Typical travel can feel a bit hollow. With just one or two weeks to discover a new place, there’s time to see the must-sees, try some great restaurants, and even discover a spot or two off the beaten path. But you leave with little more than a vague impression of the place, and when someone asks you about it a few weeks later, all you can say is, “It was great!”
This is natural. Everything in a new place is a little bit different: the sounds, the accents, the foliage, the signage, the architecture, the birds, the width of the roads, the thickness of the air, the taste of the water. One or two weeks is not enough to internalize all of that newness.
One solution, of course, is to move there forever, or at least until you can rattle off the names of underground music venues and give a halfway-decent walking tour. But here’s a more straightforward approach: Next time you take a trip to a new destination, limit the range of things you see and experience by focusing on one topic or theme. Go exclusive and deep on one thing, versus shallow on a broad set of them. I call this “traveling with a lens.”
Focusing exclusively on the theme is important. Let’s say, for example, that you’re traveling to Kenya, and the lens you’ve chosen is coffee. You can’t just occasionally pop into coffee shops in Nairobi. “Coffee” should be the driving force behind nearly every decision you make about what to do and where to go. You will explore the best and worst cafes in various cities, chat with their managers, go to coffee-growing regions of the country, tour coffee farms, learn about which beans are grown where and why they are different. And on and on. You will approach your trip as if you are writing a thesis, titled “Caffeine Country: Situating Kenya’s postcolonial history in coffee culture,” that is due as soon as you get back.
I learned how to travel with a lens—in this case, a literal one–from reporting trips. In Zambia, reporting on telecoms infrastructure for a news video (Quartz member exclusive), my eyes were trained to spot cell towers, top-up stations, construction workers, and electronics shops—things I would have normally ignored. In an effort to test the limits of Zambia’s cell service, my colleague and I went not to Victoria Falls—the most famous sight in the country—but to the less-visited, nevertheless spectacular Lake Bangweulu and its surrounding villages, where we saw Zambian life wholly different from that of the cities.
This approach to travel is preferable in a number of ways. For one thing, you’ll come back very knowledgeable on your theme. You will understand deeply some thing about a place, rather than just having absorbed a feeling of it. It will be like having read several books on coffee and Kenya, except better, because you were there: You saw the beans, you smelled them, they gave you a caffeine buzz. You will be able to say a lot more than, “It was great!”
A lens also makes it easy to step outside the usual tourist guardrails and engage with people who live in the place you are visiting. You will be encountering locals who have a shared interest with you, whether it’s coffee or techno music or tropical birds, and you will readily strike up interesting conversations. You will be seeing the things you want to see, not the things everyone “must see,” and the simple mathematics of that mean there will be fewer tourists around. It will also bring you to parts of a country or city that you would never have thought to go to otherwise.
At this point you might be thinking, “Hey, this already exists. It’s called a ‘tour.’” Yes, culinary tours of Italy, wine tours of Napa Valley, and World War 1 tours of Germany are somewhat lens-y. But they’re not the same. The intermediary of a tour operator creates a certain distance between you and your destination. And if a certain stop on the tour isn’t to your liking, well, too bad.
You don’t have to be a journalist to travel with a lens, nor do you have to do it all the time. Sometimes, you just want to see as much as you can, or listen to a tour guide telling you what to do. Maybe you’ll return, next time with a lens. But don’t make a broad approach to travel your default. The lens possibilities are endless; here are just a few to get you started:
- Chinese calligraphy in China
- Cave paintings in France
- Coffee in Kenya
- Slavery in the American South
- Tropical birds in Brazil
- The history of techno music in Detroit
- Mezcal in Mexico
- Following Simón Bolívar through South America
- The Mekong River across Southeast Asia
- Antarctic ocean life in Argentina
- Immigration in New York
Where will you go, and what will your lens be?