How to be a mindful traveller
Travel and mindfulness go hand in hand. When we’re experiencing new places, our minds are exposed to new sights, sounds and smell, so we’re naturally switched on more than in our usual daily lives.
But sometimes it’s not easy to be a mindful traveller. We have to push ourselves and always be thinking in new ways to really get the most out of our travel experiences and see the world from an authentic perspective.
From navigating with all you senses, to interacting with locals, and acutely paying attention to scenes around you, this guide takes you step-by-step through mindful travel, and on your way to more meaningful, immersive discoveries.
Talk to locals
This is Mindful Travel 101: take the time to get to know at least one local person in the place you’re travelling to. The easiest way to connect with locals is to opt for homestay accommodation, giving you the opportunity to stay with someone from the place you’re visiting. These hosts are often keen to offer tips and recommendations – everyone loves showing off home.
Failing that, hop on a tour with a company that hires only local guides. Do a bit of digging to find a tour that looks at a place from an alternative perspective instead of hauling you to the standard sights. Most major cities have groups running these offbeat tours (often free/tips-based) and they are usually run by people passionate about presenting their home from an real viewpoint.
Take the time to understand
One of the main elements of being a mindful traveller is never taking anything on face value. As a guest, sometimes it’s easy for us to get swept up in the beauty of a place and let that mask any social or political issues that are bubbling under the surface. A city like Porto is a prime example of this – gorgeous façade, but a struggling economy, dwindling population, and frustrated citizens.
Do some reading before your trip to learn about any history and topics you should be aware of before visiting. Be selective with where you get this information from and use trustworthy sources. Once you get talking to that aforementioned local, if appropriate, ask them how these matters have affected them – but be careful if it’s a touchy subject!
Put your camera away
We’ll be the first to admit that we are addicted to taking photos while travelling. Who isn’t? That said, living life through a lens can distract us away from taking it all in. There are times when it’s appropriate to be a shutterbug, and other time when it’s best to put the camera down and view scenery with your own eyes.
Get into the routine of perfecting the find balance between the two. Take a few shots of a place then put your camera back in its case and spend double that time looking at what you’ve photographed.
Smile and be open
The mindful traveller is approachable, empathetic, and positive, so our body language should match those feelings. Smiling is one of your most powerful weapons for appearing this way and important for travel – mindful or otherwise – so make sure you approach situations with a humble beam on your face.
Keep your body language respectful, meaning don’t get in people’s faces and personal space. By staying open and dignified in this way, locals will be more inclined to approach and speak to you as they’ll recognise you’re not a pesky tourist but instead a thoughtful observer.
Abide by local customs
Speaking of respect, as a guest in another country we must be conscious of local habits and considerately stick to them. One of the prime examples of this is dressing customs in countries that require you to wear modest clothing. If you respect the way of life of the people around you, they in turn will respect you back.
Paying attention to the world around you is essential for being a mindful traveller. To understand more about a destination and how it ticks, we must take time to absorb it.
When you wander through a new place, try not to be overly pre-occupied with burying your nose in a guidebook or map. Look up to the tops of buildings and peek into shops. Find a square to sit in for a couple of hours and watch life go by. Don’t blankly stare at scenes but unpack them: is there a specific time you see lots of people out having coffee? Do they usually go with friends or do you see locals alone? Picking up on these minute details is how we understand more of everyday life on unfamiliar ground.
Question what’s presented to you
When on the road, remember that the information presented to tourists isn’t always the real picture of a place. In fact, it almost never is. Tourism boards have a natural habit of wanting to show off the most beautiful parts of their home, and of course these shouldn’t be totally ignored. However, solely sticking to these recommendations leaves us with a skewed, often romanticised, version of events.
By all means stop-off at all the famous sights, but know that these aren’t the whole story. Where possible, ask yourself what that sight would mean to a local – would they ever visit? Where would they go instead? Is there something more authentic?
Respect people’s space
We might be after that perfect, intimate travel shot, or want to see everyday life up-close-and-personal, but we must think before approaching private spaces. It’s not cool to make locals feel like tourist attractions, or barge in on their lives.
It’s also, however, not out of the question that you should achieve these things. First and foremost, broach the subject with genuine curiosity and a willingness to learn, using that positive body language and without a camera in-hand. Most locals don’t mind telling you about their lives (some even revel in it), and you may well find open invitations as long as you tackle the situation delicately and honestly.
Navigate with all your senses
To be mindful travellers, we must not only see things with our eyes, but tune into smells, tastes, and sounds too. This makes for deeper, more immersive travel experiences that remain etched in our minds for longer.
Make the effort to consciously listen more and use your nose to seek out delicious food. This especially applies to places that are busy and hectic – destinations like India or local markets across the globe – where the senses can run wild. Pick apart the layers that you can see, smell and hear and let the parts that intrigue you the most guide you through a place.
Not everyone is very lucky to be able to see the world, that’s reason enough to practice mindfulness as you travel. Showing gratitude for your experiences and any kindness you’re show while visiting someone else’s country is a key habit for the mindful traveller.
Give back and help out where possible, and always, always say thank you. It sounds like a no-brainer, but practising gratitude when travelling can’t be stressed enough.
Understand that you’re a guest, not a local
In today’s world, there is a huge stress on acting like a local when travelling. While it’s of course encouraged that we learn more about local life when on the road, attempting to fully assimilate yourself into it and flaunt yourself as a local it’s going slightly too far. Nobody likes a know-it-all, especially one who, well… doesn’t know it all.
Show humility and avoid claiming other people’s cultural identity. After all, there’s no harm in being proud of where you’re from yourself and well aware that you’re a foreigner.
Keep a journal
We live in a world of typing and technology, but going back to basics by keeping a journal – yes, one written on paper with a pen – is one of the best travel gifts you can give yourself. That’s not only in terms of having something to look back on in years to come, but journaling also creates a space where you have to pick apart the things you’ve seen and done.
It takes discipline, but writing down your travel experiences every few days in a journal forces your mind to reflect on your discoveries. Instead of just keeping a record of the practical parts, also write down how that trip is making you feel. What have you noticed about life in this new place? What do you think it would be like if you were a local?
If in doubt, listen listen listen. This is the key to basically anything in life, but especially so when you’re aiming to be a mindful traveller. We must pay special attention to listening to people’s stories, the sounds of a city, or the booming silence on a mountaintop.
Taking a moment to quiet yourself and listen to the world – this alone will teach you more than you thought possible.
How do you practice being a mindful traveller?