Watching the World Cup 2010 games recently on TV, I remembered the last time I was in South Africa. It was the 1996 Rugby World Cup, and I was 23 years old.
In Cape Town, I stayed at youth hostels. We played drinking games, danced Irish jigs on tabletops, and participated in spontaneous reverie.
Of course, we visited Table Mountain too. But it occurs to me now that I was there mostly for the social interaction with other expats. South Africa was just the backdrop. I wonder how I’d revisit the country again now, some 14 years later.
That got me thinking about how our travel habits change through the years. Given each person’s background and motivations, it’s impossible to draw any real conclusions. But I’m still curious:
As you’ve matured, has your travel style changed?
Here are my revelations. I think my 23- year old self would be surprised.
Sleeping Bags and Bed Bugs
Then: I stayed at backpacker hostels with rowdy atmosphere and proximity to nightlife. I didn’t mind the half-naked Spaniard in the bunk next to me. I wasn’t shy about drying “intimates” in front of others. I believed my sleeping bag and a shared bathroom ensured an interesting travel experience.
Now: You’re not likely to find me in a noisy dorm these days. In fact, I’ve gradually moved from dorm rooms to small inns to moderately priced hotels. On a recent trip to Hong Kong with a friend, we even splurged on a night at the luxury Intercontinental Hotel.
The older I’ve gotten, privacy, security, comfort, and good night’s sleep are more important. Infinity pools are nice too. 14 years ago bunking near Eduardo, I never expected that change.
Then: I enjoyed lively interaction with other backpackers, discussing politics and cultural differences. I learned German swear words and won the silver medal in the drinking Olympics.
As fun as that time was, I had a tendency to be entirely drawn into the hostel world while neglecting the larger outside culture. Many days, I would never even leave the building. It didn’t matter if I was in Zimbabwe or Costa Rica. Once I found my niche inside those walls, I burrowed in and stayed for weeks.
At the time, I didn’t understand travelers who shied away from expats. For me, the interplay between nationalities was the best part of the trip.
Now: I’m less likely to seek out other explorers, focusing my interaction on locals instead. Gone are the days when I’d spend a whole afternoon watching sporting events on the hostel TV or playing darts in an expat bar. These days I’m befriending my Chinese tour guide or Thai cooking teacher, trying to understand their land from their perspective.
I’m also more content to wander solo, enjoying experiences unaffected by other peoples’ agendas or judgments about a place.
Then: I drifted from one place to the next hitchhiking through Southern Africa. In those pre-Internet days, I did little research, preferring surprises along the way. I enjoyed unstructured inactive time, because at 23 years old, I felt I had all the time in the world.
Now: As much as I still love surprises, with work and family responsibilities, my wanderings are not random. I plan extensively, drawing from information on travel sites and blogs. Often I have a particular interest to explore such as art, history, or culinary tradition, so I schedule tightly to fit it all in. In fact, I usually have to remind myself to enjoy down time.
From Tourist Track to Off-Track
Then: Themed parks, souvenir shops, Hard Rock Café T-shirts. I was drawn to all manner of contrived events. My budget was mostly set aside for nightlife, and I could easily forego a truly unique cultural excursion if it challenged my comfort level or I thought it cost too much money. My friends and I enjoyed late nights and slept till noon. Occasionally, I visited a museum, or artist guild, but for the most part, I was removed from authentic experiences.
In my case, the reluctance to go deeper stemmed from immaturity and fear about being a stranger in a strange land. I believe now that travel, like most things in life, has a learning curve and over time we get better. I just wasn’t there yet.
Now: You’d have to drag me kicking and screaming into an American chain restaurant or Irish bar now. There’s nothing wrong with those venues. I’d just rather spend my precious time with an unexpected encounter these days. Rather than tourist track, I stroll down hidden side streets, watch kid’s sporting events, and even wander into a neighborhood church some Sunday mornings. Finally, I’m more likely to splurge on a great meal than a night of drinking.
Although my current wanderings are not as raucous as younger days, that’s fine by me. I’m glad to have all those experiences. I just don’t need to repeat them again.
Have you grown out of certain travel experiences?
Have you become more open-minded in some ways and close-minded in others?