Sunday, August 6, 2017

Do You Need a Vacation From Your Vacation?

Mara here. I just got back from a vacation and, for the first time in my life, I didn't feel like I needed a vacation from my vacation.

I don't have a lot of experience with vacations as an adult. I've done a lot of traveling, but most of it has been for business in one way or another. I can only think of a handful of trips I've been on that were 100% because we just decided to go somewhere. Usually it's associated with a job or a family obligation. 

And, as should come to little surprise to people who regularly read the blog, I find traveling extremely stressful. No amount of planning can make me feel prepared. After three years of almost constant travel, I finally feel as if packing is not cause for a complete nervous breakdown. I pretty much know exactly what I will need, and a lot of it is now pre-organized and ready to throw into a suitcase.

But the actual traveling part still causes a lot of anxiety. Physically, I am fidgety. I have a hard time sitting for long stretches at a time. I am the person in the movie theater wiggling around, trying to find a comfortable position every ten minutes. And mentally, well, I am anxious when I'm sitting in my living room, so dealing with travel schedules, airlines, strange cities, and hotels is definitely cause for stress.

And the thing is, it would be easy for me to simply not go places. In fact, there have been a lot of trips we haven't taken simply because the stress of traveling makes the trip not worth it to me. But as I'm getting older, I'm realizing I really do want to see a lot of places. I don't want to stop experiencing things. 

As a kid, we'd go on trips almost every year as a family. When I was in elementary school, we'd go to Disneyland each summer. When I got older, my parents started taking us to Hawaii. Those trips were fun, but they were never as much fun as I thought they would be. I had visions of vacations that I'd seen in movies or on TV, and somehow my actual experience never measured up. I never felt as relaxed as it seemed I should. I never met cool people who would become my best friends. I didn't have money to go on big shopping sprees.

When I got married, we went on a couple of trips, but the stress of worrying about travel plans and money and having high expectations ultimately made those trips more stressful than enjoyable. I still have great memories from those trips, but I never had the feeling of escape or relaxation. I came home exhausted.

Once Malia was born, traveling took on a whole different meaning. Trips were more focused on how to accommodate her. The strain of being responsible for making sure she was taken care of and entertained made it impossible for me to think about my own enjoyment. Traveling with her for three years while she was working (as an actress) was incredibly stressful. During that time, the thought of going anywhere just for fun was out of the question.

But now Malia doesn't travel for work anymore, and she's old enough that my husband and I have the freedom to travel on our own some. When she decided to do a summer academic program where she'd be living in dorms for three weeks at Cornell University, Brad decided we should take a trip on our own.

We had recently discussed how strange it was that, even though we both grew up in California, neither of us had ever been to Mexico even though many Californians vacation there. Brad likes to plan trips, and he knows I do not like to plan trips, so he took on the responsibility of planning our short getaway. He chose Cabo, on the Southern tip of Mexico because it's a relatively short, direct, flight from Los Angeles.

I was apprehensive. I wanted to be excited, but I felt nervous. I kept my anxiety to myself though. I handled the stress mostly by pretending we weren't going. I've discovered that if I just don't think about things and let them happen with little or no interference from me, they tend to go more smoothly. So I didn't think about the trip very much. I didn't tell people we were going, and I didn't try to imagine what the trip would be like.

It turns out that this is the key for me to having a relaxing vacation.

I am lucky that Brad does a great job planning trips. He knows me pretty well by now, so he goes out of his way to pick places that he knows I'll like. Not everyone has this luxury. If I had to plan the trip, I'm not sure I would be able to enjoy it as much.

I'm guessing that most people don't feel this way but, for me, just allowing the vacation to happen with no expectations and not really even knowing what the plan was, made it possible for me to enjoy it. Brad booked us into a wonderful resort where we didn't need to worry about where to get food (there were several restaurants on the property) and because we were only there for a few days, we didn't plan anything. 

I guess that's actually not true, we planned to do nothing.

We didn't want to feel constrained by activities. We didn't want lists of have to's and schedules. If we wanted to sit on the beach, we did. If we wanted to sit by the pool, we did. If we wanted to sit in the hotel room and read or take a nap, we did.

And that was the beauty of the trip. There was nothing we felt we had to do. We purposely decided we wouldn't pre-plan any sightseeing. We didn't pre-book activities. We went armed with several books on our Kindle's and with sun screen. 

And we both had a great time. 

