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Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel

travel-philosophy
Image by Kurlvink

We all travel with expectations that may or may not be met when our imagination of a place meets the reality of actually being there. Traveling in Pakistan one week and Brunei the next, for example, I found my expectations upended.

Before going to both places, I expected that Karachi (Pakistan) would be a fairly rough place. The plan was to lie low for a couple of days, visit the market and mosque, maybe talk with a few people – nothing major. I do get tired fairly often while traveling, especially when I’m going between continents and to hot climates my body isn’t used to.

I figured I would “tough it out” in Pakistan and be rewarded with a few days in Brunei, a sleepy, oil-rich sultanate. Brunei was to be my last real stop on this trip before heading back to the States via Singapore and Tokyo.

If you expect to learn that my imagination did not match up to reality, you’re right: I greatly enjoyed my time in Karachi and found it quite relaxing (in an odd way), and I struggled with my weekend stay in Brunei.

Here’s why:

Getting to Pakistan was quite an adventure, mostly because I was unable to obtain a visa in advance, and they do not (usually) offer any visas upon arrival. That one was a real drama for a while, but after it was resolved, everything was smooth sailing. I could afford to eat whatever I wanted there, public transport was easy and cheap, I had good wi-fi access, and importantly, I felt completely safe for the whole visit.

After I went to Pakistan, I took off for Brunei, a small Islamic sultanate located on Borneo in Southeast Asia. Here’s a map, since not everyone knows where that is:

Map of Brunei in Borneo (Southeast Asia)

Part of the reason that Westerners don’t know much about Brunei is because it’s a small country. Another part of the reason is because, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot to do there for the average visitor.

During my weekend there, I naturally went walking, and naturally spent a morning at the local coffee shop. Picking up the local newspaper, this was the main story:

Imams Urge Decent Behavior: “Social ills and negative elements like intoxicating drinks, wearing indecent clothing, smoking and so on which are against the religion and culture [and] can be shielded by a knowledge of the religion,” imams said Friday.

A few other short headlines:

  • Prize Presentation for 10-Pin Bowling Competition
  • Police Recruits to Uphold Discipline
  • Racers All Set for Brunei Go-Kart Challenge
  • Fun Quizzes and Poetry Recitals to Be Held at Convention Center

(I thought some of those could probably come straight from The Onion… but this was actually a real newspaper. It gives you an accurate reflection of how sleepy Brunei is.)

The coffee shop featured a free magazine rack, but when I looked more closely, I discovered a McCall’s magazine from October 1999. Seriously, 1999 – nine years ago. I don’t always expect the latest Economist, but nine years is a long time in the life of a magazine.

Because of the country's vast oil wealth, Brunei is also pretty expensive. I quickly discovered I couldn’t afford much of anything, including food anywhere other than the coffee shop. By contrast, in Pakistan I could pay for breakfast – or any meal I wanted – in the nice hotel.

Before we go any further, I should provide the Obligatory Disclaimer: I’m not saying Brunei’s a bad place; I’m just saying that other than the entertaining newspapers, it didn’t really have anything that was appealing to me. If you live there or have visited and have a different impression, that’s great.

Your Mileage May Vary

None of my friends travel the way I do – and almost none of them travel the same way as anyone else. We all have different styles of travel, different things we enjoy, and different goals for our trips.

I’m pretty open-minded about all of this. There’s just one thing I don’t like to hear:

“You’re doing it wrong.”

That one bothers me. My view is that as long as your actions don’t hurt someone else (the basic “do no harm” principle), then it is up to you to figure out what you enjoy and appreciate about travel.

If someone tells you, “You’re doing it wrong,” you don’t have to listen to them. Maybe they’re doing it wrong, or more likely, they have not yet learned that people can do things differently without being wrong.

For example:

The people at Indie Travel Podcast are all about, well, independent travel. Their audience is mostly students (U.S., Canada, and U.K. primarily) and younger, adventure travel types.

I also read First Class Flyer every month to learn about strategies for upgrades and premium flights. Matt, the publisher, has a completely different audience than your average casual traveler.

There are people on FlyerTalk who fly all over the world and never leave the airport – they just enjoy flying. I like flying too, but not that much – I do like to get out and about for a while before getting on another plane.

