What does Off the Beaten Path Really Mean?

I took the subway back from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn early this week. I was back from a catch-up coffee with my “s” in Legal Nomads, the lovely Jessie who is now working at AdMeld after her year of traipsing the globe. The R train pulled into Union Square but as I was about to step in, I turned and saw the long line of people waiting for the Q express and thought better of it. Sure enough, the Q sputtered into the station as soon as the R departed.

It turned out that the express was anything but. Stopping between stations, the subway was packed with rush hour passengers, all of us crunched together. Separate sardines on a commute home. I remember looking around me and wondering what people’s stories were, this mishmash of humanity on a late Monday in New York. I was dressed for meetings in a skirt and silk top and boots; no one giving me a passing glance would think I lived elsewhere, that I had spent the past 3+ years roaming the globe. One never knows what lies beneath the outer layers.

New York Manhattanhenge 2011

"Manhattanhenge" in New York this summer.

As the train ground to a halt for what must have been the 20th time, the woman next to me, my height with a pixie cut and bright brown eyes, was knocked unceremoniously to the side by the giant hairy arm of her righthand neighbour. He was completely lost in his music, not realizing (or caring) that he kept elbowing pixie in the face. Several minutes passed. Five, six. Still stopped on the Brooklyn Bridge, my neighbour was stuck smelling the arm of the giant to her right. I turned to her and suggested she start pulling his arm hairs out, one by one. She giggled. The man across from us stifled a laugh.

More time passed, but we did not move.  Six of us were standing in star formation, each joined together by the metal pole affixing us to our allotted subway places, grounding us for the duration of our ride home. There’s a funny sort of intimacy that bubbles to the surface when you’re motionless in the subway; you can’t help but actually start noticing details instead of vaguely staring past the person in front of you. Your straphanging neighbours cease being random strangers and start to take shape into real people, with quirks and personalities and stories.

After several service announcements (“broken subway is broken”) and still wedged on the Brooklyn Bridge, the woman to my right cocked her head in my direction and whispered “since I’m not going to pull arm hairs out, tell me – what’s your life story.” So I told her. And she told me hers, and then we both raised our eyes to the man across the way, who shrugged and volunteered that he was from Florida, had just moved here to take a job after years of freelancing. “I thought the train was supposed to be fast?” he asked. We nodded, commiserating.

 * * *

I often receive emails asking for suggestions about where to visit that’s off the beaten path.  People who write to say “I know you put these places on your blog, but where are the secret places, the ones that no one else knows about?” Oftentimes people are looking for a connection to others that feels special or sacred, something different. A story that we can look back on and tell the story to friends at home. “And then, she invited me to her family’s house and I ate with them, staying late into the night!”  But do we really need somewhere away from all the tourists to get that feeling of sincere invitation or authenticity?

Every Sunday in Chiang Mai I would take my motorbike to the night market to get a massage and grilled pork and sticky rice. It was a routine that made Sundays the best of the week, full of smoky meat and sharp, spicy sauce and followed by an hour of someone beating up my legs and back. And in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the fluid movement of near and far, I always felt like I was in another world from the endless stream of tourists flowing by. I would go to the same woman every week and while she worked her magic we’d make fun of the random outfits on those walking by, or berate the men working there for teasing the youngest girl on staff. The song and dance between her and the other massage workers was overstated and comical, slapstick humour and lots of laughs. By the time I left town, I was showered in hugs and given bags stuffed with food to take on my onward journey.

Smoked pork from the Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai

Incredible smoked pork from the Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai

And yet, when people ask for suggestions to Chiang Mai, they don’t want the night market. They want something different, something that sets their visit apart from the others. Like an everyday commute in New York, you don’t need the social clout of stepping outside the quotidien to have memorable experiences. You only need to look at the people around you – truly look, communicate, smile. The rest falls into place.

* * *

Three days before my ride to Brooklyn, I was taking the subway to the Lower East Side for the Restless Legs travel reading series. Three Frenchmen were lost, and given that I’m from Montreal, I jumped in to help them figure out where they wanted to go next. They stayed on the platform, and as I boarded the train, a woman joked that she ought to have learned French in high school. (Let’s just say the Frenchmen weren’t hard on the eyes.) This initial banter turned into a long discussion about the politics of Russia and Siberia and an invitation to her family’s house for dinner.

None of these stories make me special, and none are truly outside the confines of what’s normal for everyday human interaction. So why is it that when I tell people about my new subway friends, their jaws drop and they say “why don’t I meet people on the subway?” While it’s true that I’ve become more open to these random connections by virtue of my travels, I had similar experiences prior to quitting my job to travel the world. Perhaps it’s the same thing that has me winding my way through cities in search of markets and food instead of sights to see; I’m fascinated the most by the interaction between people.

Eating dinner with the village chief in Northern Laos

Eating dinner with the village chief in Northern Laos

To those who write to say they’d love to travel but aren’t yet ready to go, I suggest that they get outside of their comfort zone, even in their own hometown. “You want to get off the beaten path? Start small, then take your show on the road.” It’s an excellent start.   And when people write me to ask for isolated places, I do send them a list. But I also suggest that they remain open to the panoply of human interactions as they move through their days.  Yes, I love to get away from the tourists and the many people who travel for travel’s sake, but it’s not always about the most far flung places. In the middle of the busiest cities you’ll find those same connections and new friendships.

Tell me, what does getting off the beaten path mean for you?