23 January 2017

Why Do I Travel?

As I prepared to go to Nepal, for what would be the first of my world travels I was asked to read this essay and write a response. At the time, I think that I just made something up (forgive me, instructors!), and I don’t have my response anymore. The question has returned to me with a vengeance lately, though, as I find myself in Southeast Asia with some free time and no plans.

I’m ridiculously fortunate to have the means to travel essentially anywhere in this region that I choose, and it’s important to acknowledge that. My issue is that I’ve caught myself several times looking at flights to countries that I know nothing about, and am not particularly interested in, just because I can go there, to tick another box on my travel list, and that bothers me. There are loads of equally privileged people around here who are just going on the ‘tourist circuit’, who never connect with local people or their cultures, barely eat any local food, and party with other foreigners every night. I really don’t want to be like that.

So, why do I travel? Is it just to see new things? No, there are plenty of countries full of new things that I have no interest in seeing whatsoever. Is it just to tick boxes on a list of countries? No, I’ve felt unfulfilled during my few bouts of aimless independent travel, even in countries that I like. Is it just for work? No, I could probably find work at home. Is it for the food? Yes, but sadly I can only spend a portion of each day eating. I think that it’s a combination of things. My best travel experiences have consistently had these qualities:
  • I can talk to people. For me, this applies wherever English is prevalent, and in places where there are lots of Nepali people. Malaysia scores well in this category.
  • I have a companion to share the experience with. I’ve been fortunate enough to share most of the past few months on the road with dear friends, which has brightened my experience regardless of place.
  • I have a strong interest in the religion, culture, and history of the place. This largely includes places in the Indic sphere and places where Buddhism is still alive. This also largely excludes major tourist sites such as the main temples of Angkor Wat, the remnants of which are daily trodden upon by the unwashed masses.
  • I’m going for work. I love my job, my coworkers, and my students. I have had a fantastic time everywhere that my work takes me, even in some places that I would otherwise not have enjoyed nearly as much.
  • Good food. Duh.
I’ve also learned that it doesn’t really matter to me if it’s a place that I’ve already been to or not. I’ve stayed in Kuala Lumpur a number of times when I could have gone elsewhere, and it’s always been great fun. This all seems to boil down to three key elements:
  • Cultural engagement, through communication and the drive of my personal interest. And food.
  • Companionship, both with local people and fellow travelers.
  • Having some purpose, either in work or the pursuit of knowledge and personal growth.
This fits rather well with my fanatical love for Nepal, as all of my criteria are satisfied everywhere in that country. It also explains my surprise love for Malaysia, a country that I had never imagined visiting before my job took me there, and in which I have now spent more time than in any other country after the US and Nepal.

Now, following my criteria, I should first travel to wherever my work takes me, which right now is nowhere. After that, I should go to places that I find very interesting, whether they’re new or not. So, what should I do with a period of not-work, during which I need to move around every so often to avoid overstaying visas? Should I go to Laos just because it’s nearby, even though I don’t know the first thing about Laos? Not without first doing enough research to determine my interest level and knowing enough to engage with some of what I might see there. But you might love it anyway, and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity! Thanks, Travel FOMO, but I’m having a great time right where I am.

I’m concluding that for me, at least right now, the best thing to do is to revisit places that I would like to connect with more deeply, and to explore new places as the opportunities and interest arise. There’s something appealing about trying to visit as many countries as possible, but that approach to travel doesn’t suit me. Is ‘because I can’ a legitimate reason to visit a new country? I don’t know, but I think this happens a lot, and the results can be unsavory. I would rather know a few places very well than many places superficially. I suppose it’s like making friends. Quality over quantity.

Now back to the question at hand. One of the paramount reasons that I always come back to is that travel brings light and novelty into even the simplest mundane tasks. Grabbing a coffee in Boston doesn’t strike one as being a particularly memorable experience (or perhaps a negative one, depending on where you go), but grabbing a coffee in Bagan, Bangkok, or Battambang can be hilarious, frustrating, and confusing all at once, in the best way. The great beauty of it is that the novelty extends back to Boston, upon returning home, having shattered assumptions and routine.

I am continually blown away by the fact that I can speak to people in another language, and that for most people in the world this is completely normal. The journey of learning and using a new language, a different kind of travel, cultivates the humility that comes with knowingly speaking like a child and saying things incorrectly, while simultaneously opening doors otherwise closed to outsiders, both physical and, more significantly, mental and emotional. To reach a level of fluency which allows one to hear the depth and poetry of others who, when speaking our language, may sound simple, creates so much new wonder and reverence. And to begin expressing thoughts that cannot be articulated in English is an experience of truly broadening the aperture of the mind.

To really travel, to exit one’s own culture and comfort zone, is of unsaid benefit to personal development simply through increased exposure to the world, and to spiritual development through connections with kind and generous souls outside of our usual circles and through facing physical hardship perhaps for the first time. This must be the best way of generating openness, understanding, and compassion, as these are only hindered in ignorance and fear of the outside world. Therefore, I travel.

Giggling, she asked
Can we take a selfie, please?
Yes, five-hundred kyat

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