Robin Amster | December 09, 2015 1:00 PM ET
The Beauty of Accidental Travel
“Experiential” travel—which takes travelers beyond sightseeing to a more in-depth interaction with a destination’s culture and people—is now firmly entrenched as a trend.
And rightly so. Sightseeing is great but that conversation with a local; that visit to an off-the-beaten-track town, village or section of a city; that activity in which “tourists” wouldn’t normally take part, make for the most enduring memories.
But there’s another kind of “experiential” travel that’s as old as travel itself and, I think, as, or even more, compelling than those experiences travelers now seek and tour operators now routinely incorporate in their programs.
Let’s call it “accidental” travel.
Speaking at the recent Ensemble Travel Group’s recent annual conference, chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain said putting oneself in a position to have “glorious accidents” happen, makes travel the unforgettable experience it should be.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m not saying the cooking class in Tuscany, the wine tasting in a French vineyard, even the fishing lesson in Vietnam—all “experiences” offered in tour operator programs—aren’t great. They are. But I’m also saying that “accidental” travel can be tremendously gratifying.
To have those “accidents,” travelers need to be open to taking off by themselves (whether alone or with a friend or two). The idea here is to wander, explore, investigate, and maybe even get lost.
Here’s one of my own “accidental” travel experiences:
I was visiting Warsaw nearly 25 years ago and I set out alone and on foot to find the Warsaw ghetto. It was late winter, a cold, sunless day—somehow fitting weather for evoking the horrors of the former Jewish ghetto, the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
Almost entirely destroyed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the ghetto is now the site of stark Communist-era apartment blocks. However, a number of buildings and streets survived along with several fragments of the original ghetto walls.
Following the war, the Poles built a series of markers (memorial plaques and boundary lines) designating the perimeter of the former ghetto and two Warsaw Ghetto Heroes’ monuments memorializing the ghetto uprising fighters.
It was at one of these imposing monuments that I had an unforgettable encounter. I had sat down here to think and to imagine and to remember. I was alone; no one else in sight. After some time an elderly man approached and sat down next to me.
He addressed me in Polish. I don’t speak Polish and he had no English. But he did speak Yiddish and with the little Yiddish I remembered from my grandparents, we had one of the most difficult—but moving—conversations I’ve ever had.
Somehow—in bits and pieces, fragments and gestures—we managed to communicate.
He told me about his life. He had been married to a Polish woman but as a Jew he had managed to escape Warsaw after the start of the war and join the Russian army. He returned to the city after the war but was alone now following his wife’s death.
We talked about the war, about the Jews in Poland, about the city. We talked about America. And, at times, we didn’t talk at all. We just sat there, together. And then we walked around the former ghetto, together, examining those markers, pausing at the remnants of the ghetto walls.
I don’t know exactly how much time I spent with him. But it grew colder and darker. We lingered a bit longer. There wasn’t really anything else to say but we had made a connection—a strange one and a fleeting one—but a connection nonetheless. I thanked him for talking with me and for sharing some of his memories. We wished each other well. And we said goodbye.
I’ll never forget him—or that day.
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