Imagine yourself on a beach. But before you go too far with daydreaming about beach volleyball and margaritas, ask yourself this first — what’s the sand like?
Is it that fine golden sand that packs hard under your feet when wet, making it easy to jog alongside the water? Or is it pebbled and impossible to walk on? Maybe it’s grainy and loose like the black volcanic sands of Santorini, which heats up to scalding hot levels in the sun.
One of my favourite swimming holes was a tiny but deep river out in the floodplains on the outskirts of my grandmother’s town. The river’s edge was grass, which then gave way to sticky clay mud. Locals had made little wooden piers and diving boards to bypass the mud so you could divebomb straight into the water.
In your beach vacation daydream, did you imagine the water? Not how it looks, but how it feels. A travel experience is a construct of sensations. It’s more than just what you see, because oftentimes what anchors a memory of a place is something that you smelt or tasted or heard or felt. The sense of touch can be a defining characteristic of an experience.
When I’ve been swimming in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Crete or Santorini, the water is usually on the cool side of warm. It’s just cool enough that when you slip into it, out of the heat of the sun, the sensation is refreshing and energizing. And if you have any cuts on your skin it will jolt you awake when the salt water nips at you.
The river I talked about it my grandmother’s town, was generally much warmer than the Aegean Sea in Greece. You would get this gradient of temperatures where on the surface it was well warmed by the sun, but at the point where your feet hung down there would be a cool layer of undisturbed water.
Not all sensations are created equal. When I was on the east coast of Canada, in New Brunswick, I had a chance to dip my feet in the Atlantic Ocean. It was freezing! Right in the middle of summer, but it was the kind of chill that bypasses goosebumps and goes straight for cutting cold. And down in Georgia, my friend and I went swimming at a beach in Savannah, and although the water was perfect, we both got stun by jellyfish. It was quite the “memorable” beach experience.
Paying attention to your surroundings means paying attention to your body. The sense of touch is more than just hot and cold contrasts — it’s running your hand over thousand-year-old castle walls, scrapping your palms climbing up a tree or scaling a cliff, it’s handling slippery fish on a camping trip or petting clingy stray cats, or maybe it’s walking through tall ticklish grass on a nature hike or feeling different textiles on a shopping trip at a local market.
Your skin is a travel journal and it takes note of everything (even things you might not want, like sunburns). Next time you travel, go touch everything! Except for maybe the things that have warning sings saying: “Do Not Touch.” In those cases, touch with your eyes. 🙂