Traveling With Your Senses
October 8th, 2010

I know that my last post indicated that this next post would be about my active challenge. However, I’m still perfecting that, so I thought I’d add this post while I finish up my challenge ideas. This came as pure inspiration from my dog – which I guess is a step up from inspiration from my bathtub, which was the last post. Enjoy!

Every time I take my dog for a walk, it takes it takes 15 minutes to go two blocks because she’s sniffing every pole, stopping to stand guard at any noise and watching every person that passes with supreme interest/fear. While this can get repetitive on a daily walk to the park, in reality she’s doing what most of us forget to do regularly – making full use of her senses.

I often watch her wondering what it would be like if I had her acute senses of hearing and smell, and her vigilant vision. On an average commute to work, this might be sensory overload. On the other hand, this could transform the way I travel – assuming that the majority of sights, sounds, smells and tastes are those that I want to experience. If I was able to use my senses as keenly as she is, I might be able to understand destinations on a much deeper level. Take Paris, for example. Sit in the Tuilleries Gardens and listen to the French being spoken in every direction. Don’t try to interpret, just listen and let it surround you. Relax at a cafe and smell the freshly baked bread, sip a cup of coffee and watch the Parisians bustle about their daily lives. Feel the sun beat down on you as you walk along the banks of the Seine. More than the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Champs Elysees combined, these sensory experiences allow one to fully take in Paris.

Why is this? Think abut your home city. Here in Philadelphia, I walk past the Liberty Bell several times a week. I’ve seen people run up the “Rocky Steps” more times that I care to count (sorry Rocky!). What makes me feel Philadelphia is sitting in Washington Square Park watching people picnic with their loved ones, taking a walk along the river while runners and bicyclists wizz by, sipping a margarita outside at my favorite Mexican Restaurant (yes, Mexican, not cheesesteak). Once you’ve been somewhere for a while, you tend to virtually forget about the big landmarks. Instead, you focus on how a city feels, looks, sounds, smells and tastes. That’s what truly distinguishes the city from any other and what lets you experience it on a level other than obvious tourist. To me, that’s one of the primary reasons for traveling – to truly feel part of the destination.

There are several easy ways to start traveling more with your senses. If you’ve ever meditated, you may be familiar with the first. Closer your eyes. Yes, you are blocking out the sense of sight and I realize that seems counter-intuitive, but you are enabling yourself to better observe the other senses. Pick one sense and focus on it. See what you notice. Spend a few minutes this way. Repeat this with your other senses throughout your trip. As you learn to isolate each sense, you’ll probably become more aware of it in your every day actions. Basically, you are fine tuning your senses.

Another option is to record your sensory observations. Keep a small notepad with you and when something piques your interest, write it down. It could be the aromas at a local restaurant, the sound of cathedral bells ringing in the square, the taste of a deep red wine at dinner. It’s a rather well-known phenomenon that when you have to put something in writing, you pay more attention to it (remember that diet where you had to write down everything you ate?). After a day or two of recording, you’ll most likely notice that your senses seem more acute, even when you aren’t recording them.

Since I like to practice what I preach, here are a few of my favorite sensory experiences from traveling:

  • Watching the steam rise from warm roasted chestnuts being sold on the street in Slovenia in on a chilly November day, and smelling the sweet aroma as the wind carries it those passing by.
  • The sight of the local food vendors setting up their stalls along the narrow streets of Split before the rest of the city is awake, and the smell of the fresh fruits, vegetables, breads and fish mixing together in the empty streets.
  • Stepping out of my A-frame in Botswana, being greeted by the sun rising over the Chobe river and shining through the trees, as a warthog quietly grazes on the lawn outside of my patio.

And with those nostalgic thoughts, have a wonderful, sensory-filled weekend and if you’re lucky enough to be traveling right now… happy travels!

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