The Jazz of Travel


Welcome to all Frugal Traveler fans who’ve landed on this page from the link in Seth Kugel’s well-written and thoughtful article about women and travel. As some of you already know, I was the NYT Frugal Traveler from 1998 to 2004–an amazing, intense, and wonderful time to be frugal traveling (way back then, 1 USD =85 Euro cents. Eat your heart out, Seth!)

If you’re one of my readers from those days, and finding this blog for the first time, a special warm hello to you. Hope you enjoy poking through the other entries on this blog. BTW, if you’re not a blog person, you can also find me on Facebook and Twitter. (Confession: I waste spend a lot more time there than on my blog.
And every month, I write about life on the road in my Real Travel column for National Geographic Traveler.

One thought I’d like to add to Seth’s musings on the different ways that men and women travel. As I mentioned in our interview, I think that every traveler brings a different set of characteristics to the table–gender is only one of them. There are others, from our size, our race, our different abilities, sexual orientation, talents and interests. (The dean of living travel writers, Jan (formerly James) Morris, traveled as both a man AND a woman.)

The trick that we travelers, whatever size shape and skin we’re in, must learn is to use all of our personal characteristics to help us get the best out of our travels.

How do we do this? Well, I call it the Jazz of Travel.

I was a musician long before I ever traveled anywhere. And when I think about it, the skills I learned in music improvising are not so different from the skill set I bring to my travels. A great trip is like a terrific jazz solo.

At any given moment when you are traveling, you can turn right or left. You can speak, or not speak, to that stranger. You can sit down at that little cafe, or ignore it and try the one around the block. You can hop the bus, or hire a taxi. Every decision you make changes your experience of a place. Every choice changes where your travel story will go. Every time you choose to do one thing, and not another, your subsequent choices change, too. You open doors, close others.

A great traveler is like a virtuoso jazz cat who understands how to play the rhythm of choice.

How does gender play into the Jazz of Travel? Well, your gender is part of your instrument. Coltrane played sax, Mingus played bass, I play middle aged, 5 foot 9 tall, blonde female who speaks Cantonese. When you travel, you have to work with what you’ve got. That’s my starting point. Then I balance and riff in each situation I encounter, within the framework of each different culture and place, trying to anticipate where the melody is going. (Looking out for my own safety, of course, is part of this).

This all happens in a split second. Thanks to my many years Frugaling I’ve had a lot of practice. (c.f. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule). Life, like music, doesn’t stop while you are planning your solo. You have to take your leap of faith, and run with it.

And in the end, when I’m in the thick of my travels, that’s what I do. I take a deep breath, and dance (boldly, and in my own rhythm) down that unknown street.