The "me" of a couple of decades ago would not have been able to handle this. I would have wanted to plan things, to do things, to see things. And the result would have been stressful and exhausting. 

This time, we didn't plan anything and there was no expectation that we would do anything. It didn't mean we couldn't do things. In the end, we decided to take a quick trip into the city of Cabo to check out the marina, but it was easy and we didn't feel pressure. 

"Be open to everything. Expect nothing." This is a phrase I learned from Wayne Dyer and I really tried to have this approach to our trip. And it worked.

We came home feeling relaxed. It was the first time I've ever taken a trip and realized that I could travel somewhere and feel this way.

It's not that every trip we take will be this way. We want to go to China and Machu Pichu, where we'll plan a lot of sightseeing. But I think we both now realize that it's also important to have trips where we don't plan things. It's important to have trips where relaxing and doing nothing are the focus.

Maybe (hopefully) other people already know this secret to having relaxing vacations.

I know that before she became chronically ill, traveling for my mom was very different than it's been for me. She really enjoyed the planning. She liked to do research and look at maps and read guidebooks. For her, the planning was part of the fun of the trip.

Here are some questions I asked her.

Did you enjoy traveling, or did you find it stressful?

I loved it. As you said, part of the fun for me was planning the trip. I remember buying a book called Hidden Hawaii. It was supposed to have all the spots that were spectacular but that others didn't know about. I marked up that book so much! And I did indeed take us to many of those places—especially some beautiful deserted beaches—deserted by tourists, that is, but often frequented by locals, who were fun to talk to.

Traveling has changed so much since I stopped being able to go places due to illness. (Once a year, we do rent a cottage for a few nights at a beach that's near us. If you'd like to see a piece I wrote on what it's like to vacation when you're chronically ill, click here). I got sick in May of 2001, right before everything changed at the airports. I can't imagine waiting in long security lines. And I've also been told that the airline seats have become incredibly small and uncomfortable now. So I don't know how I'd feel about traveling now if, suddenly, I could do it.

By the way, I'm so glad that you and Brad had a great time on your trip!

How did you feel about our family vacations? Were they fun for you or did they just feel like work?

A little bit of both. One of my colleagues at work used to say that a vacation with your kids wasn't really a vacation—that you should plan a separate one just for yourselves. That's a nice idea, but we could barely afford to take you and your brother on vacations (and sometimes we couldn't go at all for money reasons), so a separate vacation for your dad and me wasn't possible. 

I did enjoy our family vacations, though, although we didn't get away from conflicts arising now and then that were ongoing issues in the family. They happen at home and they happen on vacation! I imagine that's true for everyone. But on the whole, I enjoyed them. And, I liked it when the four of us were together, something that didn't happen that often at home when you and your brother were teenagers.

How did you guys discover Molokai?

Ah, Molokai. The place I miss going to the most. Thinking about it reminds me of a memorable airplane ride. The tiny aircraft that we took from Maui to Molokai was so old and in such bad shape that, once aloft, we could see the ocean below through in a hole in the bottom. Seriously!

I chose Molokai because I wanted to go to an island where hardly any people went. It was as simple as that.

What was it about Molokai that made it so relaxing?

Part of it was that it was so empty of tourists. It definitely wasn't a place to go if you were looking for night life or even a good restaurant. We loved so many things about it that we tried to go back every year once you and your brother weren't living at home anymore. Molokai has the largest population of native Hawaiians and so it feels like authentic Hawaii. 

Of course, I don't know what it's like now since I haven't been there for over 16 years. That said, I doubt it's changed very much because, unlike the other Hawaiian islands, Molokai doesn't have a lot of great swimming beaches and that's what most people are looking for. 

For me, all I needed was one great beach...and I found it. It's my favorite beach anywhere: Maké Horse. I spent hours on end in the water. Sometimes I was the only person there. Other times I'd visit with locals, often young children. We'd chat as we floated up and down in the gentle waves. Oh, how I miss it.

Maké Horse Beach, Molokai, Hawaii


  1. Make Horse Beach...perfection, agreed. Wonderful snorkeling there, too. Molokai my favorite also, including visiting the former leper colony.

    1. I've only ever seen Molokai from another island. My parents never took me there, probably because when I was younger I definitely wanted to do things like shopping and hanging out at more touristy things. But now I'd definitely like to check it out. Thanks for reading!--M

    2. You've been to Maké Horse! You're the first person I've met who knows that beach. Yes...perfection. All my best, Toni