Why do we travel? At first brush it seems like a simple question with a pretty straight forward answer. I believe the answers to the question will be different for everyone. It often depends on where you might be at a point in your life, your level of curiosity about the world and your travel budget. For years people have been debating the notion that there are stark differences between tourists and travelers. You see it when you are out there wandering the planet. Who is right, who is wrong, who is getting an authentic travel experience, the idea of responsible or ethical travel. It’s all up for debate and often boils down to a matter of perspective. Is a tourist an amateur traveler and a traveler a professional tourist? I try to not pass judgment or worry about how others travel. I know what works for me, and as I evolve as a person my reasons are sometimes in flux but some core beliefs and ideas remain constant.
The Canadian rocker Neil Young put out a live concert album titled “Rust Never Sleeps” in 1979. It’s a catchy title that I combined with a quip an old boss of mine used to throw around about someday gravity will pull you into the ground. On planet Earth, gravity never sleeps. Eventually gravity will pull us into the ground, the end. We don’t know when that will be because we are not issued expiration dates at birth. Bottom line is you only live life once! How do you want to live it?
I certainly didn’t arrive at these thoughts overnight. It took some years and personal experiences to shape my thoughts. I like many others was busy in my younger days, I am 49 now, doing the things required to build a career and generate some level of “success” in life. So this carried on for 25 years, I could have carried on longer, but things had run their course. Work became work; the reasons to not carry on began to outnumber the reasons to stay. I was doing shit I no longer wanted to do, for more treasure that I did not need. Enough! Ironically, before I could even retire I had job offers to go do more things I didn’t want to do, to collect more treasure I didn’t need, so I could buy more shit to be thrown away when I answer gravity’s pull. I had completely lost my desire to compete any longer in the consumption driven nonsense that now defines the western culture.
I had been planning to travel for years before I could actually do it on my terms. I was consumed with thoughts of going to places where the only day that really mattered was the expiration date on your Visa for wherever you happened to be. Marching to your own beat, running your own race, freedom from responsibility was the sort of liberation that I was looking for. I was suffering from a serious case of deferred gratification that was now ready to be collected.
I have always been the; what’s around the bend in the road, what’s at the end of this street, what would happen if….. kind of guy. Naturally this curiosity fuels my travel style. I consider myself a below the surface kind of traveler, I am not content to accept what is presented at face value. I don’t travel to places looking for a tourist experience, nor do I typically seek the comforts of a multi-star hotel, English menus and a familiar western experience. I have an insatiable curiosity to get off the beaten path, away from the normal places where the tourists, foreigners and expats typically hangout. The downside is that I have found myself in some interesting places/situations where I could have experienced some significantly negative outcomes in a matter of seconds.
I prefer to travel in the developing world. I like the challenges associated with communicating non-verbally in markets in Vietnam, haggling for a room in Cambodia by pulling Riel out of my pocket until we arrive at a mutually beneficial price, riding in the back of a pickup truck on top of a load of watermelons in the middle of the night in Myanmar, getting stranded on the side of the road in Laos because you missed the last bus. It’s all in a day’s travel and part of the whole experience. It is challenging, unique, foreign, a lot of adjectives could be used to describe it. Why? Because the western way of life has in many respects become one endless strip-mall from New York to Los Angeles full of the same restaurant chains. It’s boring, routine, mundane, same ole’, same ole’. There is no challenge to any of it; the only thing that changes is the topography, a few cuisines and some accents.
Travel will give you an upfront, unabashed look at the world through your own lens, but you have to get local and get in the scrum. Embrace the local food stalls, the public transportation, cast off your western ideas of how things should be. Get out and meet the locals on their terms, avoid the sanitized tourist version designed to meet your western expectations, replete with the comforts and amenities you would have back home. Travel independently while navigating the scrum. I have been befriended by people who had far, far less than me but offered me their food, attempts at directions, kindness and a smile. Travel will validate or invalidate what we have been fed by the media. What you learn serves to fills gaps in yesterday’s and tomorrow’s headlines and you will invariably fill gaps in their knowledge and understanding as well. Dive in and enjoy the experience.
In my experience travel becomes a much more rewarding experience when you do your homework. A bit of research into the history, politics and culture of the place you are visiting prepares you to know what you are looking at, to ask the right questions or poke your nose into the right places to fill in the blanks. It is impossible to travel to Cambodia and understand the place if you don’t know who Pol Pot was and what the Khmer Rouge did to the country between 1975-1979. Maybe you don’t care and just prefer to remain in an altered state of consciousness in Sihanoukville for a week. If that’s how you roll, it’s OK with me but you are probably missing a great opportunity to better understand the world around you.
Travel for me is also an exercise in minimalism. I don’t advocate that everyone should live out of a 49 liter Kelty Redwing backpack but it works for me. On the road it is liberating to be tied to so few possessions. Limiting oneself to what can be carried on your back and a small daypack is the simple life. Traveling light makes me the un-consumer, operating under a simple rule that if something new goes in the backpack, something old must come out. Virtually everything one needs can be found anywhere on the planet. Traveling light is a liberating experience where I own my possessions rather than them owning me!
Travel through another culture is transformational. It should be introspective, challenging your thoughts and ideas. If you travel with a keen eye and an open mind, it is doubtful that you will return home as the same person. The world is an amazing place. There are so many places to see and you could spend a lifetime poking around the planet and never see it all! When we finally succumb to gravity we will not be remembered for the treasure we accumulated during our lifetime, but for what we did with our lives. If we are what we eat, then we are also a sum of our experiences.