The Trip to Nowhere

3929858184_b3a88c1a21_z (1)There are many good reasons to get on a plane or pack up the car. But travel writer Pico Iyer makes an ironic case for not. His The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is a tiny book I read in one sitting this weekend, and it gave me pause. Quite literally. It has cured me from an insidious malaise and a first-world problem I’ve been guilty of—vacation envy.

Iyer’s point is that we can all build stillness and pauses into our lives right where we are, and these small retreats can perhaps fuel us, stimulate us, and satisfy us even more than travel. If you find it hard to meditate or to sit alone for a long while and just think, maybe a trip isn’t going to clear your mind the way you hope it will.

I’ve noticed that sometimes what comes under the guise of an adventure or vacation, is more about running away from life—from the stress, the busyness, the seemingly unsolvable problems—than seeing the destination. No matter how far you go or how often you take these trips, you always come back. To you. And your crazy life.

In our culture of achievement, too, travel can be a compulsion of more. It becomes a hunger to just go, go, go: I’ve never been to fill-in-the-blank. We need to use up our frequent flyer miles before they expire. Time to check off some places on the bucket list. There’s that cruise that’s such a great deal.

A number of years ago I got worked into a frenzy, thinking my husband and I were running out of time to show our kids the world. I plotted out the trips we needed to take and how we could fit them in, between work (parents’ and kids’), school and budget. Then I realized there would never be enough time to show them everything I wanted to. There could always be regret that we didn’t do that trip. Or that one. So, a few well-chosen journeys would have to do. Take a breath. Enjoy the days at home. Help them explore their inner worlds. That, I hope, will serve them at least as well as a European grand tour or a Disney cruise.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with travel, and I’m sure Mr. Iyer would agree. But I was glad to be reminded by him that the journey within is where the real adventure begins. If only we take the time to stop going places and sit still.

Photo: Flickr/Marius Waldal

Dining Alone: Getting Past the Discomfort

4091977889_b668d78072_zHere’s a picture I never thought I’d see: me, alone, at a nice restaurant, happy. By this I mean really alone. Without a book or device.

Dining alone is almost a sport for me because of the challenge it presents. As a major introvert, I can assure you that when I walk into a restaurant without reading material and with a commitment not to pull out my phone, I feel uncomfortable. While I’ll admit to the novice tactic of choosing a bar within a restaurant if possible, I’m beginning to get the hang of it. It’s easy to chat with the bartender. And s/he’s always doing a little something you can watch. Plus, you’re in good company with a few other lone souls, shoulder-to-shoulder–no eye contact required.

The initial discomfort pays off, I’ve found, with some stimulating conversation and being slowed down enough to really enjoy a lovely meal.

I wrote about this more extensively, with some tips, last week at TravelSkills.com. Check it out.

For now, my solo-dining expeditions occur when I travel. Who knows, though, maybe at some point I’ll try it when I’m not away from home and it’s totally optional.

How do you feel about dining alone? Do you go for it, or avoid it?

P.S. To be clear, that is not me in the photo above. No selfie sticks allowed at dinner for one.

Photo: Flickr/Alpha

Private Space: Travel’s New Guilty Pleasure?

The "coffin" seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

The “coffin” seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

I slept with a man who wasn’t my husband. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, I’ll add that it was on an international flight and we never touched.

Am I the only one who feels a little exposed when I’ve had a lovely, prolonged chat with my seatmate for the first couple of hours on a flight in business class, then stretch out to sleep a few inches from him? While I do enjoy the opportunity for conversation, I much prefer what my friend calls the coffin, a walled seat in a herringbone configuration, where I cannot view more than a fellow passenger’s feet.

It’s said that time is the new luxury (a thought I agree with). But now, move over time, you have company: Private space is a luxury, too. This is according to Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board, Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, who said during his CES keynote last week: “Quality time and private space will be the true luxury items of the future.” These two commodities wouldn’t be considered luxuries unless they were in short supply.

Nowhere is private space more rare–and coveted–than in air travel. Certainly, economy passengers have no refuge from the masses (except perhaps a moment in the lav). And while the landscape is better for premium passengers, finding pockets of privacy for these travelers can take some effort, too. And often, some funds.

For me, one of the most important aspects of private space is the option for quiet–of not hearing someone else and of not being being heard. I don’t care to listen to others’ cell phone conversations, nor do I wish others to eavesdrop on mine. Uninvited phone conversations floating through the air are like pollution, and airport gates are heavily polluted.

Lounges, while offering the promise of private space, are often crowded and don’t live up to that promise.  A friend of mine once discussed her new job on a cell phone in an airport lounge. When she hung up, a gentleman several chairs away introduced himself and said he was the one she had replaced. Ouch.

