Learning to spin wool in Oaxaca with a skilled weaver who works for MZ Fair Trade.
It might be unfair to expect you to already have a passion, hobby, or well-developed interest the first time you have your passport stamped.
After all, the first time I took a big trip by myself a few months after college graduation, I wasn’t a very interesting person. (I probably would have been if I had gone to a less conservative and creatively stultifying university, but that’s a tale for another time.) All I know is that I arrived to Bonn, Germany to visit my college best friend who was studying there without any objectives at all.
I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I wanted. I had a vague interest in sustainability, and had just wrapped up a summer internship at an small advertising firm focused on that. But –– today but especially back then –– it’s pretty hard to narrow down travel activities based on “sustainable” when you don’t know any of the details. I couldn’t even tell you if I liked mountains or the beach better.
So, I was a bad traveler. We went out drinking and dancing at bars with other 22-year-olds, but we didn’t really meet anyone. We took the train to Amsterdam and toured the Heineken factory and went on a canal boat ride where we made friends with some other drunk Americans. We went out to a dumb Amsterdam club and I tried to procure drugs for about five minutes (because Amsterdam! Even though I’ve never liked pot and had only tried mushrooms once before) until my friend shot down that idea, said she was hungry and suggested we go to McDonald’s, and then decided that she was tired and wanted to go home. We did not make use of the free bikes that came with our hostel.
She was scared of a travel advisory for Germany, so I took the train by myself to Berlin to visit a German friend. But he was from Munich, not Berlin, and only took me to what seemed like a cool but very empty bar on a Tuesday night. I remember looking around at the Berlin graffiti as we walked home, knowing that there was something very special hidden in the city for people who knew where to look, but I had no idea where to start. I told myself that someday I would be back, when I was a more interesting person.
I went back down to meet my friend and we took the train to Oktoberfest, where we both got wasted and proceeded to scream at each other. She smashed her glass of beer on the ground and stormed off, I managed to get my Munich friend on the payphone and drunkenly navigate the train system (with my giant suitcase, crying), to the last stop in the countryside, where he picked me up… and saved my trip.
I met his group of international friends, ate the traditional food that his mom made, relaxed breathing in the fresh country air, and took a lot video and pictures. It was the budding of a few different interests for me that would blossom later into themes of our current trip: learning about traditions, enjoying the quiet of the countryside, meeting and making friends with international people, and taking photos.
I still remember those few days with a blooming warmth in my chest.
I Do Not Travel to Find Myself
Overtourism is becoming an increasing problem in top European and Asian destinations. As millions of tourists flock to see the main sites in the most popular cities, they’re decreasing the quality of life for locals, driving rents up, and turning places like Venice, Barcelona and, yes, Amsterdam, into European Disneylands. Outside of big cities, an influx of tourists is trashing formers paradises and fragile ecosystems.
Why, experts wonder, has the internet seem to have consolidated tourism into certain places instead of spreading travelers out to little niches revealed by the internet? Well, there are a lot more people traveling these days, especially with the new Chinese middle class wanting to get in on the action.
But I have a theory that the act of “travel” has been so fetishized and idealized, that many people choose to center their identity around “travel,” without thinking any more deeply about it. And I suspect that the kind of tourists who are destroying entire islands in the Philippines, who will book a ticket somewhere simply because they saw it on Instagram, who pour off a giant bus in the Sacred Valley and jostle for that perfect picture, are the same kind of people who put “travel” in their list of interests in their dating or Instagram profile.
But to have “travel” as an interest can mean anything, and so means nothing. It’s like saying you enjoy food. Ok!
Do you enjoy hiking or diving? Do you enjoy laying on the beach with a cocktail? Do you enjoy trying interesting new foods? Do you like visiting modern art museums? You have preferences, likes and dislikes. You should honor them when you travel.
We talk about traveling to find ourselves. But where do you even start that quest with such a wide-open field? You need to make a choice, any choice, or else you will find yourself among the hordes, wondering when the personal transformation is supposed to start.
More importantly, people who enjoy “travel” are amateurs of everything, familiar with none, and they are dangerous. They are the ones who try to hike one of the most dangerous trails in the world in Hawaii in sandals and have to be helicoptered out when they twist their ankle. They’re the ones that fall off a cliff trying to take a selfie. They’re the ones that hurt wildlife by touching, grabbing, interacting or even riding on animals in the wild, in crowded cities, and on so-called sanctuaries. Because they haven’t taken an interest in anything beyond booking plane tickets and hotel rooms, they don’t know what they don’t know, and will fall for anything shiny that is offered to them.
