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Why we travel

Kelimutu Flores

“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.

Taman Ujung Bali

Taman Ujung, a water palace in eastern Bali

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.

Dili Smiles

Curious kids in Dili, Timor-Leste

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.

Candidasa Silhouettes

Silhouettes in Candidasa, Bali

65 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on General Ethics of Computing.

    June 26, 2015
  2. Extremely well put! Travel for me is exhilarating! Everyone has their reasons:)

    June 26, 2015
    • Exhilarating is right – I do love the freedom of the open road!

      June 27, 2015
  3. Great definitions of what travelling means to use, James. 🙂 I like the old quote from Marcel Proust: “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in acquiring new eyes”. I can always learn more about the world when I am there travelling myself, rather than from books or guides.

    June 26, 2015
    • Thank you, Lee. 🙂 That Proust quote is a classic, as are those from Mark Twain (like “20 years from now…” and the other on travel being fatal to bigotry). There is nothing like experiencing a place firsthand, but I think books can help us get deeper into it even before we arrive.

      June 27, 2015
  4. AGREE!!! with every single word. You’re quite a writer to be able to put down in so few words what it feels like to travel, enjoy it, enjoy what it brings and what it is for. Thanks for the never-ending reminder and the beauty of it all. that’s why I love travelling.

    June 27, 2015
    • Merci beaucoup, Juls! Few things can open our eyes quite like travel; we are so lucky to have the means (and the mobility) to do that. I still haven’t found anyone who blogs consistently in three languages for every single post – well done for keeping it up!

      June 27, 2015
      • Ahah, once you’ve started, you can’t stop! It’s true for travelling, and blogging in 3 languages 😉

        June 27, 2015
  5. Well written, James!

    June 27, 2015
    • Thanks Jean – glad you enjoyed it!

      June 27, 2015
    • Magically written !!! I read your this blog almost 3 to 4 times and at every read i found something new , treasure which i was constantly looking for. I am also trying to write on travelling. Everytime i travel, it feels me to get reborn to experience all new things. I feel detached from one thought process to get attached to explore the new hidden surprises .

      August 7, 2015
      • Wow, thank you so much for the kind words! I agree that travel makes you feel as though you are reborn; in exploring new places you end up discovering other parts of yourself that were otherwise dormant.

        August 7, 2015
  6. Couldn’t agree more with every single word you say, James. Personally travel teaches me about the abundance of beauty nature has to offer, and why we need to preserve it; the different ways people live and traditional wisdom we seem to have forgotten; what makes some nations more successful than others, and what we can learn from them; the wide varieties of food shaped by long and twisted history of mankind we need to learn to understand why the world is what it is today; and of course, about ourselves as humans. Travel makes me feel stupid, to be frank, because it opens my eyes about things I didn’t know existed and events I didn’t know occurred. But in the end it provides me with broader perspectives on so many things.

    June 27, 2015
    • Well Bama, I don’t think stupid is the right word… that’s being a little too harsh on yourself! But I do know what you’re getting at. I agree that we have lost a lot of traditional wisdom in our rush to be modern, 21st century people. That feels even more pronounced in the big cities of Asia.

      June 27, 2015
      • Yea, stupid sounds rather harsh actually. But the point is the more I travel the more I realize how much of this world that I didn’t know.

        June 28, 2015
  7. Well done James.
    You redefine it beautifully, and I like the closing very much.

    June 27, 2015
    • Makasih Bart. When I wrote that line I had the feeling it would be better placed at the very end – thanks for sharing that on FB and translating it into Indonesian!

      June 27, 2015
      • You’re welcome James 🙂

        June 28, 2015
  8. You expressed it so well James. Travel is the greatest education I think, and if we go with open eyes and open hearts we can’t help but be changed, and enriched by it.
    Alison

    June 27, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Alison. Open eyes and hearts are the key, aren’t they? I have really enjoyed seeing how you and Don have evolved in your travels so far – and reading about the big lessons you’ve learned while living as nomads. Bravo to you both!
      James

      June 27, 2015
  9. Beautifully written. I relate much, recalling my travel experience with one of those tours. For my parents, not following traditonal tour was still a new concept until I brought them to Bali 2 years back and really went with the flow, discovering new local germs. Changing mindset in process 🙂

    June 27, 2015
    • I don’t think I could ever go on these tours now – I would just be fidgety, impatient and wanting to go my own way. Bali is a wonderful place to start travelling independently. Good on you for showing your parents how it should be done! 🙂

      June 27, 2015
  10. So well said! We are fortunate indeed to have the privilege of travel, of living beyond the borders of our birth, of engaging, exploring and yes – sometimes even escaping!