These are just a few ends of the spectrum -- if you think about it, you can probably think of lots of other ways to travel.

What Is Culture?

For a while, I felt guilty if I went to a new place and didn’t “experience local culture” according to the way some people think you should.

I remember when I went to Tunisia in the late spring. Thanks to a friend’s help, I was able to spend a whole weekend with a host family. One of the highlights, believe it or not, was going to the grocery store on Sunday morning with them.

Some people might feel it is more important to visit the historical sites of Tunisia (there are many) rather than hang out at the grocery store, and they usually use the culture word to make their case. I enjoyed seeing a few of the sites, but I enjoyed my time with my host family even more.

To people who wonder about this, I ask, "What do you think people who live in Tunisia do all the time?" Well, among other things, they go to the grocery store. They watch TV. They live their lives.

Creating a philosophy of travel that works for you goes back to the two questions I wrote about a while back –

  • What do you really want?
  • What can you give?

Your individual answers to these questions can affect what you enjoy about travel, and if you spend some time on it, you can develop your own travel philosophy that is unique to you.

A Little of Everything

As for me, I kind of like to do it all. I’ve flown in Virgin Atlantic’s amazing Upper Class cabin and stayed in countless $10-a-night hostels. Using my Starwood points, sometimes I’ve been fortunate to stay in great hotels that otherwise cost hundreds of dollars a night… and then I check out after a day or two to move across town to a cheap guesthouse. I know most people would probably stay more at one end or another, but for me, I’m comfortable with both.

When I went down to El Salvador on the first part of my trip this week, I enjoyed the ironic fact that the taxi from the airport ($25) cost more than my room at the Hotel Happy House ($23). And by the way, there wasn’t a whole lot happening at the Hotel Happy House, but it had a nice vibe. If you head that direction, it’s not a bad place to stay for a couple of days.

Oh, and earlier this week, I slept on the floor of the Dallas airport. At least I tried to sleep for a few hours in between landing close to midnight and boarding the next flight at 5:30 a.m. It was pretty much as you’d expect – not a great experience, but it’s over now. No big deal.

The point is, I like mixing it up. That’s my style.

I stay in most places longer than the average jet-setter, but shorter than the average backpacker. Over the past few months, I’ve made some adjustments in my preferred travel style to allow me to visit more countries, especially the difficult ones like Iraq, Mongolia, and Pakistan.

I think of this as more of a lifestyle design issue – the goal of visiting every country is really important to me, so I've chosen to focus on it and occasionally push myself harder than I’d otherwise prefer.

Now I’m off to the Middle East and Persian Gulf again. I’ll be in Cairo most of next week, and I just realized that Ramadan is currently being observed. I’ve been in the region several times, but never during Ramadan... so I'm excited to experience it firsthand.

But anyway, that’s me…

The point is, I am resistant to people who try to put an agenda on the way other people live their lives, including their own preferences or styles of travel.

And really, life is short, right? Rather than do it someone else’s way, isn’t it better to figure out what matters to you and then pursue that goal?

What do you think -- and how do you like to travel?

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Swimming from Regrets


Image by NTMatt

The other day I was walking around the neighborhood and suddenly realized I had a big regret: for nearly two years, I had the chance to learn how to swim, and I kept putting it off. Now, my chance was gone, and I wished I could get it back.

Technically, I know how to swim. If you threw me in the water, I wouldn’t drown. I just mean that I’m a terrible lap swimmer. To recover from running injuries, I’ve sometimes added a weekly swim to my workout routine, but I’ve never enjoyed it. I’ve always known that a big part of my lack of enthusiasm comes from lack of knowledge, but I’ve never done anything about it.

Every academic quarter for the past two years, I thought about signing up for an intermediate swimming class, where I’d finally learn to breath better and correct a lot of my improvised (read: flawed) technique. But every quarter, something always came up.

A couple of times there was a schedule conflict. Once, the class filled up too quickly. Sometimes I didn’t realize when the deadline was, and by the time I thought of it again, it was too late. All good reasons (well, except for forgetting about it), but I believe that we make time for what’s important to us.

If it was important to me to become a better swimmer, I could have found a way to take the class.

But now, it’s too late. I’ve finished my graduate program and no longer have access to the nice university classes and the awesome student athletic center. I do pushups at home and run outside at least four times a week, so I’m keeping fit… but there’s no other Olympic-sized pool and amazing gym nearby.