Traveling to find yourself in the age of Instagram doesn’t even work well anymore. What do you learn about yourself by going to the top five Trip Advisor destinations in the city you’re visiting? Did it deepen your understanding of who you are to take a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower? Did you have an epiphany about the American Dream when you reached the top of the Statue of Liberty? Do you truly understand Czech culture after your pub crawl in Prague? Did you meet and have a conversation with any locals at all – besides your tour guide – in your three days running from Instagram moment to Instagram moment in Lisbon?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do the above things. The view from the top of the Empire State Building is great, and the little museum they have on the way up is actually really interesting. (Especially if you’re into architecture or history!) But if you make them your raison d’être while traveling, you instead of the sides to the main course, you might come away disappointed, wondering what everyone else saw in it that you didn’t.
When you visit a place not knowing yourself, or really knowing your travel companions, you will learn this lesson the hard way. You will disagree on what to do with your time, bicker, and end up spending your precious vacation moments waiting in line for a meaningless travel experience that you will look back on with a shrug.
I Travel to Deepen My Passions
We started our travel around the world last December, 11 months ago, in Mexico City. And at first I took everyone’s recommendations to heart. You have to do this. That is a can’t miss. I was stressed out, and we were spending too much money and time accomplishing everyone else’s favorite things. I also didn’t have time to work and earn money. Something had to give.
So we started making decisions. We stopped going to nice restaurants (even in affordable cities with a favorable exchange rate) and ate vegetarian street food to save our money for other things that were more important to us. Whenever someone told me we had to go do something, I started asking more questions to understand the why of their recommendation and skip it if I realized we have different priorities. Most importantly, we started making our travel plans through the lens of our respective passions and interests. For my husband, it’s electronic music and architecture. For me, it’s sustainable fashion with a dose of nature.
Yes, we’ve have visited some of the big tourist sites. We’ve gazed out over dozens of cities from a high viewpoint, wandered through dozens of main squares, visited dozens of museums, and done probably a dozen free walking tours. And they were all interesting enough, a cool diversion and – in the case of the walking tour – a good way to get an overview of the city and get some questions answered about cultural quirks and history.
But the thing that I have loved the most on this trip is meeting locals in each city who are really into sustainable fashion like I am. And they are everywhere! Almost every single city we’ve been to – and I think we are on our 35th – there is someone who lives there and is excited to bring me into their sustainable world. They’ll take me to their favorite green cafe, invite me to their design studio, teach me about traditional artisan techniques, or have my husband and I over for a home-cooked meal.
Sometimes I don’t even have time, outside of the deep and exciting conversations had over a Fair Trade cup of coffee, to go do that thing that everyone says you have to do. Whoops, forgot to try Belgian chocolate in Brussels! I was too busy going to a sustainable and zero-waste music festival with Emilia of Mixua and speaking on a conference put on by the Better Cotton Initiative.
The friends my husband has met through music have invited us into a beautiful mid-century hacienda in Quito to drink cervezas into the wee hours of the morning, brought us to a Oaxaca warehouse party where everyone but us was Mexican, hosted us on their roof in Lisbon for a traditional meal, and generally shown us the warmest hospitality you could imagine.
Most importantly, we have made some real friendships with people that we never would have met had we just done the Instagram-famous things. Thinking back to these new friends makes me smile every day.
Granted, having 30,000 followers on Instagram makes this pretty easy – I just have to post on Instagram and someone usually reaches out. But you do not have to be an expert in order to use your passion to uncover the amazing and truly authentic pockets of any travel destination. You just need to know what you like, and then use that as a lens – or rather, a microscope – to zoom in on the microcosms of a city that are free of tourists and populated with locals doing creative, interesting things –– and not as a performance for visitors.
Having a hobby other than travel razors away the stuff that have been overhyped, saves you money, maximizes your time, helps you meet similarly passionate people who you vibe with, and ensures you will have an unforgettable experience that reminds you of your love for humanity. (Unlike trying to fight your way to a top tourist site and seeing people trample plants to get a photo, which will remind you of why you actually dislike humanity.)
