Monday, August 10, 2009

Traveling Mindfully

My vacations aren't always restful. Usually, they're anything but, especially if they involve any kind of tourism: I have my list of must-sees from the guide book, and it's often a race agaisnt the clock to see as much as possible before I leave.

I love to travel, and thanks to cheap airfares and short distances, I've been fortunate to visit a number of beautiful European cities since I've lived in France: Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, and now Amsterdam (not to mention all the lovely French places I've been to). But lately I've been thinking about how I travel, and wondering what I really see when I visit a place at my usual pressured pace. Am I really any different from the stereotypical harried and hurried sneaker-clad tourist rushing from one site to the next, only stopping long enough to snap a few photos?

I'm not so sure. In fact, I suspect that I'm just as much of a point-and-shoot tourist as the next person; checking off my mental list, consuming rather than experiencing, the camera actually blocking my view. And it's honestly pretty exhausting most of the time.

Since I'm trying to bring more mindfulness into my daily life it certainly seems worth doing the same on vacation. This summer is therefore my experiment mindful traveling.

So here I am about to leave Amsterdam, and it's been a very different trip already. For starters I gave myself a little more time - 6 days instead of the usual 3 or 4. And when I was tempted to rush, my broken toe soon slowed me back down. While I was initially cursing this injury that took place on the very first day of my vacation, it ocurred to me later that the timing was just right. My injury doesn't keep me from walking, but I'm forced to stroll at a more leisurely pace - flâner as the French say - which is no easy thing for me.

I also spent 3 days of this trip with a baby, my friend A.'s 10-month old son J. And I quickly realized that babies don't just slow you down, they actually stop you right in your tracks. No matter what we had planned, we'd periodically need to head back to the apartment for a diaper change, food, sleep, etc. Or J. would just get too heavy for A. to carry in the sling for very long, and his tolerance for the stroller was pretty short-lived. So our time was basically organized around what baby J. could handle.

Luckily we had rented a little studio in the center of town so getting back to the apartment was easy. And since I had expected that the baby would cramp my style, I tacked on a extra few days to my trip so that I could do things the baby made impossible, like riding a bike, going to museums, eating in restaurants. Above all, it was a real pleasure to spend time with my friend and little baby J., so the first part of my trip was great. And the broken toe and the baby both provided me with endless opportunities to work on my patience and mindfulness.

For example, I've never actually spent that much time in my residence while traveling, which would have been extremely frustrating if I'd had a long list of things to do. But I kept thinking of a gatha (a sort of short poem to meditate on) from Plum Village: "Nowhere to go, nothing to do."

It's a strange, even incongruous gatha for a tourist, but in the end it was perfect: I'm on holiday in a beautiful place, and all I have to do is be here and appreciate where I am - stop and smell the foreign roses, so to speak (which I did a couple of times, actually - they smelled the same :-).

I saw less of Amsterdam by going more slowly, but I feel like I saw things differently. I never actually sat this much on holiday before, yet here I would spend hours just gazing out of the window of our apartment: watching people whizz by on the bicycle path below; observing the activities of the police station across the street; or spying on the prostitutes leaning out of their red-lit windows, trying to lure in customers. Or I'd sit on a bench in a plaza with an ice cream cone, or sipped a drink at an outdoor café while watching an elderly man in a G-string perform acrobatic feats on a rope above us (seriously - I'll post pictures as soon as I can). And my very favorite: sitting on the edge of a canal to give my toe a rest, feet dangling above the calm waters. Miraculously, I sat without impatience, just absorbing the energy of the water, the atmostphere, the city itself. Observing, eavesdropping, noticing simialrities and differences.

Forced to slow down and even sit, I'm slowly learning to sit and slow down. I'm usually terrible at relaxing and doing nothing, but here in Amsterdam I really put the gatha I mentioned into practice: In a place where there are a million things to do, I resolutely enjoyed doing none of them!


Anonymous said...

we loved it, too =)
a. and j.

vicki hartman said...

that sounds like the perfect way to enjoy a vacation and a busy city! good for you, i will take it as inspiration.