conversations with micaela, part 4: how do you remember places?
“I regret so much not taking notes in Barcelona,” my friend Micaela wrote to me a few weeks ago, feeling like she’d wasted her time in the city.
“This really annoys me. I want to experience more and actually be present, and I guess remember it!”
Knowing well how she felt, I stepped in with a few tales of my own travel regrets – but then shared some stories of how I’ve slowly learned to be in a place in such a way that I remember it once I’ve left.
It’s one thing to talk about what to do when you travel, but a whole ‘nother kettle of fish (I picked that one up from a friend on the Camino) to work on remembering places. What can you do while traveling so that once you return – once you’re back in the thick of work routines and responsibilities – you can still remember the piquant flavors, the interesting histories, and the thousand other little details not found in a guidebook?
Here are a few things I’ve found that help:
1. have a conversation
Maybe you’re like me, and are an introvert by nature – but one of the beautiful things about travel is the way it helps you grow and move beyond yourself. During my first few months abroad, I was wary of those around me. Talk to strangers? No way. But I slowly realized that talking to locals is like your own secret key to understanding a place – not to mention remembering it.
“Hello, my friend! Where from? Where going? You want to ask me a question?” When Kumara, a local tuk tuk driver, approached me in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, my conversation with him put a name and a face to the country’s devastating civil war. Now when I hear of Sri Lanka, I’ll think of friendly Kumara and his lilting manner of speech as he told me about life during the war.
2. taste the world
I’m no food blogger, but I can still testify to the benefits of eating your way around the world and getting to know a new country through its culinary traditions. In India last year, I found that hanging around markets and food stalls, watching those street-side chefs whip up local classics, planted certain aromas and flavors deep in my mind.
There’s an added bonus to this: When you return home, you can re-create certain dishes that will instantly transport you back to where you first tasted them. I made a chicken biryani rice dish for my entire extended family over Christmas, and the heady mix of cardamom, turmeric and ginger garlic paste had me feeling like I’d never left India.
3. use those senses
Sometimes it feels like my default sense when traveling is sight – but with my camera never far away, there’s really no need to place such a high priority on visual memory cues. Instead, I’ve started focusing on the other senses – recording the tiny but telling details that a camera can’t pick up. Travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith says this best here:
“Keep your senses open. Never close anything down…I got back [from China] and had a think about what I had missed, and it was smells and sounds in particular. So I went back to China and concentrated on smells and sounds. So keep your eyes open as well as all your other senses.”
I apologize if you’re at all getting sick of me wax poetical about travel sketching – but it really has changed not only the way I see the world, but how I remember it, too. In my pre-sketch artist days, I might whip out my camera, snap a quick shot, and move on. But my sketchbook offers a different challenge: a dare to not move so quickly.
In Kathmandu, I spent three hours sketching Darbur Square; in Morocco, two hours sketching the Valley of Roses; and in India, another two sketching Hyderabad’s Charminar monument. A funny thing happens during that amount of time: you begin to absorb a place. Still not convinced about sketching? Check out this video I made for Matador:
5. forget your map
This is less of a philosophical argument against smartphones and guidebooks, and more of a mental challenge. When doing a bit of research for this post, I came across an article that calls the ability to remember places [specifically, directions] the “faculty of locality.” But how exactly does one go about developing this faculty? By wanting to remember in the first place, and making time to do so:
“Desire awakens interest; interest employs attention; and attention brings use, development and memory…You must take notice of the thoroughfares and the things along the way. Pause at the cross roads, or the street-corners and note the landmarks, and the general directions and relative positions, until they are firmly imprinted on your mind. Begin to see how many things you can remember regarding even a little exercise walk.”
I couldn’t agree with this more. While visiting Madrid earlier this year, my friend Erin graciously led me around for several days, showing me all of her favorite spots – and yet it wasn’t until my last evening, when I managed to navigate the city and walk nearly three miles home on my own, that I felt like I’d really connected with Madrid.
This is the last post in a series exploring questions about travel – inspired by conversations with my beautiful friend Micaela as she planned and packed for her first extended solo trip. I’ve loved sharing some of my thoughts about travel and life with you, and hope they’ve been both enjoyable and helpful. Have any questions you’d like answered here? Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right on it.
Thanks for reading!