"What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?" she asked.
"Let me tell you about the most beautiful experiences I have ever had," he offered.
She listened closely...
2015 was by far the hardest year I have experienced in my 29 years of life. No other year comes close to having as much heartbreak, confusion, missteps, or emotional breaking points as this past year. But no other year has allowed me so much room for transformation, either.
True to a commitment I made at the end of 2014, this past year has been one of searching. In this year of searching, I traveled a lot. At least once a month I would jet off somewhere. Most of these trips averaged about 36 hours. Two(ish) days, one night, and a full experience.
A city one-night stand, if you will.
These one-night stands were perfect for me. Just enough time to discover the city I was in, meet a few new people, eat and drink, sleep, brunch (I always brunch when I am away), and travel home. These trips energized me. They provided me valuable insight into how far I could push myself, the risks I am willing to take, and the confidence I possess.
Oh, and I took almost all my 36 hours trips solo.
I fell in love with solo traveling in 2015. And though someday I hope to find a magical travel partner that I can travel easily with, last year's solo travel was the most compassionate thing I could have done for myself. When I travel alone I am forced to be present with myself each step of the way. I also have no excuses. The trip is mine. I discovered the importance of owning each trip, exploring and noticing with myself, and driving my own adventures.
So, what did I learn about travel and life and self through this year of adventures?
1. There are interesting people everywhere. If you smile you will meet them. If you ask questions you will get to know them.
Though I didn't document every conversation or person I met on my trips last year, I met some truly fascinating people. When you travel alone, you need to smile. Learn the names of the people placed near you and talk to everyone.
I met people from all walks of life, all ages, all professions. Traveling solo would not have been as exciting if I didn't get a glimpse into the lives of so many new people. I realized that a smile is the best conversation starter.
I began to keep a series of questions I used to get to know people. Not the benign "what do you do?" or "where are you from," questions. Questions that I cared about. Questions that has answers that matter and dig deeply. Questions that beget stories.
Craft your questions. Ask them frequently. Listen closely. Learn deeply.
2. Don't rent a car
Renting a car usually seems like such a convenient idea. Don't do it. There is no where I traveled that I needed a car. In addition to saving money by using Uber and public transportation to get around, not having a car forces you to be with the people. It forces you to really see a city at its gut- level. It forces you get to know that driver that gives you best recommendation for brunch or tells you about the secret bar hidden behind that inconspicuous green door (buzz twice, enter the shop next door, and wait for the door in the back to be unlocked).
Walking a city also allows you to discover some of most beautiful details that might be missed when zipping around in a car. The city's trash cans, the benches, the side street with beautifully architectured homes- slow your pace or you'll miss so much beauty.
Move wisely. Walk frequently. Notice closely. Learn deeply.
3. Stay near a campus
If I was in a city that had any universities or colleges, I would always choose to stay close to these places. I have found hotels and Airbnb's near campus tend to be a little bit less expensive than staying in the heart of the city. Plus, there are usually a ton of local spots to explore nearby.
Whatever you do, don't stay near the airport. These locations lack everything except for tired people and bad restaurants.
The other upside to staying near a campus? Colleges are beautiful and offer a ton to see, so you can easily jog or stroll around the area and see a ton of beautiful sites. And adding beauty to your travels is always the goal.
Stay wisely. Risk frequently. Explore closely. Learn deeply.
4. Pay attention to anything you find beautiful. Then, spent extra time in those spaces.
It is amazing how many pictures people snap while traveling, yet it's hard for them to articulate why they even bothered to save these moments. When I travel, I don't take a ton photos. It forces me to memorize the beautiful things I see. It forces me to write and record my own observations. It forces me to spend a little more time in the spaces I find beautiful.
On almost every trip I have taken this past year I rearranged my scheduled plans to spend more time in the place I was currently standing. Whether it was an art gallery with a stunning exhibit that I decided to move through a second time, or a bookshop with that book I had been searching for all year long, or a coffee shop with the most curious people- there always seemed to be a good reason to stand a little longer with those moments of beauty.
On four different occasions I actually delayed my flights home and stayed longer because the beauty was just too good to let go.
So often we truncate experiences to move on to the next thing. Take a picture. Check-in. Tweet it. Move on. And I get it- I am restless and like to keep moving. But when you feel beauty emerge in your body and you see something spectacular in front of you, stand still a little longer. Take notice of the experience you are having. Cement the sights and sounds and feelings until they become a body memory, not just a social media post. Give up many experiences for deeper experiences.
Go to where the beauty lives. Stand still frequently. Feel closely. Learn deeply.
I can honestly say that traveling was the easiest thing I did last year. Despite the struggle that was 2015, it was also a year of more beauty, experiences, and miles than ever before. The learning was deep, the beauty was overwhelming, and the growth was immense.
Here's to keeping it moving in 2016- one city at a time.