There are so many incredible experiences available to all of us whether we travel far and wide or just in our neighborhoods.  I'll try to capture some of these experiences through my own exploration. I'll share them with you so that you can  explore your life in novel, expanding and intensely satisfying ways. 

If you are a new reader, the earliest entries are at the bottom of the page.

Cruising Part 2

When I was young cruising provided the wealthy with a sumptuous and leisurely way to travel.  Today there's something for everyone!  While the luxurious ambiance of the Titanic is still available on the top tier cruise lines, the rest of us can still find what we need on almost any ship.

What is it that you need?  Here's one idea: If your time and money are in limited supply but you need a getaway that is peaceful and serene with the constant smell and sound of the ocean then a "repositioning" cruise might be your answer. Recently I saw an ad from the Holland American Line for such a four-day cruise from San Diego, CA to Vancouver, Canada.  It's ridiculously inexpensive but it doesn't stop at any ports.  

Your purpose in taking such a brief cruise is to de-stress by letting go of everything in the external world since once you are aboard you can fully let go of all responsibilities.  Take your meals in a formal setting or in your stateroom depending on your mood.  Swim or watch the ocean from a deck chair.  Get your workout at the onboard gym or indulge in a spa treatment.  It's all available.

Why Cruise

Travel can sometimes feel so much like work that we are distracted from the experience itself. Occasionally we just need simplicity and relaxation - not too much to think about, forget decision making, in order to free our minds to focus inward. At those times we may wish to be taken care of, pampered and nurtured to expend energy on only the best parts. If this is your current state of mind then a cruise vacation may be right for you. 

I know there are strong feelings held by those who avoid cruising. I understand the limitations of a day in each port and the absence of the immersion experience that takes place in an extended stay in one place. Still, cruising has been my favorite mode of travel for the past decade. And now as I consider my next cruise destination, somewhere in the Southern hemisphere maybe South America or the land "down under," just contemplating the delicious options begins to melt my tension away.  

Maybe it's a stage in life thing - the concern about running out of time when there are so many places to learn about.  Maybe I'm done with stress filled hectic days scanning train schedules, getting to regional airport, driving through cities that don't value the "right of way" and taxis inventing new routes.  I grew up in New York City and don't need to revisit that experience!  Maybe it's the ease and simplicity of ship travel- nothing to do but get off my floating hotel and explore.  While cruising from Lisbon to Barcelona years ago, I woke one morning to find the Rock of Gibraltar literally outside of my balcony.  What an awesome sight!  

Noticing rock formations

The new year is here, cold and crisp, with short days almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere.  The holidays are behind us - for better of for worse and the future, as always, is unknowable. Stay with the present: today, this week, this month.   It's a good time to get away, even if it's for a piece of the day.  For the inward traveler it's always about the journey and less about the destination, to paraphrase Confucius. 

Leaving the season and weather aside, the point of this blog is that the present is all that is available for experiencing anything.  Even if the past and future seem bleak the "now" can hold meaning and pleasure. Remember to set an attitude for your experience.  What is good about today?  What works just the way it is?  What are you grateful for and do you currently appreciate?  What do you see that pleases you or your senses? At this moment, why are you glad to be alive?  If you catch yourself thinking "yes, but . . . " you've strayed from your experience.

Do you have a spare hour today or tomorrow?  Take your positive mindset and focus your attention on a new aspect of a familiar situation.  "It's the same activity, but picking a different viewpoint changes your experience," according to Brian Klemmer author of The Compassionate Samurai: Being Extraordinary in an Ordinary World.  

Going someplace with a "beginner's mind"

Having traveled to many cities in China I was curious about Carol Pucci’s perceptions about her own unstructured travel, “Get off the bus, revel in China,” (*see sidebar).  I was struck by the novel experiences she had just by approaching situations with what the Buddhist’s call the “beginner’s mind.”  This is a state of wonder and curiosity that is lost to many of us when we emerge from childhood.  It is an openness to experience without being colored by our own expectations, preconceived notions or stereotypic ideas.  

