As I’ve evolved as a traveler, my planning has become more minimalist. I often buy plane tickets at the last minute, even when traveling internationally. I rarely book accommodations past the first day or two of my trip. I don’t buy Lonely Planets, and my research is kept to a minimum. Do I need a visa? What are some of the must-see sites? What’s the weather going to be like? What currency is used, and what’s the exchange rate? Do they tip? How do I say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’? Beyond these basic questions, I choose not to know.
The excitement of traveling is discovery. I love feeling the heartbeat of the city. My less-planned philosophy allows me to experience, first-hand, the culture of my newest destination. With feet to the pavement, one of my favorite things is walking (or biking) around the local neighborhoods, getting a feel for the ‘real’ city, not what your typical tourist experiences. Mingling with the locals, observing everyday life, taking in the sights, smells, sounds of the city…now this is authentic. Anyone can be a tourist. I choose to avoid most of the tourist traps in favor of real experiences.
Last October when I traveled to Myanmar, I was unplanned. Completely last minute. Having purchased our tickets just two weeks prior to departure, we scrambled to complete the visa application in time. Receiving our visa confirmation just 24 hours before departing was stressful, but the lack of planning on our part gave way to spontaneity. Unburdened by an itinerary, we were free to roam untethered, time and location not a factor. Had we had an itinerary, we never would have met ‘Uncle K,’ the 67 year old Burmese man with unending energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm, who became our impromptu tour guide in Yangon, giving us a glimpse of life beyond what’s laid out in the travel books. I wouldn’t have arm wrestled an 85 year old medicine man on the floor of his home while the rain hit the roof, enveloping us in a symphony of calming sounds. I wouldn’t have joked around with the Inle Lake boat drivers, poking fun at the man with the smiley eyes, who later hailed down his friend’s tuk tuk at my request so that I could drive Mel around in the sidecar. I wouldn’t have had such a funny story to tell for years to come. These, and many more experiences, the memories that made me fall in love with Myanmar, wouldn’t have been possible had I come with an agenda, an itinerary jam-packed with somebody else’s must-see locations.
As I look forward to my next trip- Kathmandu, Nepal- in just two weeks, my itinerary includes loads and loads of unplanned time. Time that I hope to fill with taking in the scenery, writing, observing the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, chatting with the locals, tasting the local fare, and venturing into the unknown.