Pre social media, there were dinner party destinations. The places people travelled to seemingly just so that they could drop the name at the next dinner party. 15 years ago, people would call and tell me they wanted to go to Bhutan, when I asked why, they were stumped. Everyone was talking about this last utopia, this latest place called the last Shangri La, that gave it it’s sheen, but no one actually knew why one went there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least there was still intrigue and magic and mysticism about a place. These days with social media, those ‘must do’ destinations are so much more in your face. There seems to be little originality about travel, it’s all about following the herd, one must be seen in ‘the’ destination with the sole purpose of taking a photo and getting likes. It seems that no one actually travels to enjoy a place. Taking that perfect shot for Instagram and wherever possible inserting the me and I into the picture and the content, there’s no trivia or facts or any capture of the mood or the moment other than a pose and a faux smile.
When I travel for work, I am insatiable, I will spend a week at least in destinations such as Agra, Varanasi, Calcutta, Udaipur, the list goes on and no stone is left unturned. I may be up at 0500 for a bike ride, followed by breakfast at some unique place, lunch with an art collector, an afternoon arts and crafts experience and evening cooking demo and so the days go. But, when I travel for pleasure, not work, I do no research, none, not one little bit. I went to visit a friend in Barcelona for a week and had no idea what one ‘did’ there or what one ‘should’ see. I simply went. Each morning when Jamie asked what I wanted to do that day, I simply shrugged, smiled and replied, “Whatever you have planned.’ It took a while for him to get used to it, but once he realised that I didn’t have a list of must do’s, and was genuinely happy going with their flow, he settled into it. One day we did a lovely cliff top walk and discovered a beautiful private cove, another day we went out for lunch that lasted all day, another day we sauntered around the city, just looking at what we came across. One day we stayed home and watched movies. What I enjoyed on each of these days was just being happy in the moment. No stressful agenda that meant I was terrified of missing out on something. I was with friends in a beautiful place and we were enjoying each others’ company and whatever else we happened to discover. Simple as that. When I got back, people asked if I’d seen La Sagrada, or the Gothic Quarter, or the Picasso museum and I hadn’t. Oh, but you should, they decreed, oh you’ve missed out, oh what a shame. But truly, what’s the shame? I didn’t follow their expectations? Well no, I didn’t. It was my holiday, I did what I wanted to do, and didn’t give two hoots about fulfilling other people’s expectations of what they thought I should have done.
I had a wonderful holiday and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Isn’t that the purpose of a trip? Later this month I’m going to Moscow. I’ve done the same, as in, I’ve done nothing, no research, zip, diddly squat, nowt. I’m going with friends, one who knows the city well and one who’s a first timer like me and who has had great fun researching and planning. Me, I’ll just do whatever they decide to do. I am traveling with no expectations other than I know I’m going to have a great time catching up with good friends. We may see the main sights, whatever they are, we may not. If we don’t, I won’t know what I’ve missed. If we do, I will no doubt enjoy them. Regardless I will discover things I had no idea were there. And that for me is what travel is, a journey of discovery, leaving things to chance, going with the flow and enjoying simply being in the moment.
I have spent much of my life planning holidays for other people. This has involved a lot of research and a lot of travel and more research. Itineraries are planned down to the smallest detail, with virtually nothing left to chance. I’ve spent years persuading people not just to do what’s on the tick list and also to slow it down, to take time have some spare time for a bit of spontaneity. Whether that is to chill by a pool and read a book, or to go back and visit something you drove by but didn’t have time to stop at.
I often wonder at the tick list, this list of essentials that people have to see. Do people actually want to see those iconic things and therefore follow the archetypical tour or are they just doing what they think they should, because that’s what everyone does and so they must too. And if it’s just following the herd, which much of it is, then if you did break the mold, isn’t it just possible that you might end up doing things you actually want to do, rather than being stressed about cramming in all the things you think you should see? And who dictates what you should see? Popular opinion. But what if you didn’t, would people think any less of you and if they do, who cares. People with no more imagination than to follow the herd think less of you, so what? Ironically, wouldn’t this then create opportunities to discover somewhere or something that no everyone has seen and wasn’t that the point of travel in the first instance, to experience something different?
When I travel, I don’t research. I do what feels right when I’m there. I follow my friends plans, I enjoy being in the moment.
Old days, the journey was the travel, the destination almost a by product. Reading a book right now about Leh. People traveling from Leh to Srinagar by horse. Staying at resthouses enroute, the journey, the by product of getting from A to B was the travel, the destination, almost irrelevant.
Philippa is founder of Indian Experiences and author of Escape to India
With over 25 years of experience in selling truly tailored tours to these destinations, my team and I would be delighted to help.