January 10, 2011

Ditch the camera and guidebook: Travel in the Now. ~ Chloe Chatenever

A few years ago, while studying abroad in Germany, I took a weekend trip to Paris with a friend. During the weeks prior to our departure, we poured over our guidebooks and polled our friends for suggestions of what we should be sure to see while we were there. We were only going to have 48 hours in Paris and we wanted to make the most of them.

Ear-marked guidebooks in hand, we stepped off of our plane ready to have the weekend of a lifetime.

We ended up spending 48 of the most miserable hours of our lives in the City of Lights.

We spent the entire weekend trudging from one tourist-crowded sight to another (but never wasting too much time at any of them, as we had a schedule to keep!). Still tired from our early flight, we dragged our feet across the picturesque Pont Neuf, bee-lined our way through the verdant Jardin des Tuileries, stumbled through the grand Arc du Triomphe, shuffled through the Notre Dame Cathedral, huffed and puffed our way to the top of Sacre-Coeur, hurried through the Jardin du Luxembourg, marched past the glass pyramid at the Louvre, and sped through the exhibits at the Musee D’Orsay, snapping pictures all the while.

It felt like we did and saw almost everything there was to see in Paris, but instead of the excitement and awed appreciation that we had anticipated feeling as we walked through the city, we simply felt exhausted. Beleaguered. Overtaxed. Enervated.

By the final hours of our last night in town, we found ourselves sprawled on a patch of lawn under the Eiffel Tower. We still had a couple of stops left on our agenda for the day, but we decided to scrap the remainder of our itinerary in favor of lounging on the grass for a while longer. We pulled out the bottle of wine we had picked up earlier, and the baguette and cheese we had scrounged up in a local grocery store and watched the tower begin to glitter as the sun went down.

We later agreed that the hour that we spent just sitting and watching the tower lights instead of sticking to our carefully-crafted itinerary was our happiest in Paris.

Now that our fateful weekend is far behind us, my friend and I can’t help but laugh at how terrible our weekend in Paris was, but those two days taught me a valuable lesson: working my way through a list in a guidebook and filling my camera’s memory card with photos doesn’t make me a successful traveler.

During the rest of my semester abroad, I made a point of heading out for adventures every now and then without my guidebook and camera. I found that when I did, I was forced to strike up conversations with locals in order to ask for directions, and pay attention to the streets and buildings around me that I would otherwise have completely ignored. I was meeting people and discovering places that I never would have encountered if I had adhered to my former travel-by-checklist system. But the most rewarding part of these outings was the sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that I felt when I realized that I could successfully negotiate and get to know these unfamiliar places without relying on books and lists. And this discovery led me to change the way that I think about travel.

I think every person has his or her own reason for venturing outside of the little part of the world that they call home in order to explore the rest of the globe. Now, I travel because I find that every time I pack my bags and step outside of my comfort zone, I get to know myself a little bit better.  By removing myself from the creature comforts that normally surround me (a familiar language, a culture that I am accustomed to, the network of supportive family and friends I’ve nestled into), I create an opportunity to truly put my mettle to the test.  Stepping across national and cultural barriers armed only with my own fortitude and intuition is scary. But it’s also empowering.

Chloe Chatenever lives in Boulder, CO where she is interning with elephantjournal.com and Sweet Letter Press. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz where she earned her Bachelor’s in Modern Literary Studies. She likes to spend her free time traveling, singing in her car, and playing board games. She also thinks penguins are pretty cool.

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