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How to sharpen your ‘noticing’ skills when traveling

The stuff you notice that no one else does, that’s the most important!

“We live in a culture that’s currently dominated by trending topics… We can’t stop talking about what everyone else is talking about. And that comes at the expense of what really matters to us as individuals.”

Upon reading these words, I instantly loved Rob Walker. The author of the just-published book, The Art of Noticing, is on a mission to get people to take positive action to control their attention – in other words, to notice what they notice.

Both in everyday life and when traveling, we get hung up on what everyone else is into, what the online reviews say we should do, where we think an Instagram shot would look most impressive. But in doing so, we miss out on experiencing the stuff that’s most meaningful to us on a personal level – and the stuff that will give us the greatest memories.

In Walker’s words, “Those things you notice that no one else does – they are the MOST important!”

So, we must retrain our brains and phone-twitchy fingers to allow us to experience those things that are off the beaten track, whatever they may be. Walker’s new book contains 131 exercises to stimulate this new focus, several of which follow below, based on interviews and articles of his that I’ve read online. (I have not yet got my hands on a copy of the book, although I am trying.)

1. Eat somewhere dubious.

green juice in Jerusalem© K Martinko – That time I accepted a cup of mysterious green juice in Machne Yehuda market in Jerusalem… I still don’t know what it was!

Forego the Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews. Skip the recommendations from fellow travellers or hotel staff. Pick a random place that piques your curiosity, whether it’s based on decor, location, the appearance of fellow diners, or whatever. Sit and eat and take it all in. Just think – this is how food critics discover the new best places, by getting out there and trying unusual new things.

2. Go the hard way.

map of London© K Martinko — Studying a map of central London over coffee

Put down the phone – I know, this is what we always hear – but there is great value in creating the opportunity to get lost. Take a paper map (my favorite thing to do, also because it offers a big picture of a new city’s geography), or scribble out your rough route based on an Internet search ahead of time, or just go wander. Walk or use public transit. Turn down side streets. Follow a sound or smell.

If you’re really daring, do what Henry Rollins does: He gets into a cab, and says, “Take me $20 that way.” Then he gets out and starts walking. When he sees a person who speaks to him and asks him what he’s doing there, he says, “I’m here to meet you!” Make it about the journey, not getting from point A to point B.

3. Read the plaques.

John Cabot plaque in Venice© K Martinko – A plaque I found on Via Garibaldi in Venice (2012)

Once I was wandering around Venice and came across a plaque commemorating John Cabot, the Venetian explorer who encountered Newfoundland in 1497 while trying to find a shorter sea route to Asia. The plaque had been erected by the Canadian government to mark the 500th anniversary of the journey. It was a fun little discovery for my Canadian family, so far from home. The point is, plaques are put there for a reason and often have a nugget of fascinating information that can add interest and perspective to your visit.

4. Seek the quiet.

bike ride in Turkey© K Martinko – While visiting an island off the coast of Istanbul, I rode my bike as far away from the tourist crowds as i could and was rewarded with this stunning view.

Listen for silence amid the city noise, then walk toward it. Keep going until you reach the quietest spot you can, then sit and enjoy it. “Stop and be in that place,” Walker writes in the Guardian. He describes a similar exercise in which he makes a point of sitting in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the length of John Cage’s most famous piece by the same name. I’d add that looking for quiet excursions, away from the hustle and bustle of a city, is also valuable.

5. Look at the world through a child’s eyes.

Model tram to Cristo statue© K Martinko – Sometimes standing behind the model tram up to the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio is more exciting than the real thing.

Kids have a knack for noticing things and being entertained by seemingly little. We adults could learn a lot from them. If you’re lucky enough to have a child with you, pay attention to what they pay attention to. If you don’t have a kid around, play a one-object scavenger hunt (look for a single thing, like security cameras, stop signs, flowers, something gross, etc.) with yourself or a companion.

Why do all of this? In Walker’s words, “It just deepens my sense that the world is worth engaging with.”

What are the ways in which you pay attention in new places, or seek to revive your curiosity in your hometown?

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