7 Reflective Questions to Ask On Your Next Vacation

 

Slow adventure involves risk… the risk of discovering truth and meaning through examination. -Richard Bangs

One of my favorite tourist activities as a temporary London, ON based Canadian is to go to the local park downtown. I take the bus from campus, I sit on a bench near the beautiful curlicue sign announcing Victoria Park, I take out my notebook, and I watch the world go by. Summer students pass wearing backpacks, Western U t-shirts, and bright, bejeweled sandals. A lost American tourist wearing a “Sweet Home Alabama” shirt searches (loudly) for the right bus stop. Passersby creep a disturbingly large radius around the Canadian geese who are lounging on the lawn and trying their hardest to debunk all the “Aggressive Geese- Keep Walking” signs.

I was a slow-traveler before the name got coined by the Internet.

Some of my favorite trips have involved long, aimless luxurious walks through cobblestone back streets, stops in the country for quick pictures around blooming dandelions, and people-watching over caffe latte in crowded cafes.

Whether you’re in a place for a day or an hour, slow travel means giving yourself the time to really take in the space you’re in. No rushing, no signed-in-blood itineraries, no hassle; in other words- a vacation that actually feels like a vacation.

One of my favorite ways to travel slow and gather presence while I travel is through taking time to reflect on my experiences (typically that’s through the medium of journaling). As you gear up for your summer travels, I want to offer some tips and reflective questions that have helped me to maximize my travel experiences in the past. Before I dive into the questions, I think it’s important to give some preliminary slow travel tools to think about first.

Before Departure

  • Find a reflection medium that works for you- whether that’s a blog, a journal, a camera, a vlog, a daily discussion with your mother or a nightly dinner with your travel companion. Also consider: are you an internal processor, an external processor, or a mixture of both? Internal processors typically process through situations by sitting and thinking about them. External processors process their experiences by getting their thoughts out of their head (talking to a friend, journaling, etc). Figure out which processing type you have and use that to determine how you will answer the reflective questions below during your trip.
  • Set intentions for the trip before you leave. This is especially important if you are traveling with others. How do you want to feel once you return home from your trip? What are some ways that you hope to transform as a person throughout the duration of the trip? What are some shared intentions that you and your travel partner (s) share?
  • Come up with a list of things you want to do and stick with it so you can see the things that are truly important to you…also be okay with throwing that list into the Seine and following adventure when and if the opportunity presents itself
  • If you struggle with travel-anxiety (because you have an anxiety disorder or fears of travel surrounding a marginalized identity), write down a long list of your fears ahead of time. As a person who has both anxiety and marginalized identities, this is a practice that I always do each time I travel. Before I traveled to Canada for my summer internship this year for instance, I had nightmares about going through customs to get my work permit. I heard horror stories about Americans enduring long waiting hours and even some people getting sent home, so I was understandably nervous about the process. In actuality, the whole process took 10 minutes and was done by a nice woman who asked questions about Student Affairs (“oh, so you’re moving to Canada for the summer to be an RA?”). Write down a list of your travel fears and then see how many get debunked over the course of your trip.
  • Use transportation time to reflect on your experiences. Trains, planes and buses have been some of the best places for me to think and process through my experiences.

Once you have considered how you are going to work through all this preparation, then you will finally able to start reflecting on your experience as you travel. That being said, here are some of my favorite reflective questions to ask when I’m slow-traveling.

1. What do I see? What do I hear? What do I taste? What do I smell? What do I feel?

The five senses are a great place to start if you’re a reflection beginner. Some questions may be more applicable in certain times than in others, but these are always quick and deeply transformative questions to return to. These questions, I have found, allow you to practice presence in a space.

2. Who have I become in this new space? What is something that I do here that I would never do at home? Why do I feel free enough to do it here? Why would I never do it at home?

This is one of the questions that I am asking myself constantly. How does the place I’m in change who I am, who I thought I was, and who I want to be? Sometimes these realizations can be funny (whenever I’m in New York, I’m so busy trying to act like a local that I rarely take pictures) or they can be transformative (like realizing how free you feel when you’re traveling and how constricted you feel in your everyday life). Sometimes you can come to some really shocking conclusions about yourself and what you value so make sure that you are practicing self-care as you dive deeper into these questions.

