Tour groups often wind up in lodgings that are low-budget, even downright dubious. In 1992 I was part of a group checking into a Bangkok hotel that looked cheap, shabby, and drab, with cut-rate wood veneer paneling and furniture that didn’t begin to aspire to Ikea quality. Did I care? Nope. It was just a jumping-off place for a trek among Thailand's hill tribe villages. For the next week, Rich and I hiked all day, slept in huts surrounded by pigs, ate whatever was put in front of us, and — since it was dry season — struggled to maintain even the most basic hygiene standards.
Afterwards, I was so exhausted I slept most of the way back to Bangkok. I remember stumbling out of the van in an underground garage, wandering into a hotel lobby, and gasping at the luxury: plush sofas, carved wood, uniformed staff, the discreet clink of ice in glasses. Why hadn’t we stayed in this ultra-cool place when we first arrived in Bangkok? And then I realized we had. The hotel was the same; only I had changed.
And that’s the beauty of travel: seeing things with fresh eyes.
These moments on the road are vivid and precious, and it’s dismaying to feel them begin to fade the moment we hoist our suitcase onto the closet shelf. But we don’t have to lose these memories; in fact, sometimes we need a lifetime to unpack our experiences properly.
“It’s only when you get back home that you can really begin to understand a trip and implement the changes it may have set into motion inside you,” says Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers. He’s been thinking a lot about this lately, as in January he’s launching a TED course called “How to take a life-changing journey.”
Iyer suggests that to get at the true meaning of our travels, whether they last a day or many weeks or longer, we should ask ourselves three questions. They’re such good questions that on Sunday, over plates of leftover turkey and glasses of Italian wine, Rich and I spent quite a while discussing them in the context of our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour.
Question 1: What moved me most over the course of my trip?
Rich instantly said it was the people we met along the way. “From Carlotta in Turin, to Zina and her family in that Albanian farmhouse, to the guys who cut your hair in Heraklion — there were so many. These weren’t monumental moments, just quietly wonderful connections.”
I remembered the distress and heartbreak I felt, realizing that changes I’d always assumed were 100% positive — such as the fall of communism — had serious downsides as well. I’m not saying anyone wanted to return to the old days, when crazed dictators tried to create modern utopias using secret police, forced labor camps, and political assassinations (because nothing says utopia like unmarked mass graves). But many people I met spoke wistfully about the days when everyone had a job, a place to live, free medical care, a pension, and far fewer worries about the future. Change has forced many to find unexpected inner strength and a philosophical attitude.
Question 2: What surprised me most on my trip?
Hands down, Rich and I agreed the biggest surprise was Albania. Those who love it best call it beautiful but rough around the edges; detractors call it grim, dangerous, and dull. When I mentioned I was heading to Albania, nearly everyone asked “Why?” Followed by, “No, really, why?” And finally, “Are you nuts?” But we both absolutely loved Albania. For a start, the countryside had real storybook charm and cities teamed with vitality. And the food was some of the best in Europe.
We were treated as honored guests wherever we went. Possibly because they saw how clueless we were in such unfamiliar surroundings, each hotel owner, host, or driver carefully handed us on to the next person who would be entrusted to look after us.
Rich said, “I thought, ‘Why can’t everyone do this?’ Why don’t we treat each other with such courtesy, remembering that we’re all connected?” Good question!
Question 3: How might my trip move me to think or live my life a little differently?
The moment I read that question, I remembered sitting with Rich in a little park in Chambéry, France and discussing the need to fly less frequently. This was near the end of the trip, and after nearly five months on the road, my sense of connection with the world was pretty powerful. It was a buoyant feeling but carried a sense of responsibility, too. I felt I owed it to everyone (including myself) to try to do better by the world we shared.
Interestingly, that’s what Pico Iyer said about a trip he took to Antarctica, where he was overwhelmed by the extraordinary beauty — and by how he was contributing to its destruction, just by flying there.
Every traveler with a conscience wrestles with this question, and when I brought it up to Rich on Sunday, he reminded me of a long-ago conversation we had with a priest in a poor part of El Salvador.
“Visitors always ask what they can do to help,” the priest told us. “They want to build a school or dig a well, so they can go away feeling they’ve contributed and can forget about our problems. But I tell them the best thing to do is this: nothing. I want people to come down here, see what’s happening, and break their hearts — then go back and tell others what they’ve seen. That’s what will bring about real change.” I sometimes think that one conversation is the real reason I became a travel writer.
‘Promise yourself twenty minutes every day to ensure that the journey doesn’t get lost,” advises Iyer. “How might you act differently now? Ask yourself how your life is rich in ways you hadn’t imagined before [and] ask yourself how it’s poor.” Wise advice!
My life is much richer for having spent 161 days on the road, meeting people, exploring the Mediterranean rim, and sampling some of the most mouthwatering comfort foods on the planet. And after all that fun, I had the sublime pleasure of describing all the best moments in my new book.
Which brings me to the announcement I’ve been waiting years to make:
My book The Great Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour has been published! It’s out in Kindle and paperback. Yay!
And thanks to all your pre-orders, it’s already a bestseller.
CLICK HERE TO SEE ON AMAZON.
And remember, the early discount prices ($1.99 Kindle, $8 paperback) only continue through December 6.
These are thrilling times, my friends. After all the unforeseen detours, hiccoughs, and delays (yes, pandemic, I’m thinking of you!) I’m so happy the book is out at last. Whew!
Thanks for all your support and encouragement, and for joining me on this very long and joyful journey.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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