Gradually, privacy has been taken away from us, a reality as uncomfortable as sleep deprivation. And when we travel, we experience both!

You’re the only one who knows when and for how long you need private space. But it’s nice to have the option, and the more private space options that can be built into travel, the better.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to be an extrovert and never care about this. But I do. Nothing against you, fellow passenger, but sometimes I just need a little time to myself.

My Moment of Regret in Chengdu

6820126149_17b6fc745c_zI stood at my 38th floor hotel room window, looking out on the very bright lights of Chengdu’s high-rises. “I should go out,” I thought. “But it’s raining. And I need a little time to myself.” So I closed the drapes and opened my computer. I’m not proud of that moment, but it was at the intersection of idealism and reality. So I would spend the free hour in my hotel room.

I’m just back from a trip to Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China, and I have a little regret about that moment. Yes, I did see the sights of the city over the course of four days. And there were other moments when I did explore on my own. But that particular fulcrum of decision-making got me to thinking that when you travel for business to an unfamiliar and somewhat intimidating city, the inclination may be not to explore. After all, you probably already accomplished what you went there for—the business. You’re exhausted. And you’re alone. Not the best of conditions for striking out on an adventure.

Since then, I’ve thought about a few tactics I’m going to try on my next trip:

1. Take a humble walk. It doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. One night in Chengdu, the group I was with was bused a short distance to another hotel for an event. After the dinner, someone suggested we walk back to our hotel instead of waiting for the bus. As we did, we meandered through a large but informal group of Chinese doing aerobics together in a stadium parking lot. This turned out to be one of my favorite Chengdu memories. A colleague on the trip said you’re most impressionable on the first night in a place, so it’s especially important to walk then.

2. Overcome tour shame. There was a time I was too proud to take a tour, but I no longer let that stop me. It’s the fastest way to become acquainted with the high points of a city. And it’s easy and nonthreatening—no worrying about logistics or language, no decision-making. You can just concentrate on seeing, really seeing, the city. The same concept but on a smaller scale: Your concierge can help you hire a guide for a day. In Hong Kong, when my guide and I decided to stop for coffee, he asked whether I’d prefer Starbucks or Chinese. The answer was obvious, and I was the only foreigner in the place as we drank coffee and Fred ate a fried egg sandwich.

3. Open up your rolodex. (Or, to update the phrase: Search your contacts.) If you have any local connections, they would probably be very happy to recommend an authentic restaurant and maybe even share the meal with you. It’s one of the few ways you will find restaurants locals frequent. Plan B for this concept is to consult the hotel concierge, who may be able to make an off-the-beaten-path recommendation. In Chengdu I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, and the hotel’s general manager, Chris Clark, described two situations in which his employees went above-and-beyond. It struck me that both stories (which were impressive!) involved guests who felt nervous about venturing out, and the employees accompanied them.

Hearing of such reticence (even from Chinese guests), reassured me that my regrettable moment at the window was natural. But I’m committed to low-key but more adventurous exploration on my next visit to China.

Do you explore intimidating cities when you’re traveling for business, or do you tend to stick close to your hotel? If you’re an explorer, I’d love to hear your tips for getting out there.

(Photo: Flickr/Glenn Jystad)

The Stranger in the Next Seat: Rock-Star or Bore?

80531426_4f2b17ed88_oLast week I sat in the San Francisco Chinese consulate office amid a large crowd, and I did something unusual. I asked the man next to me a question. Serendipity struck: He was a United Airlines flight attendant and I was there on United business, too, for an upcoming trip. For the next hour we chatted, and I learned more interesting information in that hour about a flight attendant’s life and his airline than I had in the previous year. Before I knew it, my number was called and I headed to Window #8 to apply for my visa.

This led me to wonder how many opportunities I may have missed with extraordinary strangers sitting right next to me. Nowhere could that be more true than in travel.

As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself. My conversation is often with a book, not the person in the aisle seat. But I’m surprised at how often a random conversation can turn into something extremely useful. On a recent trip, I met the most interesting seatmate ever, and he gave me invaluable tips on how my son could craft an engineering degree that would jumpstart a career. Didn’t expect that when I boarded.

My seatmate strategy is to notice clues that we may have something in common (e.g. reading material), signs the person may be open to conversation (body language), and that he/she has some social acumen (will be able to pick up signals when it’s time to stop talking). It’s good to have a couple of openers at the ready (the classic: Are you starting a trip or coming home?), as well as a closer (Well, I need to get some work done). The key is to maximize the chance of talking with a rock-star, and minimize the risk of talking with a total bore.

So I’m interested in being a little more social on the road. How about you? Do you talk to seatmates when you travel? And if so, what strategies do you use to keep it “safe”?

Photo Credit: Flickr/Doug