3. Who are the people that I met during my trip who were very memorable to me (a store clerk, a bus driver, a waitress)? Why are they memorable to me? What do I admire about these people, if anything? What do I dislike about these people, if anything? What do these likes/dislikes say about me?

To this day, I still remember the brother and sister who talked to me about American politics and culture for half an hour while my partner and I ate in their restaurant in Sweden. I also remember the baker in Germany that kept telling me and my friends to shush while we were eating breakfast in her shop even though we were the only people there and it was around 11 am (Americans are loud, okayyyy?). These questions are a great way to remember the connections we’ve made during our travels. The weirdest/coolest/most enlightening stories also supply us with an arsenal of stories to share once we get home.

4. What signs am I receiving? What are they trying to tell me?

I promise this is less hokey than it sounds. Have you ever experienced coincidences while abroad or in your daily life- repeated signs like numerous people telling you the same thing in a single day or seeing the same archaic sign over and over again? Just recently, for instance, I was at a conference and I meant to connect with a person I’ve never met for a project I’m working on. During a reception at the conference, I struck up a great conversation with a woman sitting nearby, and it turned out that she was JUST the person I was looking for. Whether these things happen by God or cosmic fate or sheer coincidence, the way that we make meaning of these experiences show us important things about who we are and who we hope to be! So look out for signs while you’re traveling next. **A sign by the way is honestly whatever you deem a sign to be.

5. What places gave me a visceral reaction that I will never forget? What places was I disappointed by?

When we travel, we bring our expectations with us. Sometimes those expectations can be positive, like if we’ve heard good things about a place we’re visiting from the media (think: the breathtaking Eiffel Tower), and sometimes our expectations of a place can be pessimistic, like after reading a few one-star Tripadvisor reviews. The expectations we bring with us can influence our trip, but they can also lead us to some unexpected surprises. When I visited Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany, I never expected to have such a visceral reaction to the place. I was distraught most of my time there and throughout the trip, I was extremely reflective and humbled by the amount of pain and resilience that people have to experience in this world. Though I knew I would get emotional beforehand, I didn’t realize that that singular experience would hold such a deep impact on me so many years later.

6. What is a cultural thing I’ve observed about the people in the place I am in? How does this differ from the culture I was born in? Is this a difference that I admire or a difference that I struggle with? Why?

Since I arrived in Canada, there have been little differences that I’ve picked up on. One thing I’ve heard a lot since I’ve gotten here is “from A to Zed.” Apparently many people in the English speaking world pronounce “z” as “zed” rather than as “zee”- a fact that I, as an American, never actually realized until I got to Canada. Though this is an extremely small difference, little customs like this remind me that my culture is not the standard for what the world is, or should be; this is a thought that continuously humbles me throughout my travels.

7. What do I love about my travel? What do I want to do better next time?

Now, you know I have to end with a reflective question that will lead to some growth for next time. We’ve all had travels where we experienced travel disappointment because we tried to see everything or we didn’t get out of our hotel room enough or we (let’s be real here) traveled with the wrong person or crew. That’s okay! Some of the most interesting memories we have stay with us because of how laughably awful they are….but, that doesn’t mean we have to repeat history. At the end of your travels, I would suggest making a list of everything you loved about your travels and everything you felt “would have been better if.” This last reflective question will give you the opportunity to create your own portfolio of travel dos and donts- tools that will grow right alongside you as you experience more of the world.

In the end, I think that travel is about presence and awareness. It’s about opening our eyes to the world around us and deeply taking it all in. It’s about being a little daring, being a little silly and allowing yourself to let go. It’s about learning something different about who you are and what you value. It’s about breathing in a space- fully living in that space, and asking yourself a question that can refine and shape the best parts of you. It’s also about consuming a ton of good food and making your past-self jealous with the amount of fun you’re having.

My intention for this article is that it gives you a few tools to stay present, open and engaged while you travel- so here’s some reflective questions as we draw to a close:

What are your go-to reflective questions when you travel? Where will you go next, and how will you change there?

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