You are how you travel.
You are how you travel.
I think the vice-versa is true, too:
How you travel becomes who you are.
I’m living proof. I wouldn’t be nearly as outgoing, open-minded, adventurous, confident, and even bacteria-resistant if not for travel.
To better explain my point, here’s an example of the transformative travel story captured in the cover image of this post and suggestions for how to travel to create similar experiences yourself.
Go for the story.
Travel is all about the story.
(Life is, too, I’d argue.)
I’d go so far as to say the better your story, the better your trip. So when planning and executing your travels, keep one question top of mind to guide your decision-making and drastically increase your chances of experiencing a transformative trip.
- Not “What are the most popular attractions?”
- Not “Where is it that the Blonde Abroad took her Instagram photo I want to recreate?”
- Not “Is there WiFi?”
- What can I do to make this a better story?
Story structure at its simplest is a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it.
When traveling, you’re the character. What you want is a transformative experience. And your obstacles are uncertainty and discomfort.
Set out for an extraordinary setting.
Most travelers are lazy, herdish, FOMO-fearers, so you don’t have to venture too far afield to find extraordinary settings for your travel stories.
Even mass-market Lonely Planet travel guidebooks can help you.
That’s how I ended up on a boat outside an ancient trading town on the Kenyan coast named Lamu, where my story’s photo was taken.
Kim and I were traveling to Kenya to visit our good friend Frenchy. He was my roommate in Geneva back when I had a corporate job and had been relocated to Nairobi a couple of years prior.
As I always do before traveling somewhere new, I got a guidebook and read it cover to cover. I flipped past the featured highlights for hints of less-famous, more story-worthy novelties:
- Unusual-sounding local dishes
- Quirky or especially friendly accommodation
- Special events and festivals
A couple of sentences caught my attention: Something called the Lamu Cultural Festival. It involved music, boat races, and, most intriguingly, donkey races.
Donkeys speeding through Lamu’s famously narrow alleyways?! That was something you see every day back home in Vancouver.
As luck would have it, the festival’s dates coincided with ours, so Kim and I booked flights to check it out.
Seek out interesting characters.
Even if you don’t think you’re the most interesting protagonist, you can spice up your travel story by surrounding yourself with a colorful cast.
They can be travel companions, guides, owners and employees of establishments you visit, or people you meet at the bar. Anyone. Even animals. (Shoutout to Fudge in Lambert’s Bay!)
Your task is to proactively seek out these characters and, like a good writer, add depth to them.
In our Lamu story, Jawad stole the scene with a starring role.
Jawad had to have been Lamu’s youngest boat taxi captain. Most of his peers were close to double his 20-ish years of age. As a captain, he shuttled tourists and locals alike up and down Lamu Island or to adjacent islands.
Jawad loved what he did. He loved it so much and worked so hard at it that he’d often sleep in his boat. Jawad was passionate about a lot of other things, too. He was that type of guy.
Kim and I were lucky enough to hire him to take us to nearby Manda Island to watch the sunset. I could immediately tell he was a character worth getting to know better.
Take on new roles for yourself.
Travel is not only a physical escape from the regular routine of your life. It’s psychological.
You’re free to try on different identities from the ones you’re too comfortable wearing back home. You can even assume a different name. My cousin, brother, and I did so in Southeast Asia in 2008, when we took on the roles of the Power brothers: Austin, Super, and Max.
When I travel, I’ve learned to override my introversion with curiosity. I act chattier and more gregarious than at home. So during our ten-minute boat ride to Manda Island, rather than admire the scenery or chit-chat with Kim, I peppered Jawad with questions:
- What was the meaning of his boat’s name, Maqoub?
- Where was the furthest he’d gone on his boat?
- What was his dream boat?
- How was his hair dyed that rusty brown color?
The answer to the last question is coconut oil. Jawad said he doused his head with a whole bottle of it every day! Somehow, the oil reacts with the sun to bleach it. My hair’s greasy in the photo from trying the same.
Quirky details like that are what to look for to add depth to the characters of your travel stories. Be interested in others, and they may become interested in you. This unlocks the possibility of unexpected connections and adventures.
Follow interesting plotlines.
After the sun had set and our cocktails were empty, Jawad picked us up. We continued to get to know each other during the ride back. Then, before getting off at the pier closest to our hotel, Jawad asked us,
“Do you want to go on a snorkeling tour tomorrow?”
Kim and I side-eyed each other. Our first thought: No, not really.
Snorkeling tours were a top TripAdvisor attraction that touts all over Lamu try to sell you on. We got the impression they were popular because they were popular—and overpriced and underwhelming as a result.
But two factors changed our minds:
- Jawad offered a 50 percent discount compared to what Arnold, our hotel owner, told us was the going rate.
- Jawad. The tour was a chance to spend more time with an interesting character.
For all we knew, Jawad could have been a coconut-oil-slick-talker who had been charming us to lubricate our wallets. I’ve made that mistake before. But you have to trust your gut and take risks to make great stories. And our gut said to go with Jawad. So we agreed to meet him back at the pier at 8 AM.
Two other guys were in the boat with Jawad the next morning.
Jawad hadn’t told us anyone else would be tagging along, but we were happy to have more potentially interesting characters for our story.
Haitham is the one hidden behind the pole in the photo:
The photo is fitting because he got stoned and said maybe twenty words the whole day. He was kind of like Kenny from South Park—part of the gang, but silent.
The other guy was Awham.
He was the yin to Jawad’s yang. Like characters in the Kenyan version of the O.C., Awham was the privileged, polished, private school kid who contrasted Jawad’s plucky, streetsmartness. Awham’s dad owned a hotel in town. He was a certified yoga instructor. And he bragged to us of his Russian-American girlfriend who was ten years older than him.
Jawad had invited Awham and Haitham to join because they had the day off, we were paying, and he figured we’d all get along…
…which we did!
The trip felt like hanging out with new friends and nothing like a tourist trap.
The main attraction, the snorkeling, was meh. Some colorful corals and fish, but nothing close to world-class. We didn’t mind, though! It was something to do, the Kenyan guys loved it, and their excitement wore off on us. That enthusiasm carried on with handstand competitions, fishing, and swimming races.
What was world-class, or at least I remember it as such, was the food:
The chefs at Awham’s dad’s hotel had marinated fresh fish for us overnight. Jawad grilled it on the boat, accidentally burning a small hole in the hull in the process. Served family style, we finger-forked our share onto chapati bread and topped it with fresh mango avocado salad.
Nothing was fancy about our feast, but the experience blew away that of any glowing Google-reviewed gourmet restaurant.
The same goes for the whole day. I’d rate it higher than other snorkeling excursions I’ve been on that had much more impressive sea life and scenery.
Our day with Jawad, Awham, and Haitham made my trip.
And in some way, it made me… me.
End up transformed.
What kind of story is this?, you may be thinking.
There’s no conflict or drama or action or anything. Just some dudes (and Kim) hanging out on a boat off the Kenyan coast.
Certainly no movie studio’s going to approach me anytime soon to make a movie about it. But I still consider it a great travel story because it ends with the most crucial component:
Experiences like mine in Lamu have transformed me from a shy, unadventurous, risk-averse high school kid into the confident, curious, and adventurous man I am today. And I continue to push to transform myself through travel stories—mostly for the better, I hope.
That’s what I mean when I say, You are how you travel, and How you travel becomes who you are.
Hopefully it makes sense to you now. And hopefully you’re inspired to take this story-creating approach on your next trip.