Travel: The New Fountain of Youth

Five hundred years ago, Juan Ponce de León set sail from Puerto Rico–where he had been appointed governor by the Spanish crown–in search of magical waters said to restore vitality. Turns out the 39-year-old explorer had more pressing priorities–gold and empire expansion chief among them–as he took stock of a land he named La Florida.

That didn’t stop the quest for the Fountain of Youth from being associated with him, though the legend itself can be traced back far further–to the days of Alexander the Great at the very least.

Travel may not take us to water that replenish our strength or smooth out our wrinkles, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a kind of “fountain of youth.”

One way it works is by stretching time.

“Are we there yet?” was probably first uttered from the back of a Conestoga wagon by a six-year-old bored by Kansas. Time drags when you’re bored, but I’ve always felt that it slows down when you experience exciting new things, too.

I recently spent a week and a half in Namibia. I camped under the stars and walked up the spines of red dunes in a desert that looked something like a family of headless dragons curled up to sleep. I walked with zebras and oryx on my own. I ate a couple of Mopani worms. I’d never done or experienced anything like this before, and felt, upon returning home, as if I had literally been away for months.

Namibia expanded time for me. And science backs up my experience.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies perception, has argued that time seems to slow down when people confront life-threatening situations. A couple of years ago, I emailed him to ask how this concepts might pertain to travel. He told me visiting “novel places” sets us back–neurally speaking–as if we were children again, experiencing things for the first time.

That means that Americans, and anyone else with limited vacation time, owe it to themselves to go something new–the more exotic the better–every now and then so their two weeks feel like four.

Travel also restores that sense of wonder that defines our younger days. I’ll never forget how my four-year-old daughter Ruby reacted when I showed her the grand finale from The School of Rock. She stood frozen and silent, but glued to the screen–like a poster child for wide-eyed wonder–when Jack Black, in his funny shorts, suddenly dives head first into the crowd.

Travel does that, too.

While I was doing research for a guidebook on Transylvania seven years ago, I took an actual vacation–a novelty for a travel writer–to Turkey. No work, no pressure, just fun.

On my first day in Istanbul, I got lost in the maze of the Grand Bazaar, ate a take-away whitefish sandwich caught off the Galata Bridge, peered across the Bosphorus towards Asia, then had a wild walk at dusk along Istiklal Caddesi, a street stuffed–really stuffed–with locals on dates, in groups, with families.

I took it slow, popping around a web of side streets, seeing people sitting on tiny stools playing chess and drinking tea. Later I found a seat in the busy Balik Pazari, or “fish market,” where a nearby group of 40-somethings got so swept away by the joys of the night that one guy got up on the table and danced.

It was like traveling for the first time, I told myself. I couldn’t have been happier, or more in awe of the city, and the world. And I still am.

Go somewhere new, go open to what you find, and let the beautiful differences of the world crowd-surf over you like Jack Black in funny shorts. That’s the real fountain of youth.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.