As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of quirky travel adventures. To me, there's nothing more exhilarating than taking a step into the unknown – even if it’s simply poking my nose into some unexplored corner of the city I’ve lived in for more than a decade. I recently stumbled across a kindred spirit in French journalist Joël Henry, who in 1990 launched the Laboratory of Experimental Tourism and a brief but vivid fad for crazy travel experiments.
The idea was born of idle musings over lunch on a barge-restaurant called “Why Not?” By the time the cheese platter was passed around, Henry and his friends had redefined travel as a sort of game in which it's the creativity of the journey and not the destination that counts. His concept, which eventually formed the basis a Lonely Planet book, embraces anything from spending a day in an airport without going anywhere (something I’ve done all too often against my will and have no desire to repeat) to buying your city’s Monopoly game and letting rolls of the dice send you to visit various sites, including utility companies and jail.
When asked about his most meaningful journey, Henry talks about what he calls "cecitourism," which is traveling blindfolded with a trusted guide. “I visited Luxembourg this way, guided by my wife Maïa during 24 hours. I was blind when I got into the city and blind when I left it. So the only things I know of it are its noises, smells and what Maïa described to me. But incredibly I keep a very clear and precise [image] of it.”
Yikes – 24 hours in the dark? I don’t think so. But I did enjoy my brief blindfolded experience in the Betty Ott Talking Garden for the Blind in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park. Happening upon the place on day, I asked Rich to keep an eye on me as I tied a scarf over my eyes and fumbled my way through the raised plant beds — a fascinating twenty minutes. With that under my belt, I am prepared to consider the Blindfold Tour of Prague’s Krivoklat Castle, in which you’re escorted through the castle with eyes covered, feeling the walls and absorbing the atmosphere; you then remove the blindfold and do it all again so you can compare your visual impressions with your imagination. That could be fun, but I still draw the line at California’s dine-in-the-dark Opaque restaurants. “The table,” wrote one food critic, “is a minefield of messy disasters (yes, my hand went into the butter) … But it certainly makes a good yarn to tell your friends later.” Sadly, you won’t be able to take a single selfie.
Another of Henry’s favorites is “erotourism,” a romantic adventure in which a couple travels separately to a foreign city and then tries to find each other. Having done this with his wife on five occasions, Henry says, “Each time we were convinced that this time, we wouldn’t find each other, and each time we did.” Given my truly terrible sense of direction, I can only imagine how long it would take me to hook up with Rich in a foreign city. Months at least; possibly decades.
But the great thing about travel experiments is that you get to design them to suit yourself. Mark Butler decided to travel through Japan wearing a horse head costume to test local etiquette. George Mahood journeyed the length of England penniless and nearly naked to appraise the kindness of strangers. Sasha and Ludo Jambrich created a honeymoon experiment that included hitchhiking — in their wedding attire — to free accommodations in multiple countries. Rich thought this was brilliant, and I can only thank my lucky stars he didn't hear about this until after we were married.
Even without the hitchhiking honeymoon, we've done our share of travel experiments. The longest was our three-month train trip, designed to determine whether a couple of sexagenarians could still have the kind of grand travel adventures we’d enjoyed in our youth — only with less sleeping on the ground and better wine. Two weeks ago we tried luggage-free travel and liked it so much we’re planning to do more. But travel experiments don’t need to be seriously challenging; most of ours are simple activities, such as hopping on a bus in a strange European city and riding to the end or jumping off in a neighborhood that looks interesting (and reasonably safe). We've also based trips on favorite books (Tales of the Alhambra), authors (Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco) and legends (Rennes-le-Château).
For us, every travel experiment concludes with a what-have-we-learned session, usually held over a glass of wine in a congenial café. Because the point of these experiments – the point of all journeys, really – is to discover something new about the world and about ourselves. “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” says Kurt Vonnegut. And who could resist an offer like that?
Have you ever tried a travel experiment? Do you have one in mind for the future?
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
10/30/2015 08:36:09 am
I've never done anything so extreme in my travel, but I did like going on a road trip through the Alps one time, with no plans, no reservations, and it was so much fun. :-) We found such interesting places by simply stopping wherever it took our fancy. :-)
10/30/2015 03:50:05 pm
Spontaneous travel is very much in the spirit of the experimental approach. Going places with no plans or reservations makes us so much more aware of our choices and appreciative of what we're seeing and doing. Sounds like you had a great trip, Krista!
10/30/2015 04:52:22 pm
My zaniest travels were in Mexico in the 80s. For several years in a row I worked seasonally, and in the off season would get dropped off at the border and make my way to the bus station. Have seen large swaths of the country by bus and train, staying in what we call B&Bs. Always a wonderful experience, and total immersion in Spanish is a quick way to learn!
11/2/2015 11:06:11 am
You're so right, Deb, that immersion is the best way to learn, whether it's a language or a country. What a great way to experience Mexico!
3/10/2022 05:07:40 am
This is a very informative—edifying article to all. Thanks a lot! Continue to post!
Leave a Reply.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel
This blog is a promotion-free zone.
As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
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
Don't miss out!
SIGN UP HERE
to be notified when I publish new posts.