The case of the missing son
Trying to remain calm she explained to me that the only information she could garner from his credit card statement was that he recently made a booking on the HostelCulture website. For what exactly, she didn't know. I was able to determine that he had booked a Pub Crawl with us in Dublin for a few days later and explained to the anxious mother that I would endeavor to get a message to her son, via our accommodation partners, to make like E.T and phone home. Which I did. She was grateful for my willingness to help. And although it wasn't my place nor had I any right to, I made a point of reassuring her that her son was most likely having a wonderful time on the continent and that when traveling & meeting new people the days tend to melt into one another. Essentially, touching base with home can very often be put on the back-burner.
Two types of travellers
A few days later I actually met said missing son here in Dublin on the Pub Crawl and filled him in on the story which, needless to say, he found very amusing and he went on to tell me that he “was just having an awesome time”. In the end, it was a non-event but I had seen this all before so frequently in my days behind a hostel desk, phone calls from panicky parents who hadn't heard from their lone-traveling sons or daughters since breakfast and were fearing the worst. It's natural I suppose but this latest episode reminded me of the types of people who travel. I used to (over-simplistically, yes) break it down into two categories from my perch behind the hostel reception in recent years; those who should be traveling and those who shouldn't.
As far as I'm concerned this guy was doing it right, getting stuck in, enjoying his experiences and not worrying about things which weren't relevant to where he was and what he was doing at a given time versus the guy or gal who is tired, grumpy and done with living out of a backpack. Being the hostel desk guy, I regularly unwittingly served as the Frasier Crane of the travel-weary. A question like, "Where have you been till now?" often unleashed an exhausted rant, complaints of how everything is so expensive, how they're so happy to finally be somewhere where people speak English, how they miss their sofa and so on. These are the ones which made me ask myself, “Why is this person here? Why are they traveling at all?”.
The times they are a changin'
There were a good deal more people in the latter category than the former. A strange observation to be made in a backpacker hostel perhaps, but maybe not so surprising after all. Traveling is different now.
Travel is more affordable than ever, destinations are better equipped and structured for tourism today than before and disposable income among Millenials and the youth travel sector is likely higher than any generation before them so traveling to different destinations is very accessible and very easy compared to just 15 or so years ago for example. Where, in the not so distant past, travel was the pursuit of those suited to traveling; It demanded more of the traveler - more preparation, more research, more expense, more saving, more commitment. Today almost anybody can travel if they so desire. But that doesn't necessarily mean they should. I remember when someone from your family, community or circle of friends going to distant lands was kind of a big deal, there was a novelty and vicariousness to people embarking on an adventure.
Today it's not such a big deal for most; indeed the weekend trip to Budapest or time visiting Europe is almost taken for granted as a thing to do, if for nothing else than to at least add a certain colour to the self-portrait we paint for the voyeurs of our online canvases. There is an inherent danger that a complacency towards travel can take the real value from the travel experience. How much do we really engage with and embrace where we are? Do we simply just go through the motions on autopilot with a view to being able to tick the box when we get back home to our creature-comforts? Will we look back on the photo we took of The Spanish Steps with fondness or will it remain but an image lost among the many images in the cloud? Do we even remember taking that photo at all?
Mindfullness while travelling
To the many unfamiliar with it, mindfulness may carry connotations of some intangible concept and mantra peddled by that ever-growing, and highly lucrative, 'well-being / healthy body & mind' sector of the commercialisation of lifestyle. I, for one, was never interested in pursuing practices of Zen, Yoga, meditation or other facets of Buddhism for example. Contorting into shapes I'd only ever attempted on a Twister mat or sitting 'half-lotus' with my eyes closed, humming in a quiet, incense-shrouded room never really appealed to me but this was mostly because of my own misconceptions.
Recently I have begun practicing 'mindfulness' and quickly realised that, although a long-term commitment, even very simple practices for a few minutes in your day does a wealth of good for focus, uncluttering the mind and de-stressing but more than that it helps you to wake up to the 'right now', to ground yourself in the here and now and enjoy the colour and texture of the only real tactile element of existence. That is, this very moment. Mindfulness is simply about being in the present, not dwelling on the past or thinking anxiously about the future.
“When you are on a journey, it is certainly helpful to know where you are going - but remember: the only thing that is ultimately real about your journey is the step that you are taking at this moment. That's all there ever is.”
Tiddy Rowan – The little book of mindfullness
I'm by no means an expert on anything, especially not mindfulness and all that jazz but it's not something to be scared of. Here are just 4 examples of simple approaches and exercises you can do anywhere to help get you started on learning how to be in the present, be attentive to the things you normally would not notice and help you get the most from your travel experiences;
- Mindfulness is a form of meditation originating from Buddhist practices and a fundamental element is our attention to the physical sensations of breathing.
- Sit for 5 minutes; on a chair, on a floor, wherever. It doesn't matter as long as you are comfortable but not slouching. Sit with your back straight in an attentive position and simply pay attention to your breathing as you inhale, hold and exhale. Try to keep your focus on this simple exercise, don't worry about how long you've been there or whatever thoughts jump around your mind – observe them, let them flow away and bring your focus back to your breathing once again.
- Go for a walk; taking a walk is obviously very likely when in a new city or place but initially, it can be somewhat complicated by getting your bearings, determining street names, looking at your map from different angles and trying to not look like an easy target for the murderous gangs that no doubt hang out on the next corner. Try to not focus so much on these concerns - be open to getting lost down a curious cobbled side-street with charming cafés and who knows what else if your intuition is telling you to, in the knowledge that you will be 'unlost' when you choose to figure out where you are and where you are going.
- It's important to remember to really use our senses - sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to explore what is happening around us, take notice and tune into our experiences and the feelings arising from them.
Ok, so being mindful is a pursuit and not something you should expect to notice a vast life improvement because of over-night, but it is something which with the right mindset will help you to embrace the present and get more from your experiences. This will surely be especially rewarding when traveling in a new place & experiencing new things so why not explore the idea? There is lots of information and easy exercises available online and even just 5 minutes each day will enhance mental well-being and the skills to manage the everyday thoughts and feelings we have while, most importantly, making us more aware of ourselves and the now. So the next time you travel perhaps the experience won't be one done on autopilot or one which you don't really remember later - it may be the best travel experience you've had yet.