Being an inward traveler I tried to imagine having her experience and whether I had the temperament or personality to just wander and see what I encountered as opposed to the way I saw China, in a tightly managed tour.  It would take some work!  Here’s what Carol described.  ”Walking in Xian in the rain one afternoon, I noticed a woman selling steamed buns from her kitchen in the alley across from our hotel.  She spoke no English, so I held up two fingers to signal that I wanted two. . . . We chatted back and forth, me in English and she in Chinese.  Neither of us had any ideas what the other was saying.”  Both seemed to thoroughly enjoy the transaction and the social interaction that relied exclusively on non-verbal cues.

Snow in Silicon Valley?

The inward traveler doesn't have to go very far to have a new and scintillating experience.  Just this morning Winter Wonderland came to the Eastern hills of Silicon Valley.

While hiking one of my favorite elevated trails I was amazed by the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hamilton.  I've seen the Alps and the Rockies in their white brilliance.  I'm guessing the Himalayas are even more majestic - but no more inspiring than what I saw today. Why?  These are mere hills in comparison but they were totally transformed from the usual landscape of brush and  pastures newly greened by  receent late-fall rains.

As much as I try to stay present to my observations as I am walking I suppose I don't always register the subtle nuances of the landscape, don't see with fresh eyes.  The snow was not to be missed. It served as a rather blatant reminder of how easy it is to look without seeing until something is out of place.  What's more, it changed the focus of my walk. Suddenly I was thinking about snow: playing in it as a child, digging my car out of it while in graduate school in Michigan, introducing it to my California children and once having an auto accident because of it.  Reflecting on these memories was a totally unexpected but interesting experience.  So much for predicting what will transpire in the course of a routine walk!

Brief coyote encounter

I saw my first coyote, up close and personal, ten feet away while walking my favorite trail the other day.  The rural outdoors is after all not a Disneyland set and belongs to the wilderness creatures who live there.

Still, I'm a big city transplant and it caught me by surprise.  In nanoseconds my lizard brain sprang into action assessing the potential danger and I tried to predict whether I would handle any encounter heroically or with panic.

While my cerebral cortex was trying to logically and reasonably predict my actions, my primitive instincts kicked in.  My focus narrowed, my heartbeat picked up and I quickly scanned the terrain for cues.  I saw a ground squirrel perched on a high limb of a nearby tree signally loudly. But being neither a rodent or a cat, coyotes' preferred prey, I appeared to not be in imminent danger. 

Some background information: A coyote is a bit larger than a dog, but is still a dog. At about 20 pounds they are like medium size collies who are more likely to be afraid of you than vice versa. Unlike the wolf, the coyote's range has expanded in the wake of human civilization. It's not unusual for coyotes to reproduce in metropolitan areas but it is unusual to see one on a hiking trail frequented by humans.

Intentional Disingagement

Have you ever gone someplace to listen to the silence?  I wasn't looking for that when I ascended a peak overlooking the majestic Weimea Canyon, the "grand canyon" of Hawaii.  At that moment there was total silence.  Almost 5000 feet below I could see but not hear the white water of ocean waves crashing on the shore. 

Escaping from all external noise is getting harder and harder to do.  Finding a place away from cell phone service and the incessant electronic sounds of current life requires intent.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom wrote, in his recent weekly newsletter, about taking pleasure from your senses.  According to him, paying attention to certain sounds can intensify pleasure.  He suggests the sound of "waves on the seashore . . . and silence itself," which seems to me the most difficult to find.

As I bask in the quiet of the mountain top I wonder how else to find this blissful state when the experience of the moment is a distant memory?  It could be as simple as taking a time-out from electronic chatter - no phones, computers, TV, radio, and for the moment no sounds of people or animals begging for attention.  Ten minutes will do.  Try ear plugs if necessary.

Developing a new time perspective

As my vacation time winds down I am acutely aware of my attempts to preserve, no, expand every remaining moment.  I take mental snapshots of everything I see in this tropical paradise - my favorite Hawaiian island - Kauai. Still, the present quickly becomes the past. 

I'm reminded of Phil Zimbardo's (emeritus professor at Stanford University) new book The Time Paradox, and his explanation of time perspectives. According to his profile I am future oriented - no surprise to me, or anyone who knows me.  Those of us in this category are goal driven, focused on the future consequences of our actions and forward looking in general.  As you might guess, present-hedonic folks are the pleasure seekers who enjoy the present, with less concern about tomorrow. Past oriented people make up the remaining category, but this orientation is less important to this discussion.

