For me, travel is all about serendipity. Coconut shell drinks, museums, and dinners on sunset patios don't excite me much. Not that there's anything wrong with those things. They're all things I do on the road. But, for me, the real charm of travel lies in the way that it opens me up to new experiences. The spirit of adventure that I feel on the road, and the absurd situations I put myself in, are the things I love most about traveling.
I've noticed that when I travel I behave differently than at home because I'm searching for serendipity. Here are three things that you can do to improve your chances of pleasant surprises on the road and examples of the mini-adventures they've resulted in for me.
A lot of people take taxis when they travel because they're on vacation and want to relax. The problem with transportation is that it insulates you from your surroundings. Walking connects you with a place at ground level and increases your chances of stumbling upon a unique experience.
Once, while walking down the street with my girlfriend in Taiwan, a Taiwanese man ran out of a shop told us he saw a ghost following her. He was a traditional healer, and he took us to his shop where he exorcised the ghost through ritual chants and gesticulations (and all for free). It was one of the richest cultural experiences that I've ever had and had we taken a cab we would have missed out on it.
The unknown makes people uncomfortable so, when given an unusual offer, many people automatically refuse it. But, by making a conscious effort to say yes, we open ourselves to unexpected felicity.
Once, when eating breakfast at a small outdoor aboriginal restaurant in the mountains of Taiwan, the owner, a motherly woman, asked me if I wanted to try some, "san bei guan niu". I didn't know what that was, but I agreed. On her way back to the kitchen she picked up an enormous snail off the ground. Through the open door I watched her wash it, slice it, chop it, and fry it, and bring it to me, blackened, on a plate with garlic and wild onions. It was rubbery, salty, and absolutely delicious.
Of course, this strategy carries the risk of disappointment, such as that I experienced when, in Spain I, was served a bowl the cow stomach soup that looked, and tasted, like, well, a cow's stomach. But hey, that's part of the adventure, right?
It's good to put yourself in difficult situations once in a while. It's exciting, it builds confidence, and your experience is all the more memorable because you earned it. This strategy has resulted in my fondest travel memories.
Once, my girlfriend and I were on the island of Bohol in the Philippines. Flipping through our guidebook we discovered that we could swim with whale sharks on the next island over, Leyte. Unfortunately, the friend we were with had to leave two days later and I needed to visit a doctor on Cebu the next morning. There would be little time to travel to Leyte and back because the ferry was several hours away by bus. I quickly formulated a plan that, although allowing for little sleep, would have our friend back several hours before her bus departed for the airport. She declined and told us that we, and the plan, were crazy.
We left immediately and took a ferry to Cebu, where I saw the doctor first thing in the morning. Then we caught an overnight ferry to Leyte, which arrived at 4 am. With almost no sleep, we took a motorcycle taxi an hour down the road to the scuba resort from the guidebook. We slept on the beach in front of the resort until 7am, when we went to the resort's dive center. Did they have room? We were in luck; a couple had canceled their reservations. That afternoon we swam in a shimmering aqua-green inlet beside a whale shark the size of a Cadillac. When the boat returned to the resort we jumped in a motorcycle taxi back to the port, slept a few hours, and caught a ferry to Bohol at dawn. We arrived at noon and boarded the first bus back to the beach where our friend was preparing to leave. When we arrived she still had a few hours to spare, which was ample time for us to relish the look of regret on her face as we told her about our adventure.