives so much that compromise is vastly preferable to giving up on travel altogether.
Now it’s your turn my fellow travellers. What are your priorities when it comes time to hit the road (or the airport) with your suitcase packed? Any thoughts on that?