I make decisions about travel the way I decide everything, from buying clothes to getting a kitten: I ponder the question in the back of my mind, sort of surreptitiously picking up information by osmosis and letting nagging worries emerge — then I just sort of impulsively pounce. That’s certainly how I bought my last two cars, and how I ended up with my kitten Georgia. (“You had to get a kitten on a Wednesday? You couldn’t wait until the weekend?” Asked my gently exasperated business partner when I was facilitating a meeting on no sleep.)
I plan my traveling the same way. I get a place into my head, I sort of shape what I want to happen, then I make a bunch of decisions without carefully weighing most of the options. I end up with this weird paradox of really precise planning (how to maximize Aeroplan points, the exact seat on the plane I want, a detailed itinerary for the bike riding part of my trip, the right visas), and some surprisingly vague bits.
This trip is about 17 days, and half of it is a solo bike ride from Riga to Tallinn. I let a bike touring company map the route for me and book the hotels for the riding part, and other than that I’m on my own. I booked my own trip to St. Petersburg, learned some bike mechanics and first aid (which I weirdly used at Pearson to help a woman who fell and cracked her kneecap), and agonized over what to pack that I can carry. But in that flurry of planning, I realized I hadn’t looked at all at the hotels the bike company had booked for me until I was in the taxi from the Riga airport. I looked up what the Lonely Planet said about my hotel — basically, “don’t confuse this well located but spartan and worn out former convent with the really cosy lovely former convent next door.”
I had one deep burst of disappointment, that kind of “I did it WRONG, this is going to be terrible!” moment. That surge of regret that indicates a kind of grasping attachment. Why wasn’t I in the perfect hotel, the one with the cosy alcoves for curling up and reading?
And then I paused and remembered. It’s never perfect. And it’s always just right. I do all this traveling for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important ones is about slowing me down and reminding me to be here, now — truly embrace what I’m given in the most improvisational spirit. Not trying to control the experience by planning, the perfect packing, the choreographed moments. It’s about being present to what is, be here now — and letting myself sink into it. It makes me whole and it’s utterly restorative, when I find that space.
I’ve written before about how fancy hotels make me a big edgy because I always fixate on the imperfections, whether I’m really getting from it enough to justify the cost. My room in this former convent is just fine — it’s clean, it’s comfortable, the water is hot, it was the perfect place to have that jet lagged nap where they could have taken my tonsils out and I wouldn’t have noticed.
I woke up from that nap and went for a cobblestoned walk. The rain had stopped by my brain was still fogged. My watch wouldn’t sync and I didn’t know what time it was, but I was hungry. I walked past a restaurant right next to the spartan convent hotel that has a symbol, not a name, with a sign for wild and organic food. I walked out of the old town, past a bunch of touristy and traditional food restaurants, past the opera house that seems to have no performances in July, over a bridge. Made space for the different impulses to come together. You’re in the Baltics. You need to slow down and focus. You need to read Anna Karenina finally, before you go to Russia.
I went back to my hotel and picked up my ipad. Anna Karenina has been on my kobo app for a while. I went back to the organic restaurant and talked to the waiter about what his favourites were. I ordered the five course tasting menu and ate it while being introduced to Stiva, Anna, Dolly, Levin, Kitty. It was.. sublime.