Of all the stamps in my passport, the one that gives me most delight is the one for a country I’d never heard of till I got there, and that may or may not actually exist.
Two years ago, Rich and I were wandering around Vilnius, Lithuania’s engaging capital, when we suddenly found ourselves at the border of another nation: the Republic of Užupio.
Formed in the nineties by scofflaw bohemians in the wake of liberation from the Soviets, Užupio (also spelled Užupis) has no legal standing, but it does have its own flag, currency, constitution, president, anthem, patron saint (the ever-outrageous Frank Zappa), an army of 11 men (now retired), and a shopkeeper who, for a small fee, will stamp your passport. We were charmed by the sheer lunacy of it all.
When I tell stories about stumbling upon offbeat places like this, people often ask, “How do you find this stuff?” Those who don’t know us well assume Rich and I spend months scrutinizing options, doing a cost-benefit analysis of the fun-to-expenditure ratio. Not so! In fact, over time our trips have become less researched, less structured, and to the greatest extent practical, less burdened with baggage. And they’re way more fun. Want to try it? Here are some tips to get you started.
Travel with a purpose. Why go anywhere? For relaxation? A change of pace? Adventure? Answering these questions is the most vital — and the most commonly ignored — step in planning; skipping it can lead to ghastly misunderstandings and conflicts. For instance, are you looking forward to days of scuba diving and long nights at the casino, while your partner is dreaming of a second honeymoon? Before booking anything, see if you can identify activities you’d enjoy together. Long ago, Rich and I discovered we both get a kick out of funky dive bars, old-school diners, and weird roadside attractions; seeking them out has added zest to our wanderings for decades.
Pack light. Easier said than done, I know. And for some journeys, such as weddings and business trips, you really do need a pretty substantial wardrobe. But if you’re traveling for fun, you can get by on less, without sacrificing comfort, hygiene, or a basic standard of style. Here’s how I reduced my travel attire to the bare necessities on a month-long trip through four countries.
Don’t overplan. When we signed up for a tour of Cuba, we had no idea how packed our days would be. Attempts to dodge a few activities — the 8:00 AM talk on the history of music comes to mind — led to stern lectures about the fact we were there on an educational visa, so failure to show up for even a single activity would spark harsh, if unspecified, retribution from the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Republic of Cuba. Yikes! By the end of the trip, a simple walk through Havana felt like the Bataan death march. Never again. Now all our trips are entirely composed of free time, which we like to spend leisurely sipping espresso in a sidewalk café watching others gallop about in a sightseeing frenzy.
Take detours. Free time lets you indulge in whims and go exploring. You might stumble into unknown countries like Užupio, or those once isolated behind the Iron Curtain, such as Albania. Last spring Rich and I went to the Greek island of Corfu in what we fondly believed was the offseason, only to discover it was crawling with tourists. Aghast, I opened my laptop to look for alternatives. That’s when I discovered a hydrofoil that would take us to Sarandë, Albania, conveniently located just 8.7 miles across the Ionian Sea. The Albanians seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to see us. They chatted with us, showed us the catch of the day, and gave Rich a spiffy haircut. We had a wonderful time. Faleminderit për kujtimet, Albania. (Thanks for the memories.)
Recombobulate. Whenever we arrive in a new town, we immediately sit down and have a coffee. The ritual is, of course, less about coffee than about catching our breath, making sure we know where we’re going and how to get there, and — let me underscore this point — figuring out where there’s a cash machine so we can get enough local currency for our immediate needs. We once neglected this step while crossing from Romania into Bulgaria, where we were harassed so relentlessly by a black market cab driver that we fled the train station and hopped in the first legitimate taxi we saw. Halfway to our hotel we realized we were in the awkward position of having no Bulgarian lev to pay our fare. Our driver was kind enough to take Romanian leu, but we vowed never again to skip our recombobulation coffee.
Respect others. The reason we travel is to experience people and places that aren’t like home, yet we sometimes struggle to appreciate the differences. “Just like Americans have the American Dream, others have their own dreams,” wrote Rick Steves. “Put yourself in the shoes (or sandals, or bare feet) of the people you meet. Find out why Basque people are so passionate about their language. Drink with Catholics in a Northern Ireland pub, discussing the notion of the tyranny of the majority. As you travel, learn to celebrate the local Nathan Hales and Ethan Allens, such as Turkey's Atatürk or El Salvador's Oscar Romero.”
Return home changed. “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am,” said Michael Crichton. “Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience ... That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”
So in the end, what adds joy to our journeys? I believe the Užupians expressed it best with the symbols on this sign posted at the border crossing: smile, proceed slowly, think artistically, and try not to fall into the river. Laimingas keliones (happy travels)!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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