It’s a challenge to find what creates the pulse of a new city in our travels. The essence that really makes an area alive for me takes considerable time to recognize, and then takes even longer to actually find. I know that it’s breathing somewhere close by, but remains elusive to my untrained eye. Nor can every local I meet put their finger on this indescribable essence that defines their city or country.
Of course, what I naively call the core is different for everyone, be they local, expat or tourist. I’m not at all sure what I’m even looking for when I ask someone to reveal the secret to me. It takes NSA-style probing, and often I only scratch the surface of what’s waiting to be discovered.
I have a blurry preconception when we arrive at a new stop in our travels. My expectations have been colored by snippets I hear on the news, something I remember from a documentary or gems I discover from reading other people’s blogs. But what do I, or anyone, really know from the information that’s out there?
I dream of learning the country’s language, however difficult, joining groups particularly native to the area, attending courses about the history or geography of the area, going on wild and exotic safaris or meditating in a secluded mountain monastery. I try to find the essence of a place by exploring and reaching out in every direction.
There are a number of ways I search for the pith of each place we visit. Couchsurfer hosts can sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the area. Often they are familiar with some distinctive local flavor outside of usual tourist attractions like watching a performance of taishū engeki theatre or visiting the red-light district in Osaka, Japan. Chance meetings with locals in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, trains and buses have shown us parts of a country that we would not have otherwise discovered. Stopping someone on the street to compliment them on what they are wearing has led to not only being lead to the store where they bought their item, but to lasting friendships. Friends of friends, and sometimes even friends of friends of friends have so graciously also given us insider knowledge of their area.
When I arrive somewhere, I find so much of it unexpected, at least in the way I naively imagined. I was so shocked when I didn’t find origami or Suzuki instrument training in Japan.
“Letting the destination take over” is what I strive for in my travels. It’s akin to the method of the Zen master who declines to teach a disciple how to hold the bow and shoot the arrow. Only if the archer can somehow achieve the right state of mind, will he be able hit the bull’s-eye. Like the archer, I need to relinquish conscious control when travelling and allow everything around me to guide me.
“If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.” –Dogen