As former travel editor for the Wall Street Journal and a former news director at Travel & Leisure, Sara Clemence knew about making the most of her time in the field. In 2016, she began thinking about information overload and fractured attention spans, her own included. “Fifteen years ago, travelers would be looking around and reflecting and absorbing,” she said. “Now they’re looking for the best place to take a selfie.”
Her answer to what she identifies as “digital saturation in travel” is slowing down and easing up on electronic use, the topic of her new book “Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel” (Dovetail Press).
Q: What is mindful travel?
A: It’s about disconnecting from your devices and connecting to your surroundings, being aware of and attentive to the people and food and culture and scenery. It’s something that’s gotten a little lost in this hyper-connected age.
Q: What are the benefits of under-scheduling?
A: You need time to discover, to reflect, to have a conversation with a stranger. In my experience, that’s when something really special can happen. Also, under-scheduling gives our minds a break from the regular grind. Slowing down can be really restorative.
Q: What are your tips for meeting people while traveling?
A: Starting a conversation with a total stranger is challenging. It really helps to ask a question. One of my favorite ways to start an actual conversation with somebody is to ask about food, because so many people really like to give their opinions about food. There’s a fine distinction between asking, “Where should I eat?” — I being the tourist — and “Where do you like to eat?” Sometimes people will give a tourist-friendly place. But if you ask where they like to eat, it’s more likely to yield a local, interesting restaurant or food stall or market.
Q: You advise leaving the camera at home. Is there some way to shoot and be mindful?
A: It can really help to be more thoughtful about how you use your camera. Say you’re only going to take three photos a day or only photograph certain kinds of things. Photographers say everybody needs to be taking fewer, better photographs. It has a dual effect. One, it makes you more thoughtful about what photographs you’re taking, and it also removes the temptation to photograph everything.
Q: How can families practice mindfulness while traveling?
A: Letting your kids help plan your travels is a big one. They’re invested in what you’re doing. It’s important to set limits on devices just as you set limits on yourself. When your kids start getting bored, it can be really hard not to rush to fill their time with some sort of activity. It’s perfectly healthy for children to be bored. When we were traveling last year, my 5-year-old son started making toys out of whatever materials we had at hand. He would make a house out of a tissue box, or he’d make a bottle into an airplane. It made me feel we were accidentally enhancing his resourcefulness.