So you think you’ve been there, seen that, and you’ll never really experience something for the first time again? Nonsense, says our author. Open your eyes, dare to stray off the path and show a little courage!
The guinea pig I was holding stopped quivering and started to relax. After chasing it around the kitchen of a Colombian farmhouse, I caught it, carefully, because it was so cute, so quick. It stopped squeaking when I stroked its ear, and clasped my sweaty hand with its tiny paws. It was hot in the Colombian jungle as I stroked my host’s dinner. “They eat guinea pigs in South America,” they tell you in German pet shops, to shock their young customers. So I knew the creatures didn’t live very long in Colombia. And I wanted to comfort this little guy before he was thrown into the pot. But suddenly the news came through that instead of guinea pig, we would be eating maggots! The back of my neck began to crawl. The little guinea pig would have been a new experience but probably not a completely foreign taste. The maggots were. It was my first time eating maggots – with roasted onions on the side.
When we travel, we continuously make new experiences: take our first breath of the magical air of Marrakesh, feel the hot sun of the Sahara on our skin for the first time or encounter the sting of a jelly fish in Thailand. Premieres like these are essential. In fact, I would postulate that the reason we travel is not primarily to acquaint ourselves with new cultures, foods or people, but to gain new experiences. Alien ones. Scary ones. Experiences we never thought we’d have, let alone enjoy. We travel in order to experience something for the very first time. And this novelty is what informs the stories we later relate to friends and family back home. I have learned that live maggots the size of your thumb do not taste very good. They’re not crunchy at all, but soft, like you’re chewing on rubber. I wept tears of revulsion but laughed at the same time because half the village was there, closely watching my struggle. I do not regret the experience at all. Back home, I didn’t talk about the beauty of the Colombians, their verdant country or their dangerous streets. I talked about the maggots.
I have been to 75 countries in my time and am convinced that the more drastic the experience, the better the story will be. Embellished, honed, complete with a punchline and an unexpected twist, every story gets better the more often I tell it. First- time experiences should be horrifying – audiences love high drama. Picture postcard beaches are boring because everyone has seen one, but an experience with aboriginal people in the middle of the jungle, not so much. First-time experiences are unique – a wonderful thing to bring home as a souvenir.
First-time experiences should be horrifying – audiences love high drama
I still remember my first experience and first story on a trip to New York. It was many years ago, in 1996, and I was traveling withew York. It was many years ago, in 1996, and I was traveling with my grandmother. The city was still dangerous then, and had not yet morphed into a tourist theme park. Grandma and I (age 15) stayed at a hotel on 8th street, the one where J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield slept in The Catcher in the Rye. At four in the morning, Grandma said: “Come on, Thilo, let’s go for a walk in Central Park.” We were wide awake due to jet lag and the excitement of being in New York. “That’s way too dangerous,” I replied. Grandma just laughed. So off we went, past shadowy figures who addressed us in English, offering us drugs in low tones and warning us away from this park in the dark heart of the city. But Grandma kept going. This was a very important moment in my life, and it taught me a fundamental truth: The world is not as dangerous as we think, at least not all the time.
In today’s world it is fear that prevents us from traveling most of all. Giant insects in Southeast Asia, war in Central Africa, drug violence in South America. The world can be a dangerous place, of course, and it was many years before I dared to visit those parts of the world that are rarely advertised in travel catalogs. I was afraid to explore them on my own because I wanted to be safe.
I finally overcame that fear the day I encountered, for the very first time, a fellow human being who led a miserable life, utterly forgotten by society. It was an experience that changed my life. Cononou, the seat of government in Benin, is not a very agreeable place to be. People look at you sternly and mistrustfully, the heat is debilitating, and the smell stays in your nostrils like a presence: stale, sad, gray. The man lay on the street, frail from heat exhaustion, sick too, and I helped him. Gave him water, spoke to him, bought him food from the covered market with its corrugated metal roof – frankly, a horrible place. I lost my fear of West Africa when I realized just how much we humans need each other’s help. And that otherwise we are all alone, and lost. I remember the scene so clearly because of the sense I had of finally understanding something for the first time as an adult.
I felt transformed by the experience, and no longer like a seeker. I stopped traveling the world in search of superlatives – the most absurd food, the most dangerous cliff, the most impenetrable jungle. I suddenly felt something new, something universal but new to me. A feeling of gratitude. This was the first time I had traveled somewhere not on a selfish quest for a good time. I immersed myself in the culture in Benin as a subordinate, as someone who does not take themselves more seriously than the country they are visiting. This changed me fundamentally. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t overcome my uncertainty about countries we rarely visit because we are afraid. Our fear cheats us out of many first-time experiences.
But a first-time experience doesn’t need to be as sobering as mine was in Benin. It can be small and beautiful. Two years ago, I decided I was tired of the rough life of a backpacker and ready for some luxury. I had earned it, after all, and was certainly old enough to indulge. There’s a hotel on the island of Koh Yao Noi in southern Thailand that costs 220 euros a night. For someone like me who had never spent more than 15 euros a night, this was big money. I stood in the lobby, dressed in my flip-flops and shorts, a dusty backpack on my shoulders, considered briefly and then said: Ten days, please! Without checking the Internet, without consulting TripAdvisor, just like that. I wanted to know what it felt like to allow myself the kind of luxury that others allowed themselves without a second thought. That was a first-time experience, too.
Back home in Germany, eating dinner at my parents’ place, I talked about the hotel. But not about the food, how quiet the room was or what it felt like not to have to use a padlock to keep my valuables safe. I told them how a member of the hotel staff came by every morning at 9 am and every evening at 5 pm to light the mosquito coil. That greatly impressed me. It impressed my parents, too. I told them that I wasn’t bitten once – unbelievable in Thailand – as if I were telling them a joke, punchline and all. It was an anecdote in which nobody died, nobody had to force down a revolting local delicacy, and yet it was still worth telling. It was perhaps my one thousandth first-time experience, but I will always remember it because I told the story.