The Best Things In Life Are For Sale

All this can be yours!
All this can be yours!

For Sale: Priceless memories for right-minded person. Must be willing to travel, try new things, and be ready to see what comes around the bend. Sharing with family or partner is preferred. The ideal buyer would have a sense of adventure, love for nature, and appreciation of culture and history. Price is negotiable but will always have a greater value than what you paid for it.

 

In essence, the above is what travel agents (& consultants like myself) sell: experiences. That’s our real product. It’s not a tangible thing like an heirloom that can be handed down from generation to generation, but its value is certainly on par. And the opportunities, stories and curiosity those experiences may inspire have far-greater potential to change a life than a dusty old brooch.

 

From personal experience I can say that selling something that cannot be seen can be a real challenge. Web sites and brochures can only do so much to impart to the client that those pictures and those places will become part of their life history. An agent’s job isn’t just to book flights and reserve hotel rooms. To make the clients truly happy, they need to convey what’s really for sale: wistful memories that will pop into your head every third Tuesday, crowd-pleasing stories to share at dinner parties, poignant moments that will mark your life’s path, chance encounters that lead to lifelong friendships, and newly-opened doorways to worlds you’ve yet to experience. When presented in those terms, irregardless of the price tag, any trip can look like a steal.

 

My portrait in front of the Great Wall of China--many years before the invention of selfies.
My portrait in front of the Great Wall of China–many years before the invention of selfies.

That is why I’ve chosen to focus my business interests on destination expertise. Any agent with a phone or internet connection can book a trip. Only those whose passion is travel can really sell one. And what gets people excited? It’s knowing that they too will have pictures of that far-off place that you showed them on your iPhone. It’s them imagining themselves taking a selfie in front of the Pyramids, Taj Mahal, or Great Wall of China. It’s helping them to envision the stories they will tell about how close the elephant was while they were on safari in Zimbabwe, or how colorful the fish were when they snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef. This is what travel is all about; hotels, airlines, cruise ships–that’s just details.

 

This is not to say that how you get there and where you stay doesn’t matter. On the contrary, such ‘details’ can profoundly affect the quality of ‘good’ memories, etc on a trip. But regardless of whether you are the seller or buyer always remember what the real product is—experiences. At the end of the day—and extending a bit further—our days (yeah, like until death), what we’ll value most isn’t what we have, but rather what we’ve done. It’s up to us to direct our resources into what counts. Travel is unique in that even though it costs money, you always come home richer. So if you’re in the market for some travel memories of lasting value, I just happen to know a guy…;)

 

To all you real or would-be travelers out there, is this something you agree with? Share your thoughts with the rest of us.

Karaoke Through the Andes: An Anecdote of the Fun Side of Unpredictability

(Really) backstage before my "performance". Ollantaytambo, Peru
(Really) backstage before my “performance”. Ollantaytambo, Peru

Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. Traveling is the best vehicle I know to generate scenarios that are 100% unscripted. Some may shudder at the wanton unpredictability of various elements combining to create circumstances that border on the absurd or beyond, but not me. I find those random occasions where you find yourself in a place you’d never imagined, with people you’ve never met, doing something you ordinarily would not do, some of the most delicious morsels of a traveling experience—which often make the best stories as well.

Building on my self-proclaimed ‘travel philosophy’, this entry focuses on the unexpected fun and laughs that could be had on a journey even for those who aren’t opportunistic by nature. The key lies in 1) recognizing the opportunity when it presents itself, and 2) grabbing hold of it with both hands so that the experience doesn’t pass you by. My own favorite anecdote illustrating these two factors took place in February of 2010, high up in the Peruvian Andes. The story goes like this:

Due to some serious health troubles my father discovered only when we landed in the high-altitude city of Cuzco, my stay there in that enchanting city was understandably a bit distracted. (See my post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & the Sacred Valley for more details). Once his situation was under control, the only option available was to wait for him to recuperate sufficiently for a flight back down to sea level. At his insistence—on our last day there—I left his bedside and was rushed to a waiting bus on the outskirts of town to tour the Sacred Valley—a portion of the tour I’d had to skip earlier for obvious reasons. I remember the curious stares as I exited the taxi and boarded the waiting coach, making my way all the way to the back row. It was then that the guide continued her spiel in Spanish, and I realized that there wasn’t going to be any English on this trip. It turns out that my fellow bus-mates were mildly well-to-do tourists from a sizable sampling of South American nations, and I was the lone gringo.

If this were the U.S. and I was on a city bus in Queens, perhaps I’d feel uncomfortable being so far out of my element. But here, amidst this coalition of good-natured Latinos, the unpredictability factor first revealed itself, and instead of being an outcast, this group of strangers—even amongst themselves—went out of their way to include me in the most interactive bus ride I’d ever been on.

