The Traveler’s Spirit
Travel breaks up the routine.
It allows us a glimpse of what life is like somewhere else, it humbles us and makes us appreciate the things we take for granted. And it’s sooo much fun. I travel for all those reasons, but most of all I travel because it’s the closest I’ve ever come to fully, if only temporarily quelling my insatiable addiction to exploration. I love getting hopelessly lost and I savor the times when I don’t have a clue where I’m going – give me a motorbike and an unexplored open road and I’m a happy guy. I’m definitely not a pool-bar kind of traveler. You know the type: they spend all this time traveling to a beautiful place, then all they want to do is drink at the pool bar.
If that’s you, have at it and enjoy your vacation (and I mean that sincerely.) But there’s a big difference between vacationing and traveling. Vacationers want the equivalent of the Corona commercials – a beach, a beer, a comfy chair and nothing to do. They want comfort, and like oil and water, comfort doesn’t mix well with the unknown. Travelers on the other hand, are there because of the unknown.
For me its all about balance – because hey, who wouldn’t love to chill out on that Corona beach for a few days? It’s true that you won’t find me at the pool bar, but I always search out the local dives. They’re one part relaxation and one part culture, and it’s a great way to meet the locals. And it’s all the better when the bar’s not in the guidebook.
In the spirit of being a non-pool bar traveler, some of my favorite travel experiences have been had when I’ve left the map at the hotel in favor of getting lost. Let me tell you a story…
Getting off the beaten path in Chennai.
One of my absolute favorite travel experiences of all time happened in Chennai, India. Throughout the day, my friends and I did the obligatory tourist highlights – saw some temples, went to some recommended parks, and explored the beach. All common tourist spots; all interesting but pretty average travel experiences. Then night fell. We left the guidebook at the hotel and got ourselves lost.
We immediately found some of the best street food we’d ever had as we made our way through Chennai’s chaotic backstreets. Stomachs full and already having found more than we’d hoped for, we figured on grabbing a quick beer and tuk tuk-ing our way back to the hotel. But low and behold, the local beer shop had a dive bar in the back! It was small, completely hidden from the street, and a VERY local oriented place. They seemed happy to have us so we stayed a while, and we met three of the most interesting and hospitable characters I’ve ever come across.
One man was mute and spoke only via his version of chrades. He was incredibly perceptive towards others’ body language and had some spot-on insights. Another man was along for the ride, a bit quiet but very welcoming and laughed a lot. The third man, the leader of their group, served as the interpreter. After talking a while, he insisted on buying us all big bottles of our choice of drink and driving us somewhere else because the place would “get rough” later on. Being from a big American city with its share of sexually frustrated, testosterone crazed bar patrons, I’m not sure what “get rough” means in Chennai. We brushed it off initially but eventually took the hint and heeded his advice, if nothing more than to be polite.
He took us to another hotel, the sort of place I normally would avoid: a big western hotel chain with what was sure to be astronomical beer prices. But out of an abundance of politeness we thanked him profusely and headed inside. The bar was about halfway up the building and the patio had something of an alright view so what the hell, we figured, and we proceeded to sit down to chill out for a while. We finished our drinks slowly and started to head for the door when I had a flashback to the movie The Hangover. The bar’s view had been nice but nothing spectacular, and it was only halfway up the building. Could we perhaps find our way onto the roof?
Getting up there required some ingenuity involving ladders, navigating construction on the closed top floor, and staying very quiet to avoid attention as we climbed our way up to the top. We made it.
Quiet rooftops and the true spirit of travel.
There is a surreal, quiet peace I experience when I’m removed from the immediacy of a such a chaotic place as Chennai. The sounds of the lively and crazy city are ever present, but being so high up allows a muted and distant, almost soothing chorus to be heard. It’s a stark contrast to the horns, traffic, and crowds when you’re right in the thick of it. The twinkling city lights that stretch to the hazy horizon and beyond only add to mood. And all the better to share it with friends. Now THIS was off the beaten path. The night was a complete success, and it was only because we left the guidebook at the hotel.
I can always go back to Chennai. I can maybe find that dive bar again, or perhaps even make it to the roof of that hotel. But I’ll never be able to repeat the same experience that I had that night. And that’s what’s missing from guidebooks. Its the traveler’s spirit: a willingness to explore, the ability to have an open enthusiasm toward the unknown. If I ever do go back to Chennai with the same spirit, I’m absolutely sure I would once again have a hell of a great time. But why return when there are so many other new places just begging me to leave the guidebook behind?