    June 27, 2015
    • Thanks Carissa! I completely agree… we are so blessed to have all those opportunities. And you and I both possess one of the most desirable passports in the world; it’s another thing to be thankful for as Canada Day approaches next week.

      June 27, 2015
      • Absolutely!! And for once, I’m actually celebrating Canada Day in Canada – Toronto, in fact! 🙂

        June 28, 2015
  11. Great post, James. It is so true what you say about the package tours – it is a great way to get a tiny glimpse of a place and not truly experience it. Most of the tourism in Alaska is just that – people see the state through a window of a bus or from a cruise ship. Getting out and going on an extended backpacking trip is such an eye opening experience. I wish everyone in the world could go on a journey at least once.

    June 28, 2015
    • Thanks Jeff. I know quite a few people who have gone on the cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska, and though they rave about it I’m not sure it’s really for me. How much can you really understand if you only see things from afar? I’m glad your blog shows an insider’s view of Alaska – I’ve always wanted to go, and those posts have been pushing it up my travel wish list!

      June 29, 2015
  12. I truly love the way your mind works. I could never write something like this, even though I feel it. I suppose everyone is different, some people don’t like to travel (I guess it’s not for us to judge why), some people like to travel in the security of those tours (no judgements there either). I have never wanted to be led around by someone on his time frame and agenda. But I did take a boat ride down the Nile for days on end, which was cool. But part of the deal (a bonus! in their eyes) was we got a guide at each ancient site. During the very first session, I tried to listen, got fidgety, and promptly ran off to discover and photograph on my own, and never joined the group on subsequent stops. Maybe I have a problem with authority?

    June 28, 2015
    • Well Badfish, I could say the same for you. I love the way you craft your posts and draw readers in; even without the pictures, the writing would stand on its own strength. For me it really depends on the guide and the nature and/or size of each group… some guides are fabulous storytellers (like the one I met in Timor-Leste) while others can be dispassionate about their job and the places or things they are describing. I would love to go on that Nile cruise someday!

      June 29, 2015
      • Thanks James, but I have difficulty thinking logically and pragmatically the way your stories read. I did have a guide in the Galapagos, who—if not truly interesting—was necessary to know all there was to know. I had a taxi driver in Morocco who was the greatest guide ever…he knew where all the good (read: bad) stuff was.

        July 1, 2015
  13. Beautiful. Thank you for such a lovely work of art. Sometimes words are lost in the act of thoughts and translation, whenever that may arise, I shall go through this masterpiece again. Happy travels!

    June 28, 2015
    • I wish you the same joy on your trips – thanks too for reading and leaving me those kind words.

      June 29, 2015
  14. Reblogged this on RUNHIGHDONTFALL and commented:
    This is why.

    June 28, 2015
    • Thank you for the reblog!

      June 29, 2015
  15. Reblogged this on Sometime.

    June 30, 2015
    • Much appreciated – thanks for that!

      July 11, 2015
  16. Reblogged this on Hat Horizons and commented:
    James says it so well and I couldn’t agree more. Travel provides a new lens through which to see the world, opens our eyes to fresh perspective on our own society and enables us to see our common humanity.

    June 30, 2015
    • Wow, thank you for reblogging and adding your own thoughts to this post, Stacey. I’m glad it struck a chord.

      July 11, 2015
  17. I just started travel writing and I am a huge fan of your blog! I was wondering if you could please check it out and possibly give some tips!!
    https://thegirlwhocantsitstill.wordpress.com/category/travelling/
    Thank you!! 🙂

    July 1, 2015
    • Hi there, I’m on the road at the moment so I have limited connectivity but I can leave you with some general advice. Firstly make sure you commit to writing/publishing a post on a fairly regular basis – commitment is key if you don’t want your blog to fizzle out after a while. Secondly take your time to practice writing and find your own voice; read other blogs/articles you admire and try to pick out what you like about them. Hope that helps!

