The first time on the ground is always the most enthralling, most exhilarating. It’s the first flush of love when you meet a place that makes the heart go boom.
But that would be a gross understatement to say that the second trip around can't be as good, or as different, from the first time.
Sure, there are countries I’d never visit again. Sometimes once is enough. That goes for about the last tier of countries I’ve visited. The other two-thirds are filled with countries I generally feel neutral towards, or positively love. And for those places, the second visit, in many ways, can be even more thrilling and fulfilling in a way that the first visit can never be.
The experience of the first visit
The first visit is always a trip, literally and figuratively. I’m a firm believer that there is often no way know to if a country will resonate before visiting. I’ve hated places I thought I would love, and loved places I thought I would hate. No amount of research can simply capture the feeling a place might exude.1
For most people, when they set foot in a place for the first time, they’re often starting with a blank slate. And as you begin to navigate a place’s intricacies, rules, and language, the gaps are slowly filled, piece by piece. An outline slowly begins to form, much like assembling a puzzle.
Sometimes assembling the puzzle is tricky; and sometimes assembling the puzzle in simple. In general, most puzzles follow the same principles, but sometimes a puzzle can also completely throw you off course. Much of what we like about a country can often come down to the details, the colors, and more importantly, how they make us feel.
Simultaneously, there’s often a lot of expectation that follows a first-time visit, especially if you’ve been planning it for a while. There may be pressure to Instagram every waking moment, to show all those cool things you're doing and provee that your life, indeed, is no less fulfilling than your peers. And because everything is happening in a such compressed amount of time, there’s a lot of pressure to check items off the list. Because who knows when you’ll be back again?
But let’s face the facts, you may have absolutely no desire to visit the Eiffel Tower.2
Slipping on trusty shoes for the second visit
But the second visit is often fulfilling and yields different pleasures that the first visit is rarely capable of providing.
Because, by now, you’ve figured out what exactly you like and exactly what you hate about a particular place. By this point, you’ve also ticked off most of those items on the “to-do” list and feel no more pressure to visit any particular place or do something. Maybe this sounds boring at the outset, but now you’re able to spend time doing what you like doing. And that doesn’t mean there’s no room for new activities.
Given enough time and space, there’s even room for a place to grow on a person. I didn’t particularly care for Istanbul in the beginning, and felt relatively neutral towards it for a while. ("Fascinating," I'd tell people. It was true, but I hadn't formed a strong opinion in either direction.)
But after a brief stopover this year, I found that it came with memories, fabulous company due to my previous time there, and knowing what I'd like to reasonably accomplish in a short amount of time. So I went straight to the things I loved most about Istanbul: getting my yearly supply of Divan Turkish delights and sourcing Persian saffron from the markets, while enjoying the architecture of the Blue Mosque.
In the same vein, on a subsequent visit to Hong Kong, I spent an entire day out of a three-day trip kayaking around the New Territories and its smaller islands for $8 USD for the entire day, something that I didn't even know was possible to do for so little. It was incredible to take an entire day to feel such leisure, and not care what else I was missing out on.
Think of your favorite pair of well-worn shoes. Chances are, you know what kind of terrain it can and can’t handle. Use those strengths it excels at to give you a leg up on life. (While finding new terrain to exercise it on.)
I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are places I have given second… and third… and fourth chances to. Boston is pretty much relegated to the lobster-eating camp, and that's about it.
The true beauty of traveling may lie somewhere in the absence of expectations, so maybe, maybe, it's okay to leave something for the next time.
- Ever seen someone’s profile online? And they looked perfect on paper, but the chemistry was just off in person? Kinda like that. I could drop the relationship metaphors, but frankly, I often find there’s a lot of parallels between different aspects in life. ↩
- Don’t get me wrong, part of what we like about traveling is that it gets us out of our routine. C’est la vie. ↩