Why we travel
“Where are you going to play this summer?”
It sounds strange in English, but in Cantonese, those are the exact words people ask this time of year. The phrase seems innocuous enough, although part of me wonders at the implication that travel is merely entertainment. Have we reduced it to little more than something we consume? Perhaps a temporary escape from the drudgery of our daily routine?
The word “travel” has its roots in the Middle English “travail”. The latter means a painful and laborious effort, and would have described the arduous journeys people undertook before the invention of cars and jet engines. We have it so easy these days: for a reasonable sum we can sail on a palatial cruise ship without worrying about losing our teeth to scurvy and dying of dysentery, an affliction that 17th century explorers called “the bloody flux”.
But a by-product of the ease of modern travel is the rise of a certain kind of package tour, in which too much time is spent detached from your new surroundings, coddled behind the glass panes of an oversized bus. Once in the open, you are merely part of a flock being herded around like helpless sheep.
I must have been 11 or 12 when my family booked such a tour in Japan. In spite of its chirping ‘nightingale floors’, Kyoto’s Nijo Castle was not on the itinerary. My mother asked the guide (a Hong Konger) why this was, and he replied that Nijo was the same as every other Japanese castle.
What was just as jarring as his answer was the choice of food available on the tour. I was puzzled at why we only dined at Chinese restaurants – this was Japan after all, and Hong Kongers were already well-acquainted with its cuisine. What was the point of travelling if we were only going to eat the same dishes as those we cooked at home? My family resolved never again to travel with such a tour agency.
Tomé Pires begins the preface of his Suma Oriental, a 16th century ‘Account of the East’, with these words: “It is natural for men to desire knowledge, as the master of philosophy testifies”. He understood, as other adventurers did, that travelling could fulfill that most human of desires, to sate our curiosity. For travel is, by nature, educational and transformative.
Away from home, we revel in seeing vast, untamed landscapes; being immersed in the sound of unfamiliar tongues; and tasting the spices of distant lands. We marvel at the cultural diversity of our world, but also return with the knowledge that those differences are only superficial. In making us the foreigner, travel gives us new eyes that allow us to see our shared humanity. We understand that regardless of race, creed or place of origin, all people experience the same emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, fear, surprise and wonder. All of us have dreams and aspirations, and if we dig deep enough, the remarkable ability to triumph over hardship and despair.
Being on the road also teaches us to be happier with less. We learn to live without designer labels on our backs, or the price tag of that five-course dinner at an exclusive restaurant. Getting the latest iPad no longer gives us the satisfaction it used to, for the best kind of travel wills us to put down our phones and devote ourselves fully to the moment.
When we travel, we are given ample opportunities to reconnect with nature. It confronts us with the majesty of a coral reef and its equally colourful residents. It causes us to ask questions: for instance, if we would rather see a wild grouper alive in the ocean than dead on a dinner table. The act of travelling should foster a greater appreciation of our planet; we begin to look upon nature with a sense of gratitude, recognising our own insignificance in the grander scheme of things. After all, we humans need the earth far more than it needs us.
Travel is the act of leaving, the journey, the destination – it is the entire process we live out externally, and one we make sense of through our thoughts and feelings. It is as much an inward exploration as a physical one, taking us places that are momentarily uncomfortable, though the experience always leaves us stronger. Ultimately, we learn that what matters is not where we are from, but where we are going. ◊