By Paulo Coelho
When I was very young I discovered that, for me, a journey is the best way to learn. I still have this pilgrim’s soul to this day, and have decided to relate some of the lessons I have learned, in the hopes that they will be useful to other like-minded pilgrims.
1] Avoid museums. This advice may seem absurd, but let us reflect a little together: if you are in a foreign city, isn’t it far more interesting to seek out the present, than the past? Usually, people feel obliged to go to museums, because ever since they were small they have been told that traveling is a search for this type of culture. Of course museums are important, but they require time and objectivity – you need to know what it is you want to see there, otherwise you will come away with the impression that you saw several things which are fundamental to your life, but cannot remember what they were.
2] Frequent bars. Unlike museums, this is where the life of the city can be found. Bars are not discotheques, but places where the people gather to have a drink, pass the time, and are always willing to chat. Buy a newspaper and observe the bustle of people coming and going. If someone speaks to you, strike up a conversation, however banal: one cannot judge the beauty of a path merely by looking at its entrance.
3] Be open and forward. The best tourist guide is someone who lives there, knows everything, but doesn’t work at a travel agency. Go out into the street, choose someone you wish to speak to, and ask him or her for directions (where is such-and-such a cathedral? Where is the post office?) If this bears no fruit, try someone else – I guarantee that in the end you will find excellent company.
4] Try and travel alone, or – if you are married – with your spouse. It will be harder work, no one will be looking after you, but this is the only way of truly leaving your country. Group travel is just a disguised way of pretending to go abroad, where you speak your own language, obey the leader of the pack, and concern yourself more with the internal gossip of the group than with the place you are visiting.
5] Don’t compare. Don’t compare anything – not prices, nor cleanliness, nor quality of life, nor means of transport, nothing! You are not traveling in order to prove you live better than others – your search, in fact, is to find out how others live, what they have to teach, how they view reality and the extraordinary things in life.
6] Understand that everyone understands you. Even if you don’t speak the language, don’t be afraid: I have been in many places in which there was no way of communicating with words, and I always found support, guidance, important suggestions, even girlfriends. Some people think that if you travel alone, you will go out into the street and be lost forever. All you need is the hotel card in your pocket, and – should you find yourself in extreme circumstances – take a taxi and show it to the driver.
7] Don’t buy much. Spend your money on things which you won’t have to carry: good theater, restaurants, walks. Nowadays, with the global market and the Internet, you can have everything you want without having to pay for excess baggage.
8] Don’t try and see the world in a month. It is better to stay in one city for four or five days, that visit five cities in a week. A city is like a capricious woman, who needs time to be seduced and reveal herself completely.
9] A journey is an adventure. Henry Miller said that it is far more important to discover a church no one has heard of, than go to Rome and feel obliged to visit the Sistine Chapel, with two hundred thousand tourists shouting all around you. Go to the Sistine Chapel, but also get lost in the streets, wander down alleyways, feel free to look for something, without knowing what it is. I swear you will find it and that it will change your life.
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