Starting with our stop at Chinchero, continuing on into our so-so lunch at Urubamba, vigorous walk up the ruins of Ollantaytambo, and final stop in Pisac, I found myself in the midst of a gaggle of genuinely friendly—and fun—people who disposed with the standoffishness so common in tour groups in North America & Europe. People who embraced everyone & everything with unflappable enthusiasm as part of the experience. Sufficiently disarmed, I was then primed for what happened next.

On what was going to be a two hour ride back to Cuzco, the guide got on her microphone at the front of the bus and playfully chided some tour members who were a little late returning on board with the ‘punishment’ of having to come up front and sing a song from their home country. As a lifelong New York resident, I could not conceive of a scenario in my hometown—or homeland—where such a request would fly, let alone be accepted. But then that unpredictability factor struck again. Not only did the latecomers belt out their favorite tunes, but the rest of the passengers couldn’t wait for their chance to perform, as if it were auditions for Peruvian Idol. As an added bonus, their fellow passengers were an enthusiastic audience, clapping, cheering and singing along—except for me, since I was limited to only clapping and cheering due to my ignorance of the Latino Top 40. This was fine with me. I was having a blast and at the same time managing to stay out of the spotlight—until about the 45 minute mark.

Thanks to some ‘friends’ sitting next to me, it was pointed out—quite emphatically I might add—that I had yet to perform for the group. This provoked a deafening chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” While I wouldn’t consider myself a patriot, I did feel a sense of obligation to represent my birth nation, and certainly didn’t want to do anything to undermine American diplomacy in Latin America. So as the chants reached a crescendo I made my way up the aisle to applause and a sea of smiling faces brimming with anticipation.

In my simple yet passable Spanish, I explained the obvious: I was a gringo and I didn’t know any Latin songs. As an alternative, I was going to sing a song from my city—Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The crowd hushed as a readied myself, hearing only the drone of the tires and the creak of luggage swaying in the overhead bins. Stealing a glance out of the windows at the deep green of the majestic Andes passing by, I could not help but take a mental snapshot of the absurdity of my situation—and just how much fun it was to find myself in it. I just couldn’t make this up and I was absolutely thrilled. With a burst of renewed enthusiasm, I held up the microphone.

“Start spreading the neeewwws. I’m leaving todaaayyy,” I crooned.

I should add that right from the get-go my adoring audience was swaying in unison and singing along the best they could. I continued warbling as we rounded one hairpin turn after another, and with each passing kilometer my confidence grew until I was fully ensconced in the moment, wailing out the words at the top of my lungs while my fans kept up an a capella rendering of the brass instrumentals (daht daht dah-dah-dah, daht daht dah-dah-dah). Upon my rousing conclusion—holding that last note until I couldn’t breathe in the already thin air—I shouted out in my best British Rock Star accent, “Thank you, Peru! G’night!” and basked in the unabashed adulation all the way back to my seat in the rear of the bus. And as my fellow bus-mates continued singing for the remaining 1.25 hours (including a hysterical, accent-laden rendering of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part II) I laughed inwardly, delighting at how never in a million years would I ever have thought I’d be party to such a scene and marveling at how such unscripted occasions are truly what makes life worth living.

So my advice is: While traveling—whether in your home country, a far-off land, or even the back roads of Peru—keep an eye out for the unpredicted opportunities that could possibly be that story you’ll tell for the rest of your days. It just might be the experience you never thought you were waiting for.

Do you have a story of the unexpected delights that unfold while traveling? Share them with all of us by leaving a comment!

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Maximization & Other Made-Up Travel Philosophies

In my previous post If You’re Going To India, Turn Right At Finland, I mentioned the concept of ‘maximization’—a self-invented term of travel philosophy—when discussing the art of the stopover. I will now elaborate further on that concept and how it applies to planning travel. Just a word of caution: I WILL be using some made-up words. English language purists beware!

 

While one can certainly maximize their vacation by means of a well-placed stopover, my maximization philosophy encompasses a wider scope. In a nutshell, it posits: While you’re in the area, see as much of it as you can. That may sound so simplistic as to hardly count as a philosophy at all, but there’s actually a lot more to it than that.

 

Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue, Seychelles
Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Take as an example a trip I took in early 2009 to South Africa. This country is richly blessed in natural beauty and attractions, and could have easily filled the entire two weeks I had at my disposal. But—and here’s where the maximization philosophy comes in—while we were in the relativish area (yes, that’s a made-up term, in this case indicating a radius of a thousand miles) I opted out of a full two weeks in South Africa, and spent one of them in the idyllic Seychelles Islands. The benefits are two-fold. For starters, this gave us great variety in our vacation activities, allowing us to go from a safari in the bush to some gorgeous tropical beaches—the ultimate surf and turf if you will. We also saved ourselves another 16 hour flight to return to the ‘neighborhood’ of the western Indian Ocean, not to mention the cost of another set of airline tickets. In doing so, we mostified (got the most out of) the fact that we were already going to be within relativish striking distance.

