“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
This quote from American writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag is true for most travelers. So many places, so little time, right? But what do we mean by “everywhere”? Once we’ve been somewhere, does it get crossed off the list? Most people would say yes, but I don’t think it should be.
I admit, I myself have hesitated every time I’ve returned to old travel destinations. I wonder whether it’s a waste of time – shouldn’t I instead be adding to the list of places that I’ve seen?
But every time I do make a return visit, I not only connect more deeply with the place I’m in, I also learn more about myself. If you’re avoiding a place simply because you’ve already been, allow me to change your mind.
Here are five compelling reasons to retrace your traveling footprints.
See how much you’ve grown
Nelson Mandela once said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”.
This couldn’t be more applicable to my return to Thailand. This country is a hotbed of young backpackers whose intention is often to party, recklessly ride motorbikes and collect a backpack full of pants patterned with elephants. I know, because I was one of them. Second time around, I was hesitant to return to a place I identified as merely a hedonist’s paradise.
I instead sought to understand culture, to connect with locals, to explore street food instead of simply desperately feed my hangovers. Looking for all this plus the space for reflection – yeah basically Eat, Pray, Love, I know – I found in Thailand a perfect environment in which to explore a new version of myself. First of all, it was patronizing of me to think that I’d be disappointed. There was beauty in how simply and effortlessly Thailand molded itself around the new me.
Yet as well as learning that destinations can and will continue to surprise you, Thailand provided a mirror in which I could see how much I had evolved. I walked past bars I’d danced at till the early hours, this time on my way to a yoga class. By jumping back to this place full of memories, I could reflect on and appreciate how I’d changed.
For the unique feeling of being both at home and on an adventure
I have a strong connection with Hanoi, and when I’m there I can’t help but smile as I wander down the same alleys in the Old Quarter, notice the same lady selling banh mi (a delicious Vietnamese sandwich), and stop into the same restaurant for lunch (always the vegetarian vermicelli noodles and a fresh coconut).
We humans are creatures of habit. And while breaking out of your comfort zone is so important, returning to a place that you love stimulates a sense of belonging that is both nostalgic and comforting. That complete sense of overwhelming foreignness which accompanies new destinations is removed, and a more relaxed state allows you to soak in your surroundings from a place of ease. It’s amazing what a difference it can make when you’re not calculating the exchange rate for the first time, or navigating the public transport system like a lost puppy.
I urge you return to a café that you know has the best coffee in town, and enjoy ordering that latte you know was so delicious last time (I use this example because there is a café in Antigua, Guatemala, where I plan to do exactly that). Already having key phrases learnt in the language, knowing what local dish to order instead of staring blankly at a confusing menu; it all allows you to let out a mental sigh of relief. While exploring foreign lands there is a lot to deal with, so easing the pressure on some of those logistical details provides space for you to really appreciate where you are.
The world is changing, fast. Be part of the journey
Colombia has a unique place in my heart, but it hasn’t always had the best reputation. Due to civil unrest in the 1980s and 90s, tourism took a hit as outsiders weren’t sure about their safety. Even in 2013, friends and family warned me to take care.
Predictably, outsiders’ perceptions and the reality were starkly different. Safety was a consideration, but in no way dented the striking beauty of the country and its people. And since the backpacker trail was still developing, I could find hostels that lacked wifi and electricity, which though hell for some, was heaven for me. I turned into a Colombia Ambassador (ask my friends, I wouldn’t shut up about it).
Only two years later I returned, and so much had changed. This country is stunning, and the tourism industry is responding accordingly. It deserves to have a reputation based on its beauty rather than its tumultuous past, and it made me feel proud to see its growth. To see the world changing in front of your eyes is a wonderful, unique perspective to have, especially where change is happening fast.
So get to those destinations that are in transition, that are rising out of difficult times. Not only will they benefit more from your tourist dollars, they will also be more appreciative of the chance to show the best of their country, and when you return you’ll get to witness a unique perspective of this constantly evolving world.
Go beyond the obvious
The first time we visit a place it’s fairly mandatory that we go and tick off the must-see spots. Second time round you can dig a little deeper, have more freedom to wander aimlessly, discover what’s outside the tourist areas and be more authentic with your travel experience.
This happened to me most noticeably in Chiang Mai, Thailand. First time around, I visited Wat Doi Suthep, the city’s most popular Buddhist temple, with crowds of other tourists on a muggy afternoon. When I returned a few years later, I was armed with knowledge. I knew how to get there – I didn’t need to fumble my way armed with a Lonely Planet and a puzzled expression. So I decided to do it completely independently. Instead of taking a time-consuming bus or a pricey taxi, I rented a scooter. At 4:30am, free from the fear of getting lost, I set off in the chilly pre-dawn, zooming through empty streets, and rode up the winding, hilly road to the temple. My confidence and experience meant that I was rewarded with a breathtaking sunrise, with not crowds for company, but Buddhist monks doing their morning prayers.
Don’t let fear rule you
When I first visited Hanoi I had such an amazing experience, met such incredible people, that I was afraid to return. I thought there was no way it could meet my expectations, and I was scared to ruin the glimmering memories I held dear. But why live a life of fear? I returned, and I had just as good a time – I made more friends, I visited new places, tried new bars and cafes, and both understood and appreciated the city more than I had before.
One final quote, I promise. The Dalai Lama wisely said: “Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before”. But remember that everywhere is somewhere you haven’t been before. Colombia this year is different to the Colombia of last year, and that applies the world over. But more importantly, who you are this year, is different to who you were last year. A true traveler can revisit a place over and over and see it in a new light, identify new magic, allow it to reveal more about themselves.
Give it a go, see for yourself.
Feeling inspired to go explore the world? Check out Intrepid’s range of top trips and destinations.
(Image credits: All c/o Jen Welch except Chiang Mai temple photo c/o Sarah Millican.)