Anyone who’s travelled to any degree (from a week-long beach vacation to a semester abroad) knows the amount of research that can really go into travel. It’s hard to find yourself bored when you have an upcoming trip. You can spend hours reading Lonely Planet books, watching YouTube videos, reading about necessary vaccines, emailing other travellers, and so on. I know because I’ve been doing this for months now. When my friend asks me what I’ve been up to, I’ve condensed it all to calling it ‘research’. The problem is that while sometimes research can help prevent stress on the road, other times it can completely hinder the freedom that comes with travel.
Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.
I recently took a half-a-month vacation to Europe. Just about one week in Berlin, and one week in Madrid was the original plan. My week in Berlin went more or less as I suspected it might. I had planned the right bars to see (to a degree), the neighbourhoods to check out, and the tours to do. It was all incredibly rewarding and made Berlin one of my favourite cities to date (a post in itself for another day). I still pushed my limits and explored things I hadn’t expected to try, but more or less my trip was constrained to the plan I created before going.
The second part of the trip I left completely open. In my long-term desire to visit Berlin I totally neglected to research Madrid. To be honest, I completely ran out of time. I don’t even know why I originally chose Madrid aside for the fact that it was new terrain to explore, a capital city, and a name I was familiar with. When I arrived on the first night I felt slightly confused about what I was going to find in Madrid. Getting off the plane and heading to my first hostel I felt lost in the busy streets with my bags in search of the hostel. Admittedly, it was beautiful. But I was still reeling from my time in Berlin, so my internal dialogue went something like this.
Yes… I get it. Madrid is so pretty. Nice looking people, great shopping, winding streets. Nice. Madrid is nice. I wish I had an extra weekend in Berlin. I wonder what’s happening tonight at that massive techno club I didn’t make it to. I should plan another trip back to Berlin soon.
My first night out in Madrid with some people from the hostel was fun enough, but I didn’t find myself connecting with anyone too strongly. Day two is when things began to change. I met up with a friend of a friend who offered to take me his favourite seafood restaurant and teach me about the city. From there he showed me his favourite gay, Spanish, hipster bar (it's a thing). There, we ran into a friend of his on a date, and joined them for a drink. They didn’t speak English, but they understood that I heard Seville was worth seeing. The friend of the friend of the friend then stepped outside and made a call to his brother who lives in Seville. Minutes later, before I finished my gin and tonic (which is all the rage in Spain these days), he came back inside and told the mutual friend in Spanish that I had a tour guide in Seville if I wanted- his brother had offered to show me around. Just like that, hospitality. I was amazed at how the week ahead was coming together.
Later that evening we went to my new friend’s favourite gay bar. From there we met some other Europeans who were living in Madrid for years and went clubbing together. From there came a ridiculously romantic three days- a Sunday stroll through the busy El Rastro flea market, frozen yogurt on a curb in Puerta del Sol, late night red wine in the Mercado de San Miguel, and laying out in the sun in El Retiro Park. From there I continually met more and more people who showed me such tremendous amounts of hospitality that I couldn’t convey my gratitude in this post if I tried.
I ultimately ended up in Seville, a seven hour bus ride to the south of Spain, completely unplanned. I was then showed around by two Spanish guys who brought me to museums, on afternoon tapas and beer runs, to hidden bars, and to the most picturesque spots in the city, including a stunning palace where the recent season of Game of Thrones filmed at (the city of Dorne).
The day wound down at one of their apartments where he cooked us all dinner (even though he was a fairly poor student). The night finally concluded at midnight when I had to head all the way back across town to my hostel. I planned on hopping on the last bus (since I was quite far from the tourist trail). But when my host found out that he misread the bus schedule and that I missed the last bus, he offered to walk me back home (a one hour walk, at midnight) even when he had school the next day. His English was lacking, but so was my Spanish. I’ll never forget that funny speed-walk through sleepy Seville as he pointed to things and translated them in Spanish, and I did the same in English. 'Perro not Pato' he says, trying to explain that a dog and a duck shouldn't be confused. All of this wouldn’t have happened if I had over-planned Madrid. Here I was in a new city, with a new friend, all because I let the energy of Spain take over me.
I truly learned what spontaneity means from that one week in Spain. And it’s all because I threw research out the window.
How do you find the right balance between research and spontaneity in life?