I’ve written before about the different reasons why people travel, provoked by a friend who claimed that “of course everyone likes to travel as it’s just going on holiday”.
Travel can of course be “just” a holiday, or perhaps an escape from something back home. It can also provide some much-needed time and space to process things that are happening and to gain a new perspective on a problem or a situation. It can be a way of getting out of your comfort zone, putting yourself in unfamiliar situations so that you continue to learn and to grow. It can be a way to meet interesting people that you’d never come across back home; and it can be many other things too.
Do you know why you travel?
It’s impossible not to notice all the messages we see these days about quitting your job and becoming a digital nomad, working from the beach on your laptop, travelling long term without a care in the world – but this isn’t for everyone. Likewise I’ve come across all sorts of sporty types and professional adventurers who do things like cycling backwards through the Amazon – and this definitely isn’t for everyone either! When you haven’t defined your own reasons for travelling, your own purpose, I find it’s easy to get caught up in other people’s plans and approaches to life.
I wonder if we might not also get lost in meaningless activities or distracted by things that aren’t really that important. There can be a manic urge to tick the boxes, to “see everything”, to make the most of our time while we’re in a particular city or country. We may rush around or flock to the popular sights and miss out on richer, more subtle experiences.
On my current trip to Japan, I’ve been struck by the absurdity of TripAdvisor and other similar reviews of sightseeing destinations.
Who is really to say that Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine (sitting at the base of a mountain, it encompasses a long corridor of distinctive red shrines, which were soon infiltrated by hordes of tourists from all over the world) is #1 of 847 things to do in Kyoto, while Sanjusangendo Hall (a Buddhist temple that includes a long wooden building containing an awe-inspiring one thousand life-sized statues) is #4?
Or that Rokuon-ji Temple (a beautiful Golden Pavilion where we were herded along the path in a Disneyland-type queue system) is #2 and the Gion neighbourhood (a historical geisha district that is lit up beautifully with lanterns at night) is #14?
I never set myself a clear purpose for this trip, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “see the top 10 ‘things to do’ on TripAdvisor for every city I visit”.
I’ve also been swept up in what I can only define as online hype and PR gimmicks. These make us go out of our way for experiences that can simply never be as epic as it is claimed, whether on TripAdvisor or in travel magazines, or on one of the many blogs from intrepid explorers around the world.
In Kurashiki, I queued for over an hour for a “happy pudding”. This small vanilla dessert was very nice and, sure, the smiley face on top was a cute touch – but was it that much better than the smile-less pudding from across the street? A friend of mine here in Japan topped this with her own story of waiting for three hours for shave ice at some presumably celebrated café. And I have since exceeded that again by staying up all night to be one of the lucky 120 people who got to visit the early-morning tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market.
We often chase these unique, “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences, ticking things off our bucket list, looking for things to do that will give us stories to tell.
As Richard says in The Beach (a film that was made 16 years ago, when the whole backpacking scene in Asia in particular was really thriving):
“Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.”
It definitely hurt lying on that cold floor for three hours on Wednesday night as I waited for the tuna auction to begin… but was it worth it?!
Of course you could say that it’s through accepting all these invitations, trying new things, that we get to have the very experiences that we’re actually craving – even if they’re not what we were expecting.
The happy pudding may have been over-hyped, but it still makes me smile when I think about it – and the hour we waited was spent outside in the sunshine, watching people go by and chatting to others who were similarly lured by the pudding. The tuna auction was not the captivating experience that had been promised, but the hours that led up to it in the company of a new group of friends (involving chocolate bread and an impromptu karaoke session up on a bridge in goodness-knows-where) were all the more unforgettable. And, of course, I now have a ridiculous story to tell people about the time I stayed up all night to walk around a wet and cold fish market at five in the morning…
Having a purpose can help to remind you why you travel, when you find reasons to start to question yourself – and help you to decide when it’s time to stop.
You may be missing important milestones back home, away from your family and friends; you may have to say no to job opportunities that require you to be in a particular place at a particular time; and although I think you increase your chances of meeting your soul mate when you travel, it can be hard when you have to say goodbye before you’ve worked out if it could be him.
All this being said, maybe it works in the other direction as well: maybe you can actually find your purpose by travelling.
Maybe you fall in love with a country and decide to move there more permanently. Maybe you fall in love with a person and decide to move to be closer to each other. Maybe your discovery has nothing to do with the act of travel itself but it’s simply a realisation that manifests itself during your travels.
Maybe the point is this: although travel on the surface looks like it’s about the packing of your suitcase, the flight to the other side of the world, the names of the cities and the sights that you’ll see… it’s not about that at all.
Like all of life, it’s about those moments: the laughter and the intimate conversations you share with fellow travellers whom you may never see again; the delicious meal at the little restaurant that someone takes you to and that you never would have found by yourself; the stranger on the street who gives you his umbrella and then continues on in the rain; the new ideas and insights that come to you that will change the way you look at things when you get back home.