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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

Road to Discovery
...from The World Awaits: How to Travel Far and Well
Paul Otteson

To some extent, all travels are searches...
When I set out on a journey, I am looking for something. There are thousands of answers to the question of what that something might be. Those answers can be translated into psychological or spiritual jargon, but what's the point? I don't want some pat explanation of what the search is all about—it's the searching itself that matters. When I've been home too long, I'm nagged by the feeling that I ought to be searching for something—that I should, in other words, be traveling.

A successful search uncovers a piece of the unknown. It's nice when a search reveals something I've been hoping for or expecting, but the most potent feelings arise from revelation of the unanticipated. When I'm amazed by a sight or occurrence I didn't plan for, I get a sense of pure discovery. At the deepest level, it is those times of discovery that I desire most from travel—times of surprise, revelation, awe, even shock. ...Or maybe something as simple as seeing a bit of life through the eyes of another.

The sad thing is that it's too damn easy miss out on discovery when you're leaning heavily on the crutches of travel plans. It's oh-so-comfortable to go just where you planned to go and find just what you planned to find. In a new and unknown place where a feeling of comfort would be nice, a friendly paragraph in a well-thumbed guidebook might be the only familiar thing available to you. The book says, "The Sunshine Guest House is very nice." You've read that paragraph twenty times. Your plan is to go to the Sunshine; it's the most comfortable choice you can make—it's a beacon of comfort in the fog. You are relieved to find that it is, in fact, nice. Once again, your crutches have saved you from stumbling into the abyss of the uncomfortable unknown.

But it's by casting aside the crutches and plunging into that abyss that you radically improve the conditions needed for discovery to find you. Freeing yourself from foreknowledge and guidebook words, you open yourself up to experience that reveals. You can do it if you develop an attitude of trust... trust in yourself.


Planning a journey is like living through it before you live through it, so actually doing the thing has a slightly used feel to it. Travel plans are fated to include speculation, preconceived notions, second-hand opinion, artificially inflated hopes, and irrationally cultivated fears. Those abstractions stick with you. As you follow the plan and wander some new part of the world, there's a ghost in your mind of the imagined version—a ghost that can haunt.

Although it's impossible to go with ghost-free innocence into the world so that all experience is fresh and revealing, the opposite is not true: It's entirely possible to wander the globe completely possessed by the abstract ghosts of preparation. The only way to exorcise your ghosts is to behave spontaneously—to trust yourself and respond to impulse.

To be impulsive is to break from some expected or more rational course with a certain randomness—perhaps even carelessness. For the traveler, impulse can rise from the void left when plans are uncertain and choices abound. It appears as a fresh decision—perhaps just a leaning—but that is enough to show you a bit of you. As your spontaneous side emerges, your self-knowledge grows. Unless you are pathologically virtuous, your humility grows as well.

Traveling is a great time to follow your impulses since the choices you make will involve experiencing the planet in a new way (unless you follow an impulse to bail out and fly home). When you leave the plan to be spontaneous, you are being true to yourself—you are choosing your "true path". In my experience, that true path is always the one that yields the discovery I went looking for in the first place—and it can only be found by acting on impulse.

But now we come to an interesting paradox, for how do you act on impulse unless you plan for the opportunity to do so? Plan to be impulsive? Sure, why not: So you know you're spending a week in Oslo with an old friend, and after that you'll somehow make your way to Narvik for Summer Solstice, but you've got five days and no specific plan for getting there— impulse opportunity! So you're in Chile's Punta Arenas but the 1-week coastal boat tour you heard about doesn't exist— impulse opportunity! The Aussie friend you went to visit in Perth is traveling in Montana— impulse opportunity! You've got ninety minutes between buses in Hoh Chi Minh City— impulse opportunity!

Impulse opportunities exist where preplanning and foreknowledge don't. The more driven you feel by a predetermined plan, the less likely you are to respond to new ideas. The more you are compelled by advanced reservations, rail pass limitations, rigid schedules and the like, the less open you are to spontaneity. To create opportunities to act impulsively, just leave some blanks and vagueness in your itinerary. Be psyched to act in a somewhat unforeseen way when those blanks arrive. In fact, stay psyched to act impulsively at any time! The traveler receives a steady diet of opportune moments for inspired impulsiveness…'

See The World Awaits for more, as well as for a complete look at all the practicalities of planning and experiencing amazing journeys.


Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com