Have you ever set off for a destination not really caring whether you actually arrive?
The other morning, we hopped on rented single speed bikes (they looked like racing bikes, but rode like penny farthings) and headed off into the tea plantation hills of eastern Bangladesh. Our destination: Madhabpur Lake, 25 kilometers outside of our base of Srimongal.
We thought the lake would be nice, but figured the bicycle journey there and back would offer some interesting experiences and a new perspective on the people who lived in the villages and amongst the tea plantations.
As often happens, getting to the lake was far more interesting than the lake itself. And this got me to thinking: What was the purpose of the lake – the destination — in the first place?
The Destination Is Everything?
When I travel, one of my primary goals is to interact with ordinary people from different walks of life so that I may get a glimpse of their lives and better understand their perspective.
So how does having a destination — but one that you aren’t terribly attached to – for a day’s journey accomplish this?
1. A destination provides you an excuse to interact.
When approaching complete strangers, it sometimes helps to have a purpose to get the conversation started. Having a destination provides an easy context in which to interact with just about anyone.
Thanks to these girls we realized we were going the wrong way in the village.
The beauty of asking directions to a destination is that you don’t need to speak the local language to engage. Often, just pronouncing the name of the place and doing charades is enough. People will point you in the right direction, but you may also end up with an invitation for tea or to see someone’s house, or a smile and a shared moment.
2. Having a destination gives others a chance to interact with you…and a context in which they can help.
In general, people around the world love to help. When you’re a foreigner looking lost, knowing your destination (but not necessarily how to get there) gives locals a chance to help.
And when you’re in a country without signs, this means stopping in almost every village to be sure you’re headed in the right direction.
The upside: sometimes you learn of short cuts through villages, which in turn unearth more interesting experiences.
The downside: sometimes a person’s eagerness to help outstrips his directional ability (even in one’s own village!) and he makes you even more lost than when the conversation began.
It’s all part of the adventure, isn’t it?
3. Destination propels you when you need it.
While having a destination gives you an excuse to stop and interact, it can also help move you along when you feel the need to politely wind things up. Even the best of interactions can sometimes reach limitations due to language and culture. In this case, a destination (and the need to reach it in reasonable time) can offer a polite avenue to exit.
4. Destination detachment allows the freedom to detour and abandon.
When the destination is secondary to the journey, you are free to experiment. Perhaps you are invited into someone’s house and you’d like to spend the day in that village, or maybe someone suggests another destination altogether.
Decoupling from your original destination leaves you open to one of those unexpected memories.
Destination Is Nothing? The Lake vs. The Journey
It was no contest. The lake was nice enough – water lilies, footpaths and all, but the other experiences ruled the day:
Stopping at a roadside village market yields an invitation to a local home for tea and biscuits. This natural village visit (i.e., not part of a tour) provided us additional perspective and context regarding family life in rural Bangladesh. (Note: If you are planning to travel through Bangladesh, brush up on your cricket teams and player knowledge – it’s a great way to connect with kids.)
The mother of the family where we stopped for tea took a liking to me.
Each inquiry for directions sent us down another village road shortcut past rice fields, water buffalo, ever more villages and fantastically curious kids.
On our return, we dropped by one last village for information about an eco-cottage. Instead of information, we received an invitation to a big riverside birthday bash complete with sari-bedecked women, birthday cake, live music and “pass the microphone” where we all had to sing (Dan saved me by singing for the two of us). The eco-cottage will be there, but how often do you get to crash a Bangladeshi birthday party?
Therein lies the hidden beauty of straying from your destination.
The Destination-Journey Balance
So next time you set off for your destination, let it guide you to your next interaction and adventure. But also realize that whether or not you actually make it there may not matter.
It’s the people you meet and the experiences you have that do.
Do you usually travel with a destination in mind? Do you always arrive?