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Photo by Lex in the City
You know the feeling. You’re walking to the market, to the store, to meet a friend, all caught up in the plodding forward of your day…and then suddenly, you take notice of where you are. The light on a wall, the expressions on people’s faces, the feeling of the weather. A distinct sense of place creeps over you, and for a moment you feel like a traveler.
I love this feeling. It is a relief to me; ah, I haven’t forgotten what I learned on the road. How to be fully present in a place.
But it’s rare at home. We tend to get used to our surroundings pretty quickly, especially if they’re surroundings we’ve grown up in or lived in for years. And this familiarity isn’t all bad—our brains, freed up from paying acute attention to the unknown, can focus on other things—writing, school, relationships, work, projects.
And yet sometimes, the desire (Overwhelming! Insatiable! Get me on a freaking bus to Belize!) for that novelty and spark of travel is overwhelming. Sometimes a sense of sadness creeps into the everyday—why can’t I see and feel this place like I’ve seen and felt so many other places traveling?
So this is a guide to traveling at home–taking “home” to be a place you’ve stuck around for a while and grown accustomed to. A guide to seeing it through a traveler’s eyes and bringing it back to life again.
As simple as strolling out the front door into the great beyond. Pay attention to detail as you go. The way the light hits buildings, the noises and conversations drifting out of restaurants, the sky, the view.
Roam without concern for routes and take advantage of the fact that you know this place’s geography well. Wander into neighborhoods you don’t usually explore and examine them as if you were stumbling across them for the first time.
See a city from different angles—how does it look from the top of a hill? From the bottom? Walking from the west, or east? Sometimes, when I feel my senses have been numbed by walking the same old routes around Oaxaca, I cross the city and go way out east, where the city starts dipping into the valley.
Then I turn around and start walking back, this time with a view of the narrow parallel streets stretching before me, and the arched back of a purple mountain in the distance. It feels like a different city.
Sometimes all you need is a fresh point of view.
Even if you are living in a village buried deep in the Nepali highlands or in, say, Columbus, Ohio, there are places a tourist (even if he or she just happened to get stranded overnight there) would go in your area. Investigate as if you were planning a trip—where would you go, where would the tourist lit take you?
Go as if you know nothing about your hometown at all. Imagine the tourist destinations were your first impression of it. What would they reveal to you? How would you interpret them? What would you write home about them?
Duck into a restaurant nearby, order a local delicacy (buffalo wings? Wisconsin cheese curd? Spaghetti and meatballs? Chilaquiles?), and eat it as if the flavors were a revelation, an odd local phenomenon. Imagine all of it is giving you new information about where you are and what this place is like.
Sometimes the best way to yank yourself out of your own stale vision is to exploit the viewpoint of a novice. Perhaps “exploit” is a tad harsh: offer a couch, a good meal, a ride, a long conversation, local insight, and in exchange throw yourself behind the fresh perspective of your guest.
Couchsurfing is an excellent way to travel at home. The rush of traveling rubs off, and having to think like a traveler and act like a guide illuminates your hometown as you don’t usually see it. You may, like me, end up surprised at how much you take the local for granted once you actually get to show it off.
Having family or friends pop in for a visit can make you appreciate all the little things you love about your home, the little things that are so etched into the everyday that you no longer notice them. And it can bring the big things—the local attractions, the feel and vibe of your hometown—back into focus.
Unless you’re living in a tent buried deep somewhere in the Andes, there are bound to be at least a few people from a few different places in your area. Hit up Chinatown if you’re in a major city, practice your Spanish at a Mexican restaurant, volunteer at a shelter for refugees, or work with immigrants.
Hearing about the experiences of a foreigner or an immigrant in your hometown paints it in a whole different light. You may be surprised, as I was roaming through a Mexican grocery store in Columbus, at just how different the place you think you know so well looks from this perspective.
One thing I do when I need a sense of escape is hop on a bus. And then another. And another. No, I’m not fleeing to Guatemala, I’m just riding around. One public bus after another, bumping and jostling ‘round Oaxaca.
Maybe this is intense nostalgia for all the buses I took crossing South America, or maybe I’m just a big baby who loves the gentle rocking motions of moving vehicles, but I’m willing to guess that many travelers find something soothing about being in motion.
The familiar feeling of looking out the window, trying to put the pieces together, absorbing the scenery. The bus transports me out of my neurotic consciousness, my obsession with whatever I need to do that day and the next, and makes me feel like I’m traveling.
Travel, I think, should not merely be the act of getting way the hell out there into the Himalayas or hitchhiking your way across Borneo. It can be that—but it can, and I would argue should, also be a way of seeing.
Thinking of travel as a particular type of vision frees you from the obligation to go fleeing from one destination to another, and liberates you to rediscover the places you think you know so well.
Need some more advice about planning an in-town vacation. Check out these seven steps!