Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
In the rush and excitement of arrival it is often too chaotic to bring all your senses to consciousness. It takes quite an effort, but it is effort well rewarded. Focusing on all the minute sights, smells, and sounds of a destination drags your mind out of its lazy comfort zone to a place of mystery, a place to be explored. And it keeps you too occupied to whine.
Our sense of smell is something to be celebrated. It keeps us from harm, is our direct gateway to events of our past, and introduces us to new people and places in a way that often escapes our other senses. Smell can be subtle, slowly imbedding itself into the unconscious stream of input flooding our brain, or it can be powerful, overwhelming, and obvious.
And it can be exploited. I once wrote an article for a children’s science magazine about smells that sell. As I began the research, I was astonished to learn that marketers work very hard at manipulating us through the nose. What that means to you as a traveler depends greatly upon where you are traveling and what you are experiencing. Walking through a market in Chinatown? Probably smells pretty authentic. That’s not necessarily the case in an urban shopping mall, a high end grocery store, or even a Las Vegas Casino. The key to avoiding the exploitation may be as simple as being aware of it.
Of course, you can always exploit your own sense of smell to enhance your travels. Try using aromatherapy products like lavender for sleeping on the plane or citrus for energizing you after that long car ride. There are a vast number of products out there you can use. Something as simple as buying a new cologne or shampoo for a trip not only makes the trip more enjoyable, but connects that fragrance with that place and time in your brain so that you can relive it long after the journey is over.
Got a pencil handy? Close your eyes and sniff both the writing end and the eraser. Where did it take you? Straight to first grade for me. I’ll bet that if you didn’t just pick up a pencil and sniff it, you can still find the smell somewhere in your brain and experience it almost as if you had it in your hand. If you’re like me you can even picture that hand crank sharpener bolted to the counter near the teacher’s desk because that’s where the smell was strongest. Smells like freshly sharpened pencils, crayons, or grass just cut are easily identifiable because we have smelled them repeatedly.
Honing your sense of smell so that you capture a memory with one brief whiff is a little harder, but it’s one of the best ways to expand your impression and memories of a place. Give your sense of smell a workout long before you leave home by consciously training yourself to breathe in and smell your surroundings. Start with the familiar by walking through the produce isle of the grocery store. That’s also the place you are least likely to appear crazy. Everybody sniffs the fruit, right? Can you distinguish between lemons and limes with your eyes closed? Smell the earthy aroma of potatoes. Does one variety smell different from another?
What about unpleasant aromas during your travels? You can’t avoid them, so embrace them as part of the experience. I’ve got to tell you that the street smell in Manhattan is not my favorite smell, but it’s what captures the essence of the city for me. It’s the smell of a frantic pace, tall buildings swallowing up the air, and strong people. I personally love the smell of outboard engine fumes. It’s the scent of adventure about to begin or recently completed. Train stations, zoos, seaports, and theaters all have their distinct aromas. Drink in the air around you; it may not be all roses and lavender, but the aromas life brings you are as much a part of your experiences as any other.
For many of us, the sense of taste is the one we indulge most when we travel. We have an almost primeval need to taste food from new places. We readily grow adventurous when it comes to tasting new things. But have you noticed that even ordinary food that we eat everyday somehow tastes better on vacation. Maybe it’s the extra time we take to prepare and enjoy food, maybe it’s the setting. Business travelers will tell you that they rarely get foodventurous. Finding tolerable food is often just another nuisance for them. So maybe the craving to sample the cuisine of a new locale is merely a state of mind.
Either kind of traveler can reach that state of mind with a little effort. It all goes back to consciously making the effort to capture the taste of a destination. I know sometimes it’s easier to eat at Chili’s or KFC. I’ve been there and done that. And really, you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you do it. Finding familiar food in an unfamiliar place can sometimes give you the sense of comfort you need for a brief time. But get your quick fix, then go left for your next meal.
If you aren’t overly fooddventurous, start learning about the food before you leave home. Go online and find a recipe you can try yourself. Start with just the spices. Smell them, getting comfortable with the aromas, then taste them on familiar things. The two things most likely to be unfamiliar to you when you travel are seasonings and cuts of meat. That boils down to taste and texture. If you can come to enjoy the tastes there’s usually a good chance that you can simply avoid the unfamiliar textures.
It may sound like I am talking only about travel to foreign countries, but sometimes just traveling across country puts you in contact with foods far different from your local fare. Barbecue sauce in Texas is VERY different from barbecue sauce in New Jersey. My rule for sauces of any kind in new places it to always order them on the side.
Ok, so you’ve gone left and are sitting in a café in Timbukto not knowing what to eat. Always try whatever bread they have to offer, even if you aren’t a bread connoisseur. Gary and I are admitted bread sluts. We crave it hot, crusty, and dripping with butter, but we’ll eat it fluffy or flat, corn, wheat, rye or pumpernickel. We’ll eat it baked, fried, or griddled. We’ll eat bread from any state in the union, in any country, and with whatever sauce they bring to the table (on the side, of course). I am deeply suspicious of any place that doesn’t serve bread of some sort. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It’s Biblical.
