We call it sightseeing, of course. Emphasis on sight. And we take lots of photographs so that we can look at them again later. But perhaps we’re missing out on experiencing our travels fully if we don’t make an effort to involve the rest of our senses, too. Here are my tips for how to do this.
After seeing, tasting is the next most obvious sense to use on your travels. But many of us, including me, don’t always do this very well. In fact, I think using your sense of taste to experience a new culture is a skill you really have to practice.
As well as getting yourself accustomed to tastes that you don’t usually find at home, for example, being able to eat really spicy food in Korea or strangely textured raw seafood in Japan, you should do some research before you hit the road. The real local foods are sometimes hard for travelers to find, because we don’t know what to ask for.
Surf the web to find examples of typical local foods, and pay special attention to dishes that might belong to just one particular city or region. If you note down some names you’ll have a good chance of being able to eat authentically by asking around in restaurants once you arrive. Too often I’ve returned from a trip somewhere, only to have someone ask me if I’d tried some unusual meal I’d never heard of. Arm yourself with information before you go.
And a side note: tasting might not only involve food. My niece and nephew from California visited Australia last summer, and reported that the water in the Indian Ocean tastes significantly more salty than their Pacific Ocean water.
Using the sense of touch is really a reflex, but we don’t often think it over later. Walk through a fabric stall at a market or even a supermarket and you’ll probably notice yourself reaching out to feel the texture of an object in front of you. Make this a more intentional practice and start comparing and contrasting what you feel.
All kinds of objects on your travels have interesting feels and textures to them, and you often don’t have to go far out of your way to find them. Even the different textures of banknotes across the world — try Australia’s slippery plastic notes, for a start — make for interesting observations. If you’re a journal writer, these are the vivid memories that will make a destination come alive for you again when you re-read your journal entries.
In my case, I’m insatiably curious about touching beach sand. Blindfold me and drop handfuls of sand from various beaches around the world through my fingers and I might even be able to identify a fair few of them.
There are, let’s be perfectly honest, destinations that have a really distinct smell from your homeland. For me, Vietnam was the first place I visited that completely overwhelmed my sense of smell. That first evening in Ho Chi Minh City, I wandered the streets trying to identify individual smells from the cacophony invading my nose.
Somehow, the distressing part was that after three or four days, I couldn’t smell anything unusual anymore. My senses had become accustomed to the various scents of a Vietnamese city, and it was all every day again. After returning from a day trip out into the countryside, I could get a bit more of an impression of the smells of the city, but it was never the same as when I’d first arrived. I’m guessing it’s the same for most of us, so make a big effort when you first arrive in a new place to identify and appreciate the smells around you.
You can also indulge your sense of smell in particularly fragrant places — smell the flowers in the local botanical gardens, or take a sniff of a dozen different incense sticks at a market stall. Smells are something you simply can’t take home with you, so savor them while you can.
Listening to Your Destination
The first way to listen to your destination is to take off your iPod. I’m guilty of this in my hometown, and on the odd day my battery’s flat I’m always surprised by the interesting conversation snippets I overhear, or the new languages of tourists that I hear around me. Simply hearing the every day noises of your destination can give you all kinds of information. You can learn a few words of the language, understand how people’s intonation reflects their moods, or be amused by the cute bell sound made when someone wants to stop the bus.
You can go one step further and record interesting sounds on your travels, too. You might pick some up on your video recorder, or better take some kind of MP3 recorder, and listen out for particular, typical noises that you can take home as souvenirs. In Japan, for example, I was obsessed with recording the various tunes that traffic lights would sing when it was time for pedestrians to cross.
Similarly, if you meet some friendly locals, get them to record a message for you. Ask them some questions about their homeland, or get them to record a phrase in their own language.
My sense of sight while traveling improved most after I met the man who’s now my husband. I think that’s because he’s an artist, and taught me to look at things from new angles and to see objects in other ways. As he rightly explained, I’m a “words person” and I could definitely tell you what the captions at the museum said or what the signs on the bus stop were telling us, but ask me the color or shape and I’d be lost.
Practice seeing more than you usually see. Take time to really look at a church, street or hostel room, and imagine how you would describe it on the phone to someone back home, someone who can’t see any of what you’re seeing. I was amazed at all the details I’d been missing all these years.
So next time you’re traveling, remember that it’s not just about sightseeing. We’ve got five senses to use and they can make all of our trips more memorable. And any more tips on making the most of all the senses while we travel are very welcome.