Using Curiosity As Your Compass

When Questions Lead to Amazing Travel Experiences

Have you ever been somewhere and have a question bubble up in you that cannot be contained and you find yourself asking it? Something as simple as “what is that?” or “where does that alley lead?” Sometimes that question is borne of necessity and other times it comes from a deeper place inside you. In this feature, we explore the times that asking – or answering – a simple question steeped in curiosity has led you to an amazing person, experience or story on your travels.

Sometimes it’s the people we meet

Are you having bike problems or just want a shoulder to cry on?
Anne-Marie P. had spent a month motorcycling solo across the American southwest when she began having trouble getting her bike to start in the morning. There was no shortage of hills, so she’d push the bike out of her campsite, pop the clutch on the way down a hill and it would start. A day later, it wouldn’t start if she turned it off and that morning there was no hill in sight.

“I convinced some German tourists to help me push it down the road and up a hill so I could get it started and was thinking about what to do next. By this time, I was on Nevada’s Route 50, the ‘Loneliest Road in America.’ I decided to make my way to the nearest bike shop, but it was a hundred miles away,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even turn the bike off to refuel or get something to eat, so eventually I was choosing a chocolate bar to be my lunch while the bike ran at the pumps of a gas station in the tiny town of Ely, Nevada.”

That’s when she noticed a hand-lettered sign on the pumps that asked: “Are you having bike problems or just want a shoulder to cry on? Call me – Jake at Sagebush Machine Shop.” So she did. And as it turned out, Jake had the most complete shop in his backyard that Anne-Marie had ever seen.

Low view of motorcycle on the road

“My battery was running dry in the desert air and he filled it with water and put it on a charger overnight. I camped in his backyard that night and the next day I was back on the road! He was a very interesting guy. Had hiked to many backcountry Anazazi ruins and photographed them. Took me out for a short demonstration ride on his KLR bike before I left,” she says. “I found out years later that he was well known in the motorcycle world for being able to help and fab up any part someone needed and was sorry to see he had passed away when I tried to find him again.”

So you grow sorghum?
When Marti S. was 15, she was on a road trip from Ohio to South Carolina through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her dad got lost, and they stopped for directions at a shack where a woman was selling honey, sorghum and remedies. Her name was Florence Boyd, and she was the local healer and midwife, putting a couple of local boys through med school.

Marti’s dad loved talking to people and learning from them and knew hill country hospitality from being a hunter. He asked her about the sorghum and off they went.

Field of sorghum

“I suspect she was lonely and glad for the company. The building of the Blue Ridge Parkway had reduced or cut off traffic through much of the area, so it seemed she was alone a lot. I will always remember her grabbing my father’s hands and looking at his fingernails before she would let us in. He passed her test. She turned to me and said, ‘Honey, never trust a man with narrow fingernails. He will do you in by sundown.’ What young teen girl would not remember that? I still look, by the way,” she says. “I think I remember her primarily because I had never met anyone remotely like her. It was an eye-opener on life outside the burbs. I don’t think there is such a thing as getting lost. You just get misplaced. Kind of like when you lose an object and find something else you need when you are looking for it.”

Can I really climb up there?
Thirty years ago, Nancy M. I travelled to Egypt. She was inside one of the big pyramids, staring at a ladder set up for explorers to climb a shaft into the next chamber. She was hesitating, asking herself if she could do it.

“I felt a poke in the back. I turned around and there was an elderly lady behind me with an umbrella. She gave me a grin and said: ‘If I am going so are you. It might be our last chance.’ She was quite elderly and was not with a tour. Maybe her group or friends were left behind at the hotel. She seemed to be ready for any adventure and her attitude was contagious,” says Nancy. “She had the biggest grin on her face when she said it might be our last chance. She agreed to go in front of me so I could help her if needed. We both made it to all the upper chambers.”

Nancy had been a bit nervous about travelling to Egypt on her own. She’d had some guidance from a travel agent in Toronto, but it was a bit hands off – she was driven to places and then she was on her own. After visiting the pyramid and meeting that irrepressible lady, Nancy relaxed and realized that if an elderly lady could do it, so could she. Suddenly, she was open to more adventures, encounters and uncertainty – on that trip, and every one since. “She and her fearless attitude were unique, and I never forgot her words. We shared an amazing moment inside that fantastic place. I think of her each time I go to a new place. Her umbrella still pokes me the odd time when I am unsure. I say her words to myself. Just go – it might be your last chance,” she says. “Really she was right. Life is short – enjoy the good and the bad, relish the new experiences, people, music, food, dust, noise, and chaos. I am getting a little older myself and have no issues going to a new place on my own. I am 61 now. I hope I am still doing it when I reach her age.”

Other times we meet our purpose

Why do you want to get into Laos so badly?
Hope P. and her then-boyfriend travelled the world for six years after university. Near the end of their first year in 2000, they decided to journey from Cambodia to Laos – and had to find, befriend, ply with drinks, and bribe a corrupt Cambodian government official to make it happen.

“‘Why do you want to get into Laos so badly?’ The official seemed to sneer at us, confused as to why we needed to leave his country for its sleepy neighbour. At that moment I didn’t really have a sound answer—both inside myself and for the official poised to help us cross the closed border to Laos PDR. But his probing forced me to get clear on my WHY,” Hope muses.

Hope's boyfriend sits with Cambodian official

Hope’s boyfriend and the Cambodian official who got them into Laos

After all, Laos had been a tightly controlled, land-locked (but for crossing the Mekong River from Cambodia), and communist country badly bombed in the Vietnam War. Hope had little knowledge of it but felt a massive tingle to explore it.