      July 11, 2015
  18. Eloquent writing as always James. Our first visit out of the country was on one of those package tours and I chafed at the restrictions even then. “Ultimately, we learn that what matters is not where we are from, but where we are going” sums it up brilliantly.

    As you set off on your latest journey, I wish you and Bama the most memorable adventures of your lives!

    July 2, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Madhu! Bama and I both appreciate the email you sent us the day we began our Spice Trip. It has been uniquely memorable so far – 11 days in and we already have plenty of stories to share… possibly enough to fill at least 8 blog posts!

      July 11, 2015
      • James, just read about the airport closures in Indonesia. Hope it doesn’t affect you plans.

        July 12, 2015
      • Thank you for thinking of us, Madhu. The volcano is at the far end of Java and this leg of our trip is mostly overland – so we’re not being affected at the moment. 🙂

        July 12, 2015
  19. wow! This is amazingly well put! I connected 100% with everything you wrote! If I may add, the freedom that I experience when I’m traveling (freedom to learn, exchange, move, meet people…) makes me feel so alive. It is a feeling that seemingly cannot be felt otherwise. Looking forward to read more!

    July 6, 2015
    • Yes, absolutely! The freedom of the open road is a big part of the allure of travel – I love not being tied down with deadlines and the humdrum of a normal routine.

      July 11, 2015
  20. babhiej11 #

    can’t get enough of travel 🙂

    July 9, 2015
    • I’m the same – once you’ve started you just can’t stop. 🙂

      July 11, 2015
  21. So motivational. Looking forward to read more.

    July 12, 2015
    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Thanks for the comment!

      July 16, 2015
  22. I totally love the way you ended this. It is really true, it is all about where we are going and not where we are from. Leaving the past beyond and seeking new thrills and adventures. Traveling is a beautiful thing

    July 15, 2015
    • Thank you, Becca. I guess travelling is also a pretty good metaphor for life itself – we are all on a journey after all!

      July 16, 2015
  23. “travel gives us new eyes that allow us to see our shared humanity”
    You’ve absolutely nailed it there my friend. When I started travelling I was amazed by how different everybody and everything was, but now I can’t believe how similar we all are. It’s awesome.

    July 24, 2015
    • You are right – the more I travel, the more I realise the differences are purely superficial. Thanks for commenting!

      July 26, 2015
  24. Excellent Blog. China has been a favorite of mine to travel to and have tickets to explore Japan shortly. Traveling by overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an is still one of the great adventures I have been on and of course seeing The Great Wall up close and walking to the untouristy parts of it were a major highlight. https://jalanphotography.wordpress.com/

    August 6, 2015
    • Ah, I haven’t been to Xi’an yet, but it is on the wish list! Thank you for checking out my blog – I am sure you will love Japan as much as I do. Fingers crossed you will catch the peak of cherry blossom season in Honshu.

      August 7, 2015
  25. Great blog post, you are a fantastic articulater of words, they seemed to resonate with me. I loved the final verse – Ultimately, we learn that what matters is not where we are from, but where we are going.- that is so true. I hope to read through some further posts and learn and enjoy… check mine out if you can http://www.awanderingmemory.com

    August 15, 2015
    • Wow, what a wonderful comment – inspiration doesn’t strike all the time, and I often feel like there are things I can’t fully express in words. But writing is like travel; both involve journeys of the mind and heart.

      August 22, 2015
  26. What a nice blog! It is so inspiring and motivational.Traveling really connects you with the nature. It makes you come out of your comfort zone, and taste the life without luxury. Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

    August 31, 2015
    • Thank you so much! Your collection of travel quotes really rings true – I feel there is nothing I could buy in a shop that could beat the experience of travelling the world.

      August 31, 2015
  27. genylessons #

    I love this post and the way you articulated the reason why we travel. The benefits and lessons you’ve outlined are the exact reasons why I continue to seek the next adventure and travel often. You say that it is an inward exploration that is lived externally, which is put perfectly.
    Allowing yourself to fully immerse in another country and culture is not an experience like any other.

    November 10, 2015
    • Much appreciated – I’m glad the writing resonated with you as much as it did. They say you can’t buy happiness, but we both know that spending money on travel means gaining treasured memories and experiences that will last an entire lifetime.

      November 12, 2015

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