It’s kind of sad. One of my most important values is to live life with no regrets, and while walking around my neighborhood the other day, I realized I had let one slip past me. I had let myself down; I saw it clearly this week, but I missed it when it counted.

***

I’m making a 5-minute internet movie that I’ll share with you when it’s done, but for now, the theme has to do with Time and Money. Another thing I believe is that in most cases, with most regrets we have, there is still enough time to do something about it.

We can’t change the past, and we might not be able to do exactly what we should have done a long time ago – I probably can’t take the University of Washington class, since I’m not a student anymore – but there’s often an alternative.

Sitting down on the curb outside my apartment, I composed this list of alternatives for my own situation:

  • There are two community pools within three miles of my apartment. They might not be awesome, but since I’m basically learning how to really swim for the first time, it shouldn’t matter that much.

  • There are YMCA classes I can take. Again, they’re probably not the same style as the university classes – but I’m a low-intermediate swimmer, not the next Michael Phelps.

  • Tim Ferris recently wrote about the Total Immersion method. His swimming story sounds identical to mine – he tried over and over on his own, but never got into it. This DVD helped him, so maybe I’ll check it out.

  • In his running/writing memoir, Haruki Murakami mentioned that he hired a private swim coach to help him improve the skill. A “private swim coach” sounds expensive at first glance, but I just need a couple of 30-minute lessons. That shouldn’t be too much, and if I’ve been putting this off for two years, it’s probably a good investment.

I’m not 100% sure which of these alternatives I’ll go with… but I will do something about my regret. I know that if I don’t at least try, I’ll always feel another twinge of regret whenever I hear someone talk about swimming.

If there’s anything I don’t want, it’s a life of regrets. That’s why I started writing on this site, that’s why I travel, that’s why I do anything I can to avoid working a real job, and on and on. It’s not to say that anyone who makes different choices will regret them. But for me, I would not be content if I didn’t do these things.

Living life to the fullest while helping others is what it’s all about.

Some might view my failure to take swimming lessons as a small regret compared to what they consider to be more major life failures. In a way, it’s true – if my biggest regret right now is not learning to swim, I suppose I'm doing OK.

But on the other hand, small is not the same thing as inconsequential. When it comes to regrets, that old saying about how if you don’t deal with the small things, you’ll end up making bigger mistakes was in my mind as I thought about this. I’m not sure if it's completely true or not, but I don’t want to risk it.

Life is too short to miss out on learning and the living. We’ve got art to create, businesses to grow, worlds to conquer. And as for me, I’ve got some swimming lessons to go to.

My question for you is:

Do you want to live with no regrets? How’s that going?

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Video Update: Whole-Wheat Bread and 8 Olympic Gold Medals

Friends and readers, in celebration of the Phelpsian (this is a newly created adjective; Google returns 11,000+ results for it already) achievements that you and I are on track for, I thought it would be important to show how winning eight Olympic Gold medals in nine days is still not enough to please everyone.

Check it out in the three-minute video below.

(Newsletter and RSS readers, I have no clue how this will display in your browser. If you don’t see anything, just click through to the site.)

If you can’t see it for some reason, try using this direct link from Google Video.

***

The last time I posted a video update, I got good reviews from everyone who was able to view it, but naturally some readers with slow connections were not able to do so. There’s really no easy way to fix that.

The reason I make videos is because it’s a different medium than writing, and different people like to consume different forms of media. Think about podcasts, books, magazines, blogs, etc. If you can use one more than one form of media in your army-building, so much the better.

With the help of Ken the professional videographer, I’ve recorded one more update like this that should go up in a couple weeks. After that, we’ll make more based on how you all like them.

Oh, and speaking of Michael Phelps, have you all heard the news about how he has been returned to his tank at Sea World?

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The Care and Feeding of World-Changers

pile of books for world-changers
Image by Paul Watson
I spent the evening at Barnes & Noble last night, and did a lot of reading in the café area. I spent most of the time reading the first part of Haruki Murakami’s new book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s part running log, part self-help guide, and part writing memoir. I love it.

I read a few other things too – the BBC Focus on Africa magazine, a travel guide for Sri Lanka, and a quick look at a memoir of someone who spent two years at Harvard Business School.

