By Kristina Kasparian
This summer, I booked my first trip overseas since the start of the pandemic. I chose an unobvious spot that wasn’t even on my radar last year: Calabria, an unsung coastal region on Italy’s toe.
As I dusted off my passport and updated my bathing suit collection, I kept obsessing over one worry (and, surprisingly, it wasn’t related to nose swabs).
What if this trip comes and goes without me fully living it? What if I’m so stuck in my own head (or on Instagram) that the whole trip seems like a blur once I’m back?
A calm mind is never a given, even on the most extraordinary trips. But lately, it has been all the more challenging to shed the pressure, quiet my thoughts, and pause my pursuit of progress. To take things as they come without being consumed with metrics and milestones is a constant exercise. To be a mindful traveller.
As a restless go-getter with a chronic condition that can be disabling, I’ve learned that the most enviable vacations may actually be the least restorative, unless I am intentional with my choices; however small they may seem.
I picked a home base for the length of my stay with just the right balance between “not enough to do” and “too much to do”—I settled into an unhurried daily routine of town-beach-aperitivo-sunset-dinner.
As I got to know Tropea’s lights and flavours, I checked in with myself regularly with a series of notes-to-self to ensure I was soaking it all in.
Live it without a lens
I am a travel photographer, which basically means my camera is one of my organs. Long before our brains saw the world in squares and fifteen-second Reels, my practice of mindfulness was centred on my lens.
Photography has fueled my sense of observation and has taught me patience. My passion for the poetry of places is impossible to shut off. Thankfully, my love for photography exists independently of our social media culture.
My phone doesn’t uplift me the way my camera does. The conditioned urgency of capturing, sharing, and yearning for validation takes the magic out of the moment.
On every trip, but especially this one, I grant myself some lens-free time for mindful travel. I leave my camera and phone behind for a few hours. I ask my travel companion to carry my phone, so I’ll think twice about asking them for it only to check it compulsively.
I watch the sunset with my eyes. I eat my meal without photographing it first. I make a memory of the scene with my mind instead of a shutterpress.
By leaving my lens behind, I stay in the moment without breaking the magic to create an artifact of it. And those fractions of time where I paused to feel, rather than to record, end up being the most vivid recollections of my trip.
Drop the should haves
I wouldn’t say I’m an indecisive person, but I’m often quick with the retrospective “should have”s. Did I mess up? Should I have chosen differently? (Obviously, I’m talking about gelato flavours here).
When I hit rock bottom with my health ten years ago and had to scour myself for every ounce of resilience, I got into the habit of paying attention to the words that escaped my mouth and how they impacted my life.
On this trip, I caught my mouth uttering a ton of “should have”s until I consciously began recasting my sentences. Whatever the decision – be it trying or quitting, going or staying, swordfish, or shrimp, I’d remind myself that it was made, done.
I was there, in the aftermath of my choice, with a self-imposed obligation to relish it as it was.
Flood the senses
Mindfulness might be easy-ish to achieve on a yoga mat when we carve out a time and space to reconnect with calm, but I’m terrible at mindfulness on a yoga mat.
Besides, I think the ultimate goal is to learn to practice mindfulness on the move and to stay wrapped in peace in the thick of the chaos. Mindfulness is easier for me to experience when I can flood my senses with sights, sounds, and scents that fill me with awe.
Fortunately, Calabria was a feast for senses with its intoxicating blue, fragrant bergamot, and fiery cuisine. When my mind chattered over my heartbeat, I brought it back to my senses.
Did I really taste the wine I just sipped? Did I feel that wave envelop my ankles? Am I attentive to the bits of dialogue around me? Did I notice the light play on the façades? When I anchor myself in my surroundings, the rest takes care of itself.
I was in my thirties when I first learned that shoulders are not supposed to be attached to the ears. I have my physiotherapist and osteopath to thank for that, bless them!
My posture is the consequence of decades of academic study and chronic pain. The flight or fight response that enables us to run from wolves has long been my baseline. Retraining the nervous system takes time. And just because I’m by the sea savouring a Spritz a day doesn’t mean I don’t feel tense.
Travel can be quite stressful for a body, especially one that flares for no good reason. I remind myself to take stock of my tension. Is my jaw clenched? Are my fists balled up? Are my shoulders up to my ears? Mindfulness is a full-body sport.
For mindful travel, stay
Restlessness rears its head if I don’t attempt to override it. Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of staying.
I’m visiting my parents, and I’m ready to leave, but I stay a few minutes longer. I’ve finished supper, and I’m tempted to clear the plates, but I sit and pay attention to the fullness of my belly. I’ve gotten my fill of the pool, but I take a minute to look at the water again before grabbing my towel. It’s a calming practice to stretch time and my presence within it.
In Calabria, I dialled back my restlessness even further. It wasn’t about conquering both coasts or crossing every idyllic village and beach off the list. I could have squeezed in an extra day trip, but I stayed on Tropea’s beach for the day—a beach I’d already done countless times. I gave myself the gift of time to swim, to rent a boat, to discover a grotto. I lingered. I chose play over progress. And it was the best day of the trip.
Through tiny mindset pivots and a lot of self-compassion, I’ve learned that the key to an invigorating trip is not how much we see, but how much we feel. Mindful travel allows us to fully feel it all, long after we return home.
Kristina Kasparian is a travel photographer and writer based in Montreal, Canada. She loves how places teach us about ourselves and how a heart can have many homes.
All images of Calabria courtesy Kristina Kasparian.