The Natural Bridge invites imagination.
We were staying in a hostel in Uruguay. A rooftop deck at the level of the palm trees, their long fronds spilling towards the ground. My friends and I lounged in chairs and hammock, watching the people and what little traffic there was as we planned our days in the city of Colonia del Sacramento.
One day-trip took us to the fortress in Colonia’s historic district. The city was passed between Portugal and Spain throughout its history, landed in Brazil’s hands, and finally became part of Uruguay. We toured the lighthouse and basilica, of course. But after a day wandering in the heat and sun, we found our way to the bank of the Rio de la Plata in the late afternoon. Men set their fishing rods leaning towards the river from the large rocks, and my companions and I explored.
I removed my shoes, saw the small puddles that gathered where the boulders’ surfaces had been worn in towards the earth, saw the small white flowers sprouting in cracks, noted the lowering sun. Then, weary, I sat myself against a yellow stone wall, my body facing the river, and I fell asleep. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I was acutely aware of my surroundings and more peaceful than I had felt in a long time. I realized, with a start, that my back rested against the wall of a colonial fort, at least 300 years old. It was a fact I had learned during the day, but it hadn’t made an impact on me until that moment.
Too often when we travel we feel pressure to see as much as possible, to learn as much as we can. But I’ve found that many of the facts I take in don’t mean anything to me. I can spout them off when I need to impress someone. But the purpose of my own travel isn’t to please anyone but myself, right?
My realization on the rocks of Colonia revealed to me the personal value of just being in a place and allowing whatever feelings you have (forget the facts) to enter in. I felt this again during my recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia. My cousins and I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden on a dreary day. Rain dripped lazily from heavy clouds, and the air was full of mist and grey. Rose gardens surrounded an open, grassy area. Most of the flowers weren’t in bloom, but, separating myself from the group, I took a moment to enjoy the ones that were.
The sound of falling water caught my attention. Then children’s happy screeches and laughter. I looked to my left to see a few youngsters chasing each other around a fountain. And, unexpectedly, wonderfully, I was transported in time. A lady of the early 20th century, I stood alone in my rose garden, listening to the children and the trickling water. I felt this strongly and stayed in that place as long as I could. I was peaceful again, like I had been in Colonia, and I was learning from the Botanical Gardens in a way I couldn’t have if I had just taken a tour.
Opening yourself up often doesn’t require much effort at all. If you want to experience a destination beyond the facts and figures, try out these tips:
So much of traveling is movement. But skipping from one place to the next doesn’t foster the just being that can lead to a more meaningful experience. If you feel affected by a room or a scene or a view as soon as you enter it, try staying there for a little while longer.
Close your eyes
This wasn’t necessary for me in the Botanical Gardens, but it certainly helped when I had my back to the fort in Colonia. Closing your eyes can help block out the thoughts that might be running around in your mind: where to go next, your schedule, etc. It can also force you to experience a place with your other senses. Sometimes your senses of smell and hearing are just as powerful as your sense of sight.
Listen to music
If you feel overwhelmed by a sight and can’t seem to grasp it (think: the Grand Canyon or the waterfalls at Iguazu), try listening to music. Sometimes it can set just the mood you need to feel something deeper than amazement.
Use your imagination
It sounds so cliché. But every place you visit had a story before you. And it will have one after. At the Natural Bridge in Virginia, I thought about how amazing it must have been for early settlers of America to come across such an immense work of nature during a normal walk through the woods. Imagine how other people might have interacted with a place before you. How will they interact with it into the future?
Traveling is one of the most amazing things we can do in our lifetimes. But it shouldn’t be just a collection of facts and souvenirs. We know interactions with people, communication, and conversation are important. So is the personal time you can glean from just being in a place. Let it transport you.