Got your bread. Now what? Either fill up on that and something vaguely familiar like rice, beans, salad, or chicken, or dive in with that bread and sop up whatever the waiter recommends. A word here about things tasting like chicken: they sometimes really do. Birds, reptiles, and amphibians share the same branch of the evolutionary tree so it stands to reason that they might be similar in taste and texture. If you like chicken, don’t be afraid to try frog legs, quail, partridge, rabbit, snake, or alligator.
Cruises are a safe way to expand your food horizons. There are foods that you aren’t likely to eat at home, but with the assurance that if you don’t like something your ever tip-conscious waiter will replace the escargot with a nice onion tart without ever so much as a frown. Our daughter Alyssa lept into the concept from her first cruise and now loves to try new foods. She first tried lamb and duck on a cruise. She is actually more foodventurous than either Gary or myself. She cooks an awesome venison stew and is always eager to try and share new meats.
If you are cursed with a totally unadventurous palate should you just stay home? Of course not. You can still be a happy traveler. Plan your trips so that you do some of the cooking yourself. More than once we have taken carefully wrapped, frozen tenderloin steaks and my special blend of seasonings to far flung destinations. Hey, we’re from Texas and can’t survive long without beef. Take with you what you must, eat at chain restaurants if it makes you happy, just remember to savor the uniqueness of the location. You might even find a few surprises on that Chili’s menu in Puerto Rico. Food really does taste better in distant places, even if it’s familiar food.
The textures that surround us are something we usually overlook when we explore new places. Unless it’s something astonishingly outside the norm you aren’t likely to take note of how something feels. That fact alone is what makes it important to reach out and touch things when you travel. It’s part of the exploration. I’m kind of a germaphobe. Ok, I’m a real germiphobe. I agree wholeheartedly with Donald Trump on the hand shaking thing. I may not be quick to touch people, but I do touch THINGS.
Children touch things; they explore surfaces and consistencies, rolling them around on tender fingertips. They savor textures as if they could taste them. They take comfort from touching soft things, or furry things, or even gooey things. And then some adult says, “Stop touching that!” and the spell is broken. Watch a child with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal and you’ll quickly see that part of their comfort comes from touch. They rub them on their faces, pick at the button eyes, dig their fingers deep into the softness.
One of the things we get asked by parents planning to stay at our resort is what there is for children to do. It’s a tough question because our answer never seems to satisfy busy parents used to entertainment that comes with rules, equipment, or battery chargers. They are always skeptical when I tell them that we took out our playground equipment because the kids were too busy playing with rocks, feathers, and tree limbs turned hiking sticks. We have peacocks that roam the resort so the most prized possession is a long tail feather, but there are also tiny crest feathers, striped wing feathers, and downy body feathers. Once feathers are gathered, kids spend hours walking around the resort rubbing them absently across their faces, arms, and necks, often to their mothers’ horror.
And then there’s the gravel. The resort roads are covered with a layer of pea gravel to control dust. Children of all ages can be seen playing in the gravel every weekend, either sifting through it with tiny fingers or skidding across it on sneakered-feet or speeding bikes. It’s a texture thing. Most of our guests are city people whose kids may very well be used to swing sets and brightly-colored plastic sand boxes, but feathers and gravel roads are a new adventure to be felt and fully explored.
Stopping to touch is just that: stopping. And that’s what makes it especially important when you travel. If you are like most people, your everyday life is probably too fast paced to allow such a luxury. It would slow us down if we touched everything to learn about its texture, so our brains compensate by using visual cues to tell us whether something is smooth or rough. We then think we have experienced the texture so we move on without really feeling. In the long run it’s an unsatisfying proposition. There’s no comfort in just thinking about a smooth security blanket.
Take your shoes off when you walk the beach. Run your fingertips over the letters carved into the glossy surface of the Viet Nam Memorial. Kneel down and dip your hand into the clear mountain stream. And then stop to feel that moss-covered rock while you’re there. Take your coat off and feel the temperature of South Dakota in early spring. Crumble a golden leaf in New England in the fall. Feel the sun on your skin, the dirt beneath your fingernails, and the sea salt in your hair.
I feel compelled to insert a small disclaimer here. There are things we really should not touch, either for our own safety, or for the preservation of the item in question. I don’t touch coral reefs, cave formations, animals without permission, elevator buttons, or restroom doorknobs. It’s sometimes a challenge to convince six year-old boys that they really cannot touch the peacocks themselves. Not only are they too fast, but the attempt leaves the birds feeling frightened and intimidated. Usually the offer of a feather solves the problem. The point is to touch, but to do so responsibly.