Another dimension that informs this blog is age related. In general, children are present oriented while adults favor the future.  Our seniors tend to preserve the past.  As a future focused senior I'm increasingly putting my foot on the brake, trying to prolong the present and particularly the pleasant moments of this vacation. Savoring the present is an acquired skill that I'm trying to perfect! In expanding the present-pleasant and then reviewing this trip in the past-positive I can have even more good feelings and pleasurable memories.

Trying out new behavior

I was about to go on my first ocean kayaking adventure while recently vacationing in Hawaii.  It made me think that though this isn't exactly high-risk behavior it  highlights how predictable most of us are in day-to-day life and how we are wIilling to do uncharacteristic things on vacation. 

Recent research confirms that by age thirty our palates prefer familiar foods.  We become less and less comfortable with new and exotic foods.  The same can be said for the activities we engage in on a regular basis.  But did you ever notice how you suspend your business-as-usual mindset when you travel?

We free ourselves from the constraints that usually apply.  We allow ourselves more latitude to explore, to notice, to consciously choose new options.  Without the predictable cues that pervade our daily lives, we can suspend the same old responses and be more open to engaging in new and maybe novel behavior.

What new out-of-the-box experiences did you have on your last vacation?  Did you "zip-line" in Costa Rica, ride horses on a dude ranch, motorcycle, motor scooter or drive an ATV vehicle in the desert, or have a spa treatment?  How can you bring your experience home and incorporate it into your everyday lifestyle?

Paris in October

Shortly, one of my best friends is traveling abroad to Paris.  We tend to associate vacationing with the summer months and forget that fall or winter may offer sensory treats not available at other times, like the March I spent in Vienna - crisp, quiet, tourist free and covered with snow!  But I digress.

Why is my friend's October trip so important?  It comes following a year of recovery from death-defying, life-changing illness.  The meaning and anticipated pleasure quotient of this upcoming experience is very high.  During her recuperation many hours were spent in reverie and planning of this trip.  While not for everyone, this long awaited return visit to Paris provided in-the-moment good feelings and, according to neuroscience research, allows brain activity that enhances the sense of well being.  Now, mind you, all this happens without setting one foot on French soil!

What is actually happening while you plan and consider?  *Anticipation of this positive experience enhances mood; *Relaxation occurs the way it might in a guided meditation; *Endorphins increase and neurotransmitters are stimulated which increases good feelings; *Blood pressure may decrease as stress levels are reduced.

Olfactory Memories are Powerful

Sipping apple tea brings back memories of the enormous spice market in Istanbul. The aroma, the taste and even the color of the tea are strong reminders of my recent trip to Turkey.  The olfactory sense, the most primitive of our five senses, produces memories that are incredibly powerful.  This is the one human sense that is highly developed in children and loses its power over the course of growing up.  My childhood memories include the smell of fresh baked bread in my grandmother’s apartment and I savor that memory which brings back the warmth of my grandma. But I digress. 

In Istanbul the spice market, the size of ten football stadiums, caused all kinds of olfactory memories that rekindle my travel experience whenever I drink apple tea in my Turkish demitasse cup.  Do you have olfactory memories linked to your travel?  Can you use these to recall or re-live your time in that place?  How can you use this savoring to create pleasure at this very moment? 

"Performing" at a travel destination

I volunteered at the 2009 Senior (Olympic) Games held at Stanford University a few weeks ago.  Ten thousand athletes between the ages of fifty and one hundred years old traveled here, some from great distances, to perform their sport.  Take the ninety-five year old racquetball contender who plays with razor focus.  He says nothing will keep him away from future games until his knees buckle. What an inspiration!  For most this is their once-a-year "vacation" spent training for and competing on the track, court, field, course or pool.  This event is jam packed, hectic, adrenaline infused but tremendously exciting and rewarding for it's participants as well as for spectators and volunteers.  When it's time to go home these folks will savor and relish the memories: the stories, the games, and the reunion with old buddies.  This will sustain their high for a couple of years before the next round takes place (Houston in 2011 - see sidebar).  