With almost every spot on earth explored, mapped, and Instagrammed, having a local pull you into a secret corner of their beloved city and into their world feels to me like the last way to capture that thrill of discovery, to do something that is actually authentic, instead of #authentic.
It actually feels something like happiness.
How to Do Focused Travel
First, choose a hobby.
Your hobby can be anything, really, including cheap or free: high-stakes poker, urban farming, geocaching, antiquing, vintage fashion, cats, dance, modern art, mid-century architecture, spicy food, bikes, diving, hiking, gardening, birding, history, electronic music, spas and saunas, or religious iconography. There are thousands of passions out there for you to choose some –– there is something out there for you. Nerd out over it, jump into forums, research the top [fill in the blank]s all over the world, and get to know other [fill in the blank]-lovers. Follow the thought leaders in that space on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, instead of travel bloggers. (Unless they’re sustainable/ethical travel bloggers, who have a tendency to zero in on the most authentic pockets of any over-commercialized destination.) Read books about it. Look up the conferences and meet-ups and summits about it. Most of all, prioritize it over things that aren’t as interesting to you, especially when you have limited time and limited money… which is almost everyone.
Then, prepare for people to question you. Because many people don’t understand it. They’ve read the bucket lists online and taken them to heart like scripture, even though they’re often written by overworked and underpaid 24-year-olds . They will dump all their recommendations on you, never pausing to ask what you like or enjoy, and then get hurt when you don’t do their exact itinerary. They’ll ask you if you did that thing that everyone does in that country and when you say no, they will gasp and moan with true pity and sadness for your empty, sad life. You didn’t party on that one beach?? You didn’t visit that big stone gate that looks kind of like the big stone gates in 25 other cities?? You didn’t try that one local specialty (that you’re allergic to anyway)?? You didn’t go to the top of that tower??
Smile, thank them for taking the time to share their tips, and then do whatever makes you happy on your travels. Visiting a city, even living in a city, doesn’t make anyone an expert on your travel experience. Instead, turn to the true experts in the thing that you love, and see what they recommend in that city.
Also, use your interests and passions to ensure that your travel buddies are a good fit for you. Know your goals, and share them honestly with potential travel mates, and ask them their goals in turn. They should align. Or if they don’t align, you both should be OK with the fact that you might split up for half of each day to pursue your own thing. This is essential for forestalling a big blowout in the middle of a trip. This has happened to not only me, but several of my friends.
I can’t say I always follow my own recommendations. This process is ongoing, like daily meditation. It’s hard to resist the urge to do EV-ER-RY-THING. I have to remember this strategy in each new destination and remind myself of what I know makes me happy, and brush off feelings of FOMO.
But this process, while more difficult than going with the Trip Advisor flow, is rewarding, because it has led to a much richer, more interesting, more relaxing and simultaneously more exciting world tour. I recommend it to anyone – whether you’re going on your first trip, or your fiftieth, whether you’re going abroad or going on a road trip.
How Focusing on a Hobby has Transformed My Travel
This summer when my husband and I arrived to Berlin, nine years after my last visit, things were way different.
We visited some architectural icons around the city, and dove into the music scene. We had coffee and dinner with friends who are local and international DJs, and went out to underground clubs. I went to Berlin Fashion Week and met up with sustainable fashion bloggers from across Europe who were in town. My husband even discovered a boutique that sells both sustainable fashion and electronic music records. We stopped in and hung out with one of the owners, shooting the shit about both scenes.
This was a much different Berlin than the one I experienced so long ago, because I was a different person. I had fulfilled my promise to myself to become more interesting, and the world had rewarded my passion by revealing its beauty and secrets to me.
Then we went to Amsterdam in the fall (after peak tourist time) where I got a personal tour of the revamped Fashion for Good museum, and visited the O My Bag store where I talked about leather tanning with the founder, while my husband attended the Amsterdam Dance Event for DJs and producers and met up with friends from across the world. We had dinner in Dutch homes, and got to see behind the scenes of our respective passions.
This is what it actually means to “live like a local.” It’s not staying in an AirBnB apartment. It’s doing what you love with locals as your guide.
So, what is your passion? And how will you use travel to support and deepen that passion… and vice versa?
Some travelers like to say that the more they see in the world, the more they realize there is to see. Well, I say that you don’t need to see all of it to be an accomplished traveler. You just need to see the parts that resonate with you.