The Key to Memorable "Really Living" Vacations? Fear and Suffering Sound counterintuitive? Perhaps. If the goal of a vacation is to eliminate all stress, then cocooning safely by the pool for hours on end with a cocktail and a book might be just the thing. But from an Art of Really Living standpoint, such vacations are like setting a torch to your most valuable commodity: time.
Do you want to go on unforgettable, time-stopping vacations that create an indelible stamp on your memory? There is one guaranteed way: design in some form of fear and suffering.
Sounds crazy? Counterintuitive? Consider this: think back to some of your most memorable vacations as a kid or even as an adult. Almost always the best and most primary memories have incidents of suffering involved that in the moment were a crisis or a struggle, but with the patina of time and under the golden gloss of memory have subsequently become the highlights of those stories you tell. The endless drives across the country with motion sickness. The time you left your sister at a gas station. Getting lost in a foreign city. The time your car overheated driving up the mountain pass. Getting arrested for skiing out of bounds.
This, then, is the key phrase, "the stories you tell." Narratives without trial and suffering essentially have no plot - and without a plot you don't have a story, and without a story, you won't create meaningful memories.
Need more evidence? Consider the "Monomyth" or "Heroes' Journey" first popularized by Joseph Cambell, which many would argue is the basis of any successful narrative. Think Star Wars, the Matrix, Avatar… virtually any blockbuster movie or novel follows this basic 11 step journey, and core to these narratives are trials, fear and crisis.
Here's a short video analyzing "The Matrix"
If we accept that the human brain is wired for stories, and that the heroes' journey is the archetype of the most basic narrative pre-wired in our brains, then it follows that any adventure - particularly on vacation - that follows this narrative is bound to be remembered. A lazy-on-a-beachchair-with-a-cocktail vacation might sound like the perfect idyll, but from the perspective that "life is short and actively getting shorter," such a vacation has no narrative. As such, it is time lost. Time wasted. A vacation you will forget.
So… how to design a truly memorable vacation? There is no direct prescription, but in a series of coming posts we will demonstrate through stories examples of "really living" vacations that slowed, expanded, or even created time.
Narrative One: An Adventure in Playa Del Carmen.
Last year my daughter and I flew into Cancun and were whisked to a resort on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen for a conference where I was giving a keynote speech. We had a couple of days to relax prior to the event. Considering it was March, we were eager to get out to the beach the moment we arrived to the hotel. It was then that I spawned the notion, "Hey Kat - how about we walk the beach to Playa Del Carmen, get dinner in the town, and then take a cab back." (1 - call to adventure)
Her response, "sure - how far is it?"
We asked the man at the front desk. He didn't know, seemed confused by the question, so we just set out with a hand drawn brightly colored not-to-scale map of the coast as our guide. (2 - assistance) It was about 3:30 and the sun was still bright and warmed our skin as we began our journey. (3 - departure)
We navigated bays and shallows, marched in each other's footprints, investigated tidal pools and peered into ritzy resorts full of pale-skinned sun worshipers.
As we progressed south, the beach became more rugged and the hotels disappeared. We had been walking for about an hour and a half when Kat started asking, "are we almost there?" I looked at the map. "I think so - maybe a couple more bays." This pattern was to repeat itself several times over the coming hours.
We were now away from any development but oddly the bays and estuaries were full of people - Mayan families with naked babies splashing in the shallows laughing, dozens of grills and campfires with blue smoke of delicious smelling grilled meats. The sun was dropping, and in the chiaroscuro light it felt like we had entered another world - one hidden from the lights of the resorts - of real people experiencing the simple joys of the sun and the sand and the waves, droplets in the air like diamonds from the splashing of the kids. At several turns we were offered food and greeted warmly, we these tall other-worldly strangers traversing their alter-world.
Kat's feet began to hurt about 3 hours in. (4 - trials) "Almost there" I told her as we traversed yet another bay and then rocky shoulder, lights finally appearing in the distance beckoning, but not growing any closer. (5 - approach)
It became dark, but still there were lots of people and fires and we had a flashlight we used to traverse the tricky estuaries and rock outcroppings. We were now both tired and had stopped talking, just endless tramping on the sand. We were both starving and also dehydrated having run out of water hours before. Kat was on the verge of tears I was getting very anxious -I began thinking about trying to move inland to find a cab but the dirt lanes leading to these unidentified beaches didn't seem to lend themselves to public transport, and groups of rowdy and aggressive younger males drinking beer in pickup trucks were starting to become more prevalent. (6 - crisis)
One more bay and rocky outcrop and then, there it was, the long stretch and brilliant lights of the Playa Del Carmen main beach. We were ecstatic. We took the first side street up and entered the pedestrian zone of cobbled streets, upscale restaurants with outdoor seating, and a diverse mix of incredible people watching.
We lost our tiredness and began fantasizing about shrimp ceviche, lobster pasta, seafood pizza, and steak tacos. (7 - treasure) Finally we settled into comfortable chairs of a gorgeous restaurant overlooking a plaza surrounded by palms and proceeded to eat and eat and eat. We were giddy. It was 9pm - we had walked 5 hours straight, but now the reward was here, food had never tasted better. (8 - result)
When we returned to the hotel, (9 - return) we ran into our main sponsor. "How was your evening" he asked. "Great," we said simultaneously - "we walked to Playa for dinner."
"Walked??" He exclaimed, "Playa is 12 miles away - that must have taken…"
"5 hours - yes yes it was quite the adventure." The concierge, overhearing said, "Wait wait, you walked to Playa - in the dark?! It is very rocky near the north side…."
Kat said, "oh it was fine - we had a flashlight." It became a story repeated all over the complex not only by our conference group, but by the hotel employees. I could tell Kat was secretly proud, and in subsequent trips, her resilience and willingness to try new things significantly increased. (10 - new life)
Now, a year later, we remember that trip not for the fancy resort, not for the amazing meals, not for the gorgeous pools. What we remember most was the suffering / joy of the long excursion to Playa and the otherworld we entered in the gloaming of the evening where few other tourists had traversed before. Not even para-sailing (a first) was more memorable. (11 - resolution)