Travel reminisced

Travel remembered is almost as good as the real thing.  Remembering, activates the same part of the brain as does visual perception.  Recently, I was reading about the completion of the giant dam in China, known as the Three Gorges Water Control Project in Hubei Province. I remembered the urgency of my trip down the Yangtze River to see the old villages on it's banks, before being flooded and gone forever, a sad byproduct of the dam's construction.  Suddenly I am transported back to 2002, sitting on a deck chair on the Victoria Lines Yangtze River boat.  As my mind scans for the encapsulated memory,  my brain accommodates with a pristine set of pictures, thoughts and feelings. The ancient Buddhist churches, archaeological ruins, the small peasant rice farms, and the hanging caskets from the sides of the hills still seem quite real.  The Yangtze River remains fascinating but the sights of life along the banks exist only in my memory.  Find your travel memory.  You can do this too. At a time when real-time travel may seem to expensive, travel reminisced may be just the right thing!

Travel Spending in a Down Economy

Money Magazine's recent survey highlighted shifting financial values in the current economic crisis.  While many of us are rethinking spending habits and the importance of various choices, travel continues to be a high priority. The "where" of travel may be shifting for the moment to emphasize lowering expenses, but it's importance hasn't diminished.  It appears that taking trips for rest and recreation in a shaky economy is even more necessary to maintain personal balance - no surprise to this psychologist!  

The current travel mode emphasizes briefer, closer to home vacations, with an eye on deals and discounts.  You might consider camping vacations, long weekend special offers that are driving distance and heavily discounted packages.  Remember, the down economy also affects the travel industry.  The bargains they offer serve to keep them afloat.

Favorite Ferry Rides

The Society of American Travel Writers just selected the world’s top 10 ferry rides.  I was pleased to see that some of my favorites were on this list.  Their top choice was the Star Ferry in Hong Kong.  I remember the quick and easy transport between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and the incredible skyline visible in both directions. 

My memories of Hong Kong are very intense; a place that is both exotic and down to earth. Shopping on Nathan Street, and being caught in a huge crowd of people, was like being propelled on a train that you couldn’t exit.  I’m told it is one of the best shopping districts in the world: the most upscale stores and boutiques side-by-side with Chinese tailors and traditional Eastern and Near Eastern mom and pop shops.  And not far from there, the “Night Market,” so called because it doesn’t come to life until around 10 pm daily, attracts the locals who can buy anything while getting their fortunes told by caged birds that peck at cards. 

Since I’m not a shopper I much preferred the natural beauty of Victoria Peak and the tram ride that ascends the summit of the mountain to the highest point on Hong Kong Island in eight minutes.  Something for everyone!  One more thing; thinking about ferries brings back earlier memories of the boat that runs between Brooklyn and Staten Island, straight out of my childhood.  It cost 15 cents back then and was the closest thing I can remember to a vacation!  

Where Are You?

Don’t leave your mind in San Francisco while you body is in Santorini.  It’s not always an easy matter to turn your mind off and actually stay present in the place you’ve traveled to.  If the location is sufficiently far away you might be able to transition gradually on your journey to the destination.  On the other hand, this process may require your conscious effort and intentionally.  Otherwise, there you are in sunny Greece while your back-home mindset keeps you suspended somewhere between the two locations, enjoying neither fully.  As someone who has just this tendency, I’ve often had to manually shut down my back-home operating system so that it doesn’t interfere in the present experience.  You can too.  Every time you find yourself thinking home-based thoughts, remind yourself to stop and substitute the present reality.  It takes work but it beats missing out on your long awaited experience! 

An introvert's blissful walk

I am writing this today as I hike in the Stanford hills behind Palo Alto, California. I’m thinking about the utter joy I experience as I walk alone and take in the natural beauty of this place.  These trails are widely traversed by locals as well as visitors to Stanford.  This is my favorite way to get inspired as well as restored when I’m tired or weary from too many commitments, an often occurrence.  But of course I have to do it alone for the magic to work.  While others walk in pairs or groups and barely notice the landscape, I have this place all to myself, which allows me to do my best thinking and observing.  What a perfect mini-vacation!  If you are an introvert you know what I mean.