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Unintended Staycations

Part 2: Ways to explore the world mindfully without going far.

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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) basically prohibits travel right now. Attending gatherings of any size are taboo—if there are any in-person events left to cancel. Who knows how long these restrictions will last? But in the interim, you have a life that craves some pleasure, but without much risk.

Tabling your vacation plan opens up some newly acquired time, but doesn’t satisfy your wanderlust in the least. This blog is Part 2 of my Unintended Staycation blog. Here is a link to Part 1 if you missed it.

You can explore the world mindfully—without going very far. It’s not where you go but how. Travel through imagination has always been intriguing, and one sure way to get a time-out from everyday life—especially since actual travel isn’t possible anytime soon.

Since the invention of the printing press, we’ve found ways to learn about the world through vicarious experiences and travel the world without leaving home. Before travel was a popular pastime, the only ones who actually went far and wide were explorers, adventurers, those escaping a hostile environment, and royalty. But the rest of us learned about the world from oral history, before written language, and then from books when they became available. Reading offers a passage through a time and place wormhole. It provides a welcome escape from the home exile that COVID-19 requires.

The Odyssey, an ancient Greek tale widely read for centuries, excited our ancestors about travel, but also warned of lurking danger. Much later, Gulliver’s Travels, written in the 1700s, was an immediate success and since then has never been out of print. Curiosity about what lies beyond our personal experiences is a driving force in human nature.

Imagine being engrossed in a tale that seems so real that you can feel the thrill, or the pain, of the protagonist. Or maybe the story serves to whet your appetite for a similar real-life encounter. Books with compelling storylines keep us focused, entertained, and fully immersed. More than that, by trying on someone else’s adventure, we can learn more about ourselves.

Some of my favorite reads do just that. Here are some suggestions: The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity gives precise instructions for seeing the world creatively and actually helps you inhabit the artist’s life. As Inward Travelers, we benefit by discovering our creative self, long-buried or previously unknown, in order to enhance and intensify travels in our own neighborhood or far-away places.

The bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, takes you through the author’s transformational quest for self- understanding through Italy, India, and Bali. Searching for her place in the world, this book guides readers through an emotional process of finding oneself by immersion in unfamiliar cultures. The places provide a background to the author’s internal struggles and eventual triumphs.

Recent award-winning Down to the Sea in Ships chronicles the author’s journeys as a passenger on giant ocean-going container vessels that bring consumer products to working ports in exotic places. It evokes life on board and the real challenges of sailors and the unpredictable seas. It’s hardly the day-to-day life you’ll find on a cruise ship, but you might encounter some of it on a freighter that carries just a few passengers and travels to small and mysterious places.

Whether you read non-fiction or fiction that takes place in a fascinating place, you can begin to fine-tune your own preferences for geography and culture without taking a step into a journey. Here’s one from my own experience.

I read Mary Queen of Scots and very much wanted to retrace some of Mary’s steps in Scotland. When I finally made it to Edinburgh, it felt familiar even though I’d never been there before. Because of my personal introduction through the book, I was well acquainted with the tumultuous history of Scotland during the 1500s. Its descriptions actually helped navigate my sight-seeing. More importantly, history came alive as I imagined the drama of that long-ago time and place in its true setting. Walking the cobblestone lanes next to stone buildings that still have soot marks from the past brought to mind the coal fires that warmed early inhabitants in this northern climate.

Here are ways to further intensify your own sensations while you remain cozy in your favorite chair. Channel the authors’ firsthand thoughts, feelings, observations, and experiences:

  • Start with an author you love. For travel-themed novels, James Michener is masterful. His extensive research helps destinations come alive. Consider Michener’s books about Hawaii, the Iberian Peninsula, Ancient Rome, and the Chesapeake Bay, in America’s Southeast. Of course, he always included maps and timelines to trace the journey more precisely.
  • Start with a place. Interested in India? Consider books written by Jhumpa Lahiri, who makes her birthplace seem intensely real and jump off the printed page.
  • Start with a biography of a historical figure who transformed his/her nation. It can give you an in-depth look at a place you’d like to know more intimately. Consider Alexander Hamilton, the book by Ron Chernow, or the stageplay his writing inspired. It provides a portrait of life in the British West Indies as well as the U.S. eastern seaboard in the late 1700s, as well as an in-depth picture of colonial and revolutionary New York City and Philadelphia. It also provides insight into the fledgling, often chaotic United States government.

Armchair exploring avoids all of the hassles of the real thing, and it’s one more way to satisfy your wanderlust. But don’t limit yourself to reading. Countless TV and online resources offer you virtual travel experiences at museums around the world, including our own Smithsonian Museum.

Follow a veteran wanderer like Rick Steves whose syndicated past adventures around the world are widely available on TV, radio, and blogs to read. And because performing artists prefer to have an audience, even a virtual one, you can find concerts, plays, and operas available during the COVID-19 shutdown for live screening.

We’d all rather have the option to go where we choose without restriction. But given the current options, you are free to choose between the feeling of annoyance at the limitations, or instead explore the world mindfully in novel ways.

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