Traveling Vertically

I can never get enough of traveling. I’ve visited over thirty U.S. states and seven foreign countries, doing everything from missions work to singing in a choir to simple tourism. Still, there are always more places to visit, with more art, history, and culture to explore. Who doesn’t want to explore the Roman catacombs or stand on top of the Great Wall of China? One lifetime isn’t enough to experience all the world has to offer. But what if, instead of spreading myself thin traveling across the globe, I stopped to watch the sunset for a while?

An important thing I’ve learned in my studies at college is the difference between horizontal and vertical learning. Horizontal learning covers many topics at the surface level, like tasting every flavor of ice cream to decide what you like before ordering. It’s great fun to get a good sampling until you find you’re too full to enjoy your flavor of choice. Unlike the horizontal sampler, vertical learning delves deeper into a single subject in which one becomes an expert, like a historian studying the Cold War. Most of us tend to be horizontal learners at first, lacking the willpower to commit ourselves to one topic of study for too long. And too often, that is how we travel.

Horizontal travelers migrate through vacation hotspots, living like a tourist. They visit museums, historical sites, and popular restaurants to cram as much culture in as they can in the short time they have. They leave believing they’ve experienced all the city has to offer, and they’re on to the next location. But do horizontal travelers really experience a city?

A week-long trip can be great for a family vacation or a much-needed break from everyday life, but it hardly leaves enough time to know what makes a city tick. How often do vacationers wander off the beaten path to try the local café on a side street instead of the Starbucks at the main intersection? Do they stop to talk to the people who live and work in the place they are just passing through? Often, the answer is not at all. But those things are what forms a real connection between you and a city.

Vertical travelers sometimes spend years in a single location, learning its language and customs, participating in its quirks and lifestyle, making this new location a second home. That is what is so special about study abroad programs. Instead of taking Spanish art classes in the U.S., I get to go to Spain to see the art in person. I get the privilege of learning from the people and the city I am visiting to understand this culture that so far I have only “experienced” as images and words on a slide.

As of this writing, I have been in Sevilla, Spain, for not quite two weeks of the three months I will be here to study, explore, and learn. At this point, I still feel more like a horizontal traveler as I make my way around the city and visit museums and parks. I visit museums, stick to the streets I know, and don’t speak Spanish as often as I should. But even now, as I figure out how to use the bike, bus, and metro systems or go out at night with friends, I can sense myself adjusting to living vertically in Sevilla.

I can navigate the streets between my school and my host home by bike or on foot. I know where to get school supplies and the best places for gelato. I can order food at an outdoor café or eat at home with my host family. I can take a siesta in the heat of the day and meet up with friends to go shopping or exploring.

Even these simple things seemed impossible to me on my first day in Sevilla. Back then, I was thinking of my semester as an extended vacation, like the horizontal traveler I tend to be. But now, I’m learning to live vertically in this fascinating city. While I may not be able to visit every site in Spain that a tourist could dream of, I am content that I have found the hidden paths that come with traveling vertically.

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