5 Ways to Get Off the Well-Marketed Path
Photo Credit: Christina Ammon
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My best travel experience was driving a biodiesel clunker across Asia. The truck was built from reclaimed materials (i.e. garbage) and broke down constantly. Once, on the side of a highway, without another tourist for miles around, I remember how uncertain I felt. And how awake. I recognized myself as on a true adventure.
Adventure contains the word venture, which implies a gamble, an attempt at something new and experimental. True adventures can be tricky to come by when our media-saturated minds are seeded with the same ideas. This is why we all end up kissing at the Eiffel Tower, eating pad thai on Khao San Road, and trekking “off the beaten path” together in the same zip-leg cargo pants.
I doubt that having mechanical breakdowns in Asia would make any travel magazine’s Top Ten Adventures list--after all, we never even made it to the Taj Mahal, or to Angkor Wat. But that night, as we drank beer and hammered crab with 12 Malay mechanics, I knew we were on the trip of a lifetime. By forgoing status-quo transport in favor of that crazy truck, we were, indeed, venturing.
You may not have time (or the inclination) for breakdowns in Asia, but if you are a counterculture soul who’d like to ditch the clichés, here are five contrarian travel suggestions that might put the venture back into your adventures.
1. Sit Still in Nepal
If the thought of trekking to Everest Basecamp makes your hamstrings sore, see how they feel after 10 days of sitting still at one of Nepal’s Vipassana retreat centers. This cross-legged immersion in monastic living demands 11 hours each day observing the relationship between your body and thoughts —an experience sure to open up new terrain.
Vipassana, known as "insight meditation," relies on silence, detached self-observation and contemplation of impermanence. I met a few Vipassana devotees among the trekkers whp dominate Nepal’s tourism scene. I was struck by their age: They were mostly in their 20s, a cohort more famous for their Twitter-length attention spans than for being spiritually precocious.
“Before this retreat, I couldn’t sit still for ten minutes,” said a traveler from Germany. Participants were required to check their iPhones at the door.
Some approached Vipassana like a gap-year line item. Others—especially those on a budget—were drawn by free room and board for 10 days. But post-retreat, their hubris turned to humility. I never tired of their stories, which were as compelling as any mountaineer’s tale. Physical pain, fear, food cravings, painful memories, aversions, and moments of bliss defined the experience. “I felt electrical currents pulsing like an all-over body orgasm,” one practicioner said. The pay-off for scaling your mental Mount Everest is apparently very high.
But why travel to the adventure capital of the world just to explore the great indoors of your psyche? Some feel Nepal is an auspicious place to practice since it is said to be the birthplace of the Buddha, who discovered the technique 2,500 years ago. And while the retreat center near Pokhara is basic, its location on Begnas Lake couldn’t be more stunning: the Annapurna range provides a perfect backdrop for contemplation.
2. Go Wine-Tasting in Morocco
When I stepped off the ferry in Tangier, it occurred to me: this is my last chance for a glass of wine.
Alcohol may be ummul-khabaith – or the root of all evil-- in this Muslim country, but it didn’t stop Burroughs, Ginsberg, Leary, and the other Beat writers who partied in this permissive port city back in the 1950s.