See the Beauty of the World Through Your Own Eyes
Thursday, September 10, 2015 - Author: Chris Walsh
When I was growing up, the world that I was exposed to was very limited. Despite the American penchant for road trips and family vacations, I can recall only three trips longer than a weekend and none beyond the confines of the United States. My parents provided a wonderful upbringing, but travel was never a priority for them.
I didn't begin to understand the value in exploring until high school. Talent for music brought the unexpected benefit of touring, and I saw some of the great cities of the United States: Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Washington. Each foray into a new world broadened my perspectives on life, work, and people; the experiences that I had in these amazing places made me a more critical thinker, a more insightful musician, and a stronger citizen.
Singing as a hobby slowly turned into singing and conducting as a career, and I majored in music at Miami University. College choir tours were even more ambitious than those I had experienced in high school, and before I knew it I was on my way to Europe for a 10-day string of performances and sightseeing. Every new stamp on my passport stoked my desire to see more of the world.
Don't Fear the Unknown
The world teaches us to fear the things that we don't understand. In the United States especially, my natural predilection for fear was amplified by regular articles and news segments about the various tragedies occurring around the world. No travel book or website is complete without several paragraphs on Dangerous Neighborhoods, Places to Avoid, or Areas Where You'll Encounter Certain Doom.
Once you begin traveling, however, you realize that the world isn't as scary as it's been made out to be. Is it important to be aware of your surroundings? Of course. But my travels to various countries and cities, large and small, have revealed that the people of the world are much more similar than they are different. (Coincidentally, this is a lesson that has been reinforced time and again through music.)
I have traveled extensively in Latvia, a former Soviet Republic that I now call home. The immediate reaction of my friends and relatives has always been one of caution, borne out of misunderstanding: "isn't it dangerous there?" or "but it's so close to Russia!" (I reluctantly avoid mentioning upcoming plans to visit St. Petersburg.) What my friends don't realize is that the people of Latvia (and I suspect the people of the world in general) have the same wants and needs as our neighbors in Ohio: love, security, entertainment and friendship. It's a code that I believe I've cracked about the world: don't fear the unknown, because we are all the same.
The World Doesn't Revolve Around Me
My first visit to Latvia was in 2012: a three-week research trip that doubled as my first experience traveling alone. I landed in Rīga without knowing a word of the language and with almost no friends or acquaintances that I could rely on.
I spent the first few days hiding under my aforementioned blanket of fear. Words of caution from friends and relatives rang in my ears as I ventured out only a few hours every day, and I wondered what the natives thought of me and whether they could tell that I was American. However, I realized that the natives weren't thinking of me at all. Like everyone else in the world, they were going about their daily lives unconcerned about the people around them. Thinking about the anxious tourist from the United States would be of no use to them in running errands, going to work, or meeting their friends. I started to move freely and explore Latvia without worrying about my non-existent reputation.
This revelation was a pivotal moment. It didn't take long to realize that no one cared what I was doing not only in Latvia, but at home in the United States as well. Our world is colored only by our own experiences, and it is easy to operate under the delusion that everyone is concerned about what we're doing. Freedom is the understanding that no one is monitoring us. You can choose to share your successes and failures with those close to you, but very rarely is anyone watching otherwise.
See the Beauty of the World Through My Own Eyes
I've developed a small set of guidelines for myself as I continue my travels. Of course, everyone has different priorities when traveling, guided by their passions and interests. My guidelines may not work for everyone, but I find that they allow me to be in the moment and soak in new experiences wherever I may be.
Like many, I find myself trying to resist our constant interaction with technology. As a full-time writer, I spend over forty hours a week with my laptop - even more when you include social media, news articles, and entertainment. I often spot travelers who seem to be addicted to their cameras or phones, putting a constant iWall between themselves and their new experiences. I used to fall into the same trap until I reflected on how many times I actually went back and looked at the pictures I had taken (spoiler alert: not many). When you add in the fact that I am not a skilled photographer, it stops making sense to spend 50% of every activity trying to document the activity in the perfect picture. A few professional photographers have likely been to the Cologne Cathedral before, and I have a hard time believing that I can capture a more meaningful picture. Nowadays, my phone stays in my pocket and pictures are reserved only to capture moments with friends.
In a similar vein, I resist the temptation to plan my trip by the advice of experts like Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. Is it possible to pack the Top 10 Attractions of any one city into a weekend visit? Maybe. But there's no substitute for the experience of exploring freely and seeing what a city has to offer when you're simply wandering around. I once visited Prague on a musical tour with my parents tagging along as spectators. We each picked one day to plan the itinerary, and while Mom and Dad packed their days with the top sights of the Czech Republic, it was through my day of wandering that I discovered my favorite places. (The New Town and Wenceslas Square, in case you were wondering.) The world's great cities have a way of guiding you on their own to their best parts; keep your eyes open and you're likely to find something that you love.
If I can offer one bit of advice based on my experience with traveling, it would be this: don't allow stress to determine your vacation. Travel is a gift: don't allow a delayed plane to make you forget the miracle that is international flight. A closed attraction shouldn't ruin your day; there's likely something just as interesting across the street. Keep an open mind and a positive attitude; see the beauty of the world through your own eyes.