 

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Another example would be in 2007, where we took advantage of an open jaw ticket. As the name would suggest, this is when you fly into one city but leave from another. Arriving in Istanbul, Turkey, we saw some of Turkey’s amazing attractions (See the post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia) before taking an overnight train to Greece, and then renting a car to explore all the way down to Athens, before hopping on a plane to finish up in Rome. Again whilst (I know it’s not a made-up word but Americans never use it) in the relativish area, why not take in not one but three former seats of empires?

 

So how can you go about maximizing your next travel plans? You can hire a competent travel professional such as myself to do it for you at a reasonable price (Pardon the blatanistic [i.e. shamelessly self-serving] plug for my Trip Accomplice travel service) or you can get out a map and see what else is in the general area you’re seeking to visit. With a little thought, some imagination, and a handful of guts, you can take your plainified, humdrumicated itinerary and turn it into an awesomotic, fantabulous maximized adventure. Just be sure to turn off spell-check.

Introduction To Travel Philosophy

When it comes to travel, clichés abound. I’m not going to repeat them here, but suffice to say they all have one thing in common: they reflect their originator’s travel philosophy. What I mean by the term travel philosophy is the mindset, or attitude of the traveler—an abstract, ethereal concept that is far deeper than the act of simply moving from one place to another.  A business person may travel around the globe, visiting city after city, but that has very little to do with a mindset. They travel because they have to, and the act, while necessary, is no more remarkable than your average commuter that day in and day out travels to a city that they never get to enjoy. Yes, what I ‘m speaking of is the deliberate act of traveling to acquire an experience: seeing new things with one’s own eyes and gaining the subtle nuances of firsthand exposure that cannot be successfully transmitted by any form of description.

It is with this definition in mind that I introduce the subject here on my blog. I do so because without establishing the WHY, the WHERE and HOW are diminished, and essentially without context. So here is a few basic tenets of my own travel philosophy, and perhaps they just might coincide with some of yours.

1) Travel To Experience Something New

Driving on the left, from the right side of the car
Driving on the left, from the right side of the car

If I wanted everything to be just as it is at home, I would never have left. Travel exposes a person to different ways of doing things—some better, some not—but nine times out of ten it simply comes down to being different. Whether driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand & South Africa, taking a nap in the middle of the day in rural parts of the Mediterranean, or the traffic free-for-all of India, these variations on a theme (namely: what you’re used to) enrich a person’s life for the better—if only to help one appreciate what they have.

2) People Are People

Disembarking along the Yangtze
Disembarking along the Yangtze

On a Yangtze River cruise I was introduced to this important fact. Our tour group was taken to a school in Wanzhou, China where children were instructed in Chinese acrobatics. While being seated for the performance, my father and I were separated from our group and sat down among the local farmers. As these kids flipped, twirled and balanced enormous vases on their noses, what struck me the most was the reaction of the audience. We all gasped at the same parts. We all expressed sounds of admiration at impressive feats. We all laughed and applauded at the same things. That’s when it truly struck me on a level that I’ve always known but never clearly saw until that moment. We are all the same. We all want the same things. We all have the same hopes and fears. (Don’t worry, I won’t break out into “It’s A Small World”). There is no reason to hate people of other races or nationalities because people are people—even if they’re in China.

3) Sense of Place

The Loud & Traffic-filled streets of India
The Loud & Traffic-filled streets of India

To me, it’s not just being able to have another stamp in my passport and add another pin to my wall map that inspires me to travel (though I do enjoy those things). For me it is being able to comprehend what a given location is like—or sense of place—that brings me great satisfaction. As a kid I used to watch Met games in my parents’ bedroom and spin my dad’s globe to see where my finger would land. Not only did I learn a good deal about geography, but it also led me to wonder what these places with such exotic-sounding names were really like. Once I became of age to travel about the globe freely, I took great pleasure in transforming these names on a map to a real image in my head. I no longer see them as just labels with vague images to go along with them.

I no longer see: ‘Italy’, but I relive the musty smell that permeates the old buildings. I smell the fresh basil in the terraced gardens. I feel the pebbles under my feet as I stand knee-deep in clear water. Similarly, I can no longer see a map of India without hearing the incessant beeping of horns, smell the smoky smell that is everywhere and the resulting haze that makes all structures on the horizon appear as if seen through gauze. That’s a sense of place, and that’s what I am always looking for.

In summary, these are just a few of my basic philosophies as to why I travel. I will add more in the times to come. But for now I’d love to hear your own thoughts on what moves you to travel—not just move from one place to another. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.