I tend to spend a lot of time reading like that, although recently I’ve cut back. That’s not a good sign – I believe reading is one of the most important things we can do every day – so I’m working on fixing it.

The regular intake of valuable resources, especially books, is crucial to the development of any committed world-changer.

In this post I’ll share more about why reading is so important, and let you know about a few other materials I’ve been checking out recently.

First, let’s say you’ve got your two answers to the most important questions in the universe, you’re building a small army, and preparing to launch a plan of attack (or scale up your current plan). How do you keep the momentum going?

Without regular doses of the right resources, your world-changing will be limited, and that momentum will shift downwards. Since we live in an age where access to information has been democratized (at least for everyone able to read this essay), there’s no real excuse for not taking the time out to learn.

Good resources can inform, inspire, or entertain. These goals are not mutually exclusive; some resources can accomplish more than one at the same time.

Fiction

I try to read at least one work of literary fiction a month. I recently read Never Let Me Go and Baudolino, both of which I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Earlier this year I read The Rector of Justin and re-read A Wild Sheep Chase, another Murakami book. I picked up Harbor for the last trip, but it didn’t arrive on time, so I’ll have it for the next one. For less intellectual entertainment resources, I check out the Fail Blog, GraphJam, and a few online comics.

Non-Fiction

Some of my all-time favorites are linked on my Inspiration page. In addition to those, recently I’ve discovered The Power of Full Engagement and have been slowly reading that.

Earlier this year I also read The 7 Habits for the first time ever. For some reason I missed it in its original shining hour, but reading it felt very familiar. I realized that I lot of the principles and examples in the book have been adapted (and sometimes stolen without credit) by many other writers and teachers in the personal development field.

I have to admit that I thought a bit less of the people I’ve learned from who used Stephen Covey’s stories without any attribution. Maybe I should read The 8th Habit next and see what else has been stolen.

(Note to Prospective Gurus: if you want to become a self-help teacher, by all means, use the best stuff that’s out there. But you should also create your own material, and credit what you do end up borrowing or adapting.)

Alternative Learning Styles

I’m an old-school fan of traditional books, and probably always will be. For me, there's something about holding the paper and ink in my hands that isn't easily replicable with other mediums. But it’s true that not everyone has the same learning style, and it’s always good to mix it up a bit. When I’m running I usually listen to a 20-minute language learning podcast before switching over to high-energy music for the rest of the run. I’m not an inherently good language learner and don’t always enjoy the process, but once I start the podcast I can usually stick with it until the end.

In addition to language learning, the iTunes directory has an increasingly large selection of free educational resources. There are also video podcasts, which don’t work well while running (I’ve tried and it isn’t pretty; trust me) but can be fun to check out on the bus or airplane.

For paid products, the Teaching Company has some fun courses which I’m sure you can learn a lot from. If I don’t sound too certain, it’s because this is definitely not my learning style. I have a hard time listening to lectures.

(One tip: these DVD and CD products are pretty expensive. You can get a better deal by shopping on eBay for used copies.)

Eliminating Distractions

While I advocate taking in many diverse sources of information, I also agree that you should eliminate as many unimportant distractions as possible. For me, the biggest distraction is internet surfing. I have an incredible ability to spend hours in front of the computer doing nothing of value. An hour will pass and I don’t even remember what web sites I’ve been reading. Yikes—that’s not good.

To end, or at least cut back on this bad habit, I’ve had to set rules for myself. The current ones are:

  • Gmail three times a day (no more)

  • News-reading twice a day (no more)

  • Try to initiate at least one minor-to-moderate project a day (instead of continually responding to other things)

  • Complete at least one task towards each major project

  • Spend time writing first thing in the morning

  • Never feel bad about stopping work to exercise
Speaking of the Murakami book, one passage I read last night was especially relevant.

I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing… I felt that the indispensible relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers. As long as I got my day-to-day life set so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn’t this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority? My opinion hasn’t changed over the years.

Except for being a novelist, that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about what I want to do. But I know I have a lot to learn, so that’s why I keep reading.

What Resources Do You Rely On?

I included some of what I’m reading these days in case you’re looking for referrals, but it’s important to read according to your own preferences.

What’s on your bookshelf – or your iPod, your Kindle, or whatever – these days?

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