“You know, that tug in your gut that urges you to do things you would never normally. ‘We need to meet our friends,’ I responded. Surprised by my answer, I realized that I would be meeting mysterious new people in a new land. Curious to discover a completely new country and culture compelled me to keep pushing on with this stern man. Something about Laos was calling me from the deep,” she says. “At the end of a very drunk lunch, he decided to stamp this certificate that we could bring over the border. We had to hide underneath a tarp on a little put-put boat and go from Cambodia to Laos, hoping that if no one caught us on the way we could make it to the Laos border and pay off an agent with this letter.”

Hope rests her head on a boat with guide behind her

On the other end of a covert boat ride from Cambodia to Laos

At the end of their first year of travel, after making it to Laos and falling in love with the country and its people, Hope and her boyfriend were lamenting the fact that they’d have to head home as they’d told everyone they would. “Something happens to you when you travel relentlessly without a plan. Months bleed into one another, and your purpose gets fuzzy. You forget where you’re going. You just are. It feels like a forced Power Of Now exercise. Time slows and it feels like a magnifying glass explodes simple movements into giant moments,” she says. “I was standing on a dusty road on Don Det. The only goal of the day was the same as the last twenty— feed myself a heaping portion of sticky rice topped with something spicy and wander around. I remember the thrill of practicing a few words of Laos with the shoeless children who swarmed my ankles, and asking myself: ‘Why do I need to stop this heaven to go home? For what?’ The usual barrage of stock answers piled up: Get a job. Make money. I can’t possibly keep traveling and enjoying myself so much? This last one made me giggle. Listening to thin answers about my life’s direction bubble up amidst people living so in the moment seemed inane. It was the first time I realized that my path was mine for the taking. If I wanted to travel endlessly, spend time learning a language on the other side of the world from my family, perhaps even grow food and live off the land right after graduating from university…why the hell not?” So the pair didn’t return home. They spent six months hanging out in Vang Vieng – learning the language, meeting local people and other foreigners. “We met this Belgian l guy one day who was splitting up with his Laos wife and he said: ‘I just want to find somebody to take this restaurant on!’ And on the spot, my boyfriend said: ‘We can.’ Then we became restaurant owners,” says Hope. “I’d only ever worked as a line cook, and he’d only ever eaten in restaurants. We were only 22, but we asked ourselves ‘why not?’”
A group stands in front of Hope's Oasis in Laos

Becoming restaurant owners and reopening as Hope’s Oasis in Laos

That didn’t fully remove Hope’s doubts. She was used to thinking small. And she didn’t have to try very hard to remind herself what she couldn’t do, or what wasn’t possible. Her boyfriend forced her to rethink her bias. “His genius was to break up the steps into bite-sized chunks – to portion out the pile and make it possible. Opening a successful restaurant (we tripled our revenue each month for 8 months) in a foreign land did wonder for my self-esteem. I found new ways to approach personal messes and business tangles. My eyes were opened to what I could make happen, what people were capable of—both good and very nasty,” she says. What did the experience ultimately teach her? “I felt myself slough off layers of naivety in a matter of weeks. All my years of education did not prepare me for diving in headfirst and pushing hard until I conquered. I still haven’t forgotten that lesson. I often pull it out of my memories, dust it off, and remind myself that anything is possible with enough gumption and grit,” Hope says. “In the company of Laos people, and in the slower pace of Laos life, I learned how many pre-packaged programs I was hardwired to believe in were not real. And that many of these trained beliefs didn’t truly serve me. Curiosity has enabled me to plot a path to happiness based on what feels right for me.”

And then there are times we walk away with a life lesson wrapped in a rich story

What’s the best thing you learned from your grandfather?
I see the world in stories. Everyone has one. Some people are full of them. I unearth them as I travel – by asking curious questions. One of my richest recent discoveries came to light as darkness cloaked a car whisking me from Denpasar Airport to The Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali. The late hour and the hectic travel schedule that saw me crisscrossing time zones for weeks had me blinking owlishly in the back seat at first. But soon, I was leaning forward in my seat, engaged.

I arrived just in time for Galungan and Kuningan (February 19 to 29 this year). Galungan is a Balinese holiday that celebrates the victory of dharma (good) over adharma (evil). It marks the time when the ancestral spirits of deceased relatives visit Earth. The last day of the celebration is Kuningan when they leave.

My new friend and driver explained that women are so busy preparing and placing offerings during the holiday period, that it’s up to the men to cook the family feast. I watched a light spark in his eyes as he told me that his grandfather taught him how to prepare the traditional holiday meal.

I could have left it there and closed my eyes in the back seat as I longed to. But I smelled a good story, and it reinvigorated me. So I asked him what the best thing he’d learned from his grandfather was, expecting him to describe a dish. What I got instead was a life lesson. Much attention is paid to the balancing of flavours and seasoning in the traditional meal — sweet, sour, savoury, bitter, salty, spicy. Each represents a human emotion, his grandfather told him. You can’t have too much of one and not enough of the other if you want a well-seasoned meal — or life.

Packaged spices in Indonesia
He said that when he was young, he always wanted to add more spice — he liked his food hot. And his grandfather told him that it was because he was young and full of fire and passion, but one day he’d see the value in every flavour and every emotion. He didn’t truly understand what his grandfather meant until he became a husband and father to two boys, ages seven and two. This is why I travel. Why I lean in and ask questions, even when I’m a time zone zombie. For the rich flavours and textures of local life. Stories are the spice of my life. And you don’t get flavour-bombs like this on a structured tour. You get them by being curious and interested. Everyone has a story for the telling. There’s a new experience around every corner. See what you can stir up the next time you leave your front door by using curiosity as your compass.

Amanda Burgess

Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure; co-founder of the Sharyn Mandel School in Gobele, Ethiopia; and Acting Editor of Journeywoman. Follow her and her adventures on Instagram @unshakeable.me.

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