One of my great joys when travelling is spontaneous and unexpected experiences: wandering down a hidden lane way, striking up a conversation with fellow travellers or locals, enjoying a simple and delicious meal in a tiny cafe or restaurant, browsing in markets, visiting an off-beat gallery or museum that I come across while walking through an unknown neighbourhood. Some of my most precious memories are bound up in these unplanned moments.
But one of the things that makes travelling relaxing and enjoyable for me is knowing I have a place to put my head at night and a way to get there. I don’t want to think about those prosaic arrangements any more than I need to – so I can focus on the experiences of being in the places I am visiting. And I derive significant pleasure and enjoyment from the process of learning about a place I am travelling to, seeking to understand a little about its history and culture, and planning something of what I will do and see, before I get there.
The cult of the spontaneous, and the pervasive exultation of impulsive wanderlust for travellers overflows with positive connotations – it’s free-spirited, opportunistic, fun, and challenging. Those who like to take a more thoughtful or considered approach to their travel plans are often defined as inflexible, unimaginative and dull, or even lacking in courage to seize the moment and grasp adventure with both hands. But I want the best of both approaches. Spontaneity can be reckless and impulsive, but it can also be exciting and empowering. Planning can be rigid and fear-filled, but it’s immersive and delightful when it does not become an end in itself, and leaves room for changes and diversions.
When I was in New York two years ago, I knew I wanted to visit Trinity Church and Chapel in Wall Street. This came from a long standing love of the works of Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, her correspondence with a London antiquarian bookseller, and a number of books and essays about living in New York, what she called “the one great city the 20th century has created.” It was on my must-see list. And it was a marvellous experience. I attended a free lunchtime concert in the beautiful and delicate chapel, with its duck egg blue and pale pink walls, lit with cut glass chandeliers. It was the church where George Washington worshipped in the early days of the city, and has a very old cemetery of settler’s graves sitting crookedly and unconcernedly in the middle of chaotic Wall Street. But I also discovered that this church had been fundamental in providing care, compassion and practical support to the workers who dealt with the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001, and there was an understated but very moving exhibition in the chapel. I spent an hour there, moved to tears on more than one occasion, and then walked down the street past tourists who were clambering like insects over the famous bull statue, to spend another hour with a group of ordinary New Yorkers celebrating a Wednesday afternoon choral evensong in the main church. It was a day that surpassed all expectations of what the visit to the chapel would be, and I am so glad that I had planned to go there, and then did so much more that I had not planned.
On the flip side I remember driving around Christchurch in New Zealand, on the last day of a holiday with some university friends, when no one could or would make up their mind what we would do that day, and we ended up doing nothing at all until it was time to drop off the camper. We were individually and collectively enraged but took no responsibility for the outcome, in the way only a group of early 20 somethings could. Perhaps that experience is where my leaning towards more rather than less planning, and my passion for finding out about places to see and things to do when I travel comes from.
It seems to me the way we approach travelling, and how much planning we do needs to suit our personality and style, with a healthy dose of stretching and growing beyond where we are comfortable, and we should be unashamed about that. If not, we are travelling in a way that’s not authentic, and travel should deepen our understanding of who we are and the world we live in, not reflect the experiences we think we should be having.