In a Dispatch a while ago, I mentioned an Irish radio show I listened to one morning while driving from Ireland’s south coast up to Dublin. The show was about why people travel. Although it happened to be perfect timing for me to listen to the show, since I was trapped in the car for a few hours, the topic of why people travel is endlessly fascinating to me, so I am returning to it today.
You can read that previous post at Sometimes a Vague Notion
The show’s first guest was an Irish woman working as a comedian, living in New York City. Her opinion was that folks travel or move their residence to reinvent themselves. In her experience, people who try to reinvent themselves by packing a bag and taking a trip are unsuccessful; it just doesn’t work.
My thoughts dove-tailed in many ways with hers. For example, pedophiles and other criminal types frequently try traveling to new places and yet they don’t reinvent themselves at all. They just cannot pull off reinvention. It’s tough damn work to change yourself, even if you want to. Prison doesn’t even help in the reinvention game. In fact prison is like getting a master’s degree in crime for some of them, so they don’t change themselves as much as they just get more adept (one would think) at being a pedophile or other criminal. I don’t think they get any smarter though.
Using travel as an agent of self-change is tough for us non-pedophile, non-criminal types as well. The acts of packing a bag and getting on planes to somewhere you haven’t been doesn’t change you, unless you are ready to make that change and work at it. You will just end up the same loser you were before, only with less money, more sunburn and probably missing your bag since it got lost in Newark.
Maybe part of the reason travel doesn’t always work as an agent of change is that travel is often pretty easy. This is where I am going to talk about the olden days and how much harder it was to travel and to plan journeys. How the going was tough and only the tough got going somewhere.
Brian and I used to do months of research, mostly at the library, before heading off on a long trip (often of uncertain duration). We would also talk to people who had made similar trips. We didn’t talk to many of those people because there usually weren’t many of them around. Or at least that we knew about. There weren’t facebook groups dedicated to sharing travel advice then.
My parents took a classic American road trip to Yellowstone national park once when I was four and I’m guessing they looked at maps to make plans. Paper maps. The kind that tore on the folds and got coffee spills and fried chicken grease on them if your kids spent any time poring over them. My folks drove a station wagon–the old Woodie kind–and jury-rigged beds in it for themselves, my two older sisters and my mom’s younger sister. They put in some effort and that made it both economical and an adventure for the young family.
Traveling has completely changed in the ensuing decades. Internet access for destination and travel research has eliminated use of travel agents for many people. Modes of travel alone are easy and comfortable, aside from air travel, which basically is just horrible for regular people who don’t have access to a first class seat where they close you off with the filmy curtain that tells us back in steerage: Stay quiet and do not use our toilet. Do not even breathe our air.
We found ourselves on the cusp of that change twenty years ago in Morocco. After traveling in a VW camper van for most of a year through Europe, we took a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain to Tangier. For three months we drove around the country, free-camping and learning about the history, the land and the various people who make Morocco their home. Like the Berber girls we met in the Rif mountains, who walked up to our oasis campsite and made themselves at home. We made them tea. They shared the dates they pulled from the pockets of their jalabas (ankle-length gowns). The dates had tiny bits of fuzz from the pocket lining and tasted delicious despite that.
A couple of months later, after some tough travel, we landed in Sale where we set up camp and then hired a boatman to row us across the Bou Regreg river to Rabat, Morocco’s capitol city, for four dirham (about 50 cents). We went to the medina, bought some food to cook over our campfire that evening. On the way back to our van, while waiting for the boatman to come to our side of the river to give us a return ride, up came a lumbering tourist bus. A massive, smoke-belching number stirring up a cloud of dust that would have impressed the Biblical Egyptians who had already survived plagues of locusts and water turning to blood. Once the dust had settled the door let out a hydraulic hiss and disgorged its passengers: thirty or so silver-haired Americans. We stared at them as if they were from another planet. They stared back as if we were another species. Which we sort of were.
A group of them surrounded us. They peppered us with questions about our trip. We discovered they had flown directly to Rabat, hopped on the bus and were touring the highlights of the country in air-conditioned comfort. What?!? No studying maps? No talking to fellow travelers for insights? No tea with Berber teenagers? Nope. They were just as shocked at our manner of arrival in Morocco. You bought a camper van on the street in London? You live in that? All the time? You camp out under the stars? You eat the food? We sure do.
Back at our campsite, we analyzed the juxtaposition of these two diametrically opposed modes of travel with Rob and Michele, a couple of Canadian friends also also traveled in a VW camper van, and whom we had hung with for a few weeks. Our fireside conversation revolved around the same question the Irish radio host was asking: Why do people travel?
The Americans on the tour bus could lay claim to just as authentic an experience as we could, but it felt too easy to us. Like a person should have to work hard to get to that place. Our approach was that travel should be transformative. It should change you. Can travel do that if you hand someone your money and they take care of all your needs? If you hop on a plane and an air-conditioned bus and magically land in a foreign location?
My guess is that it depends on what sort of change you’re talking about. A temporary change in attitude is guaranteed, unless you fight that. That means you are stubborn about change.
I think travel certainly can work as a way to reinvent yourself, particularly if you journey to somewhere away from your home port. Because if you live a stone’s throw away from friends and family who have known you for decades, they have a real clear idea of who you are and where you fit in their world view. That can make it hard for you to change any aspect of yourself. So go somewhere else. Some place that can bring out complete joy in you and also throw you for a loop. Some place where everything is not done for you. Where it isn’t always easy. I am not saying you need an Outward Bound experience or get tossed out of an airplane to have an authentic travel experience and achieve inner change. You might find the change you seek while backpacking. Or one short time zone from home. That is different for each of you. I won’t judge, you have my word.
Here is the good news: even if you don’t reinvent yourself at your core, even if you think you are just fine as you are and don’t need to change, travel does alter your perceptions and your approach to the world. Especially if you pay attention and get out of the all-inclusive resort-cum-prison you find yourself at and get out to meet some local folks. Barriers break down, culturally, racially, politically and economically. Community is built when you realize that around the globe, most people want the same things: to be healthy and happy, to have a job that is meaningful in a way that they value, to have kids who are smart, funny, kind, can eventually live independently and stand up for themselves and others without getting thrown in jail.
Before you know it you have some new best friends and together you have solved the world’s problems and peace has broken out. All for the price of a margarita or a coffee and a bit of effort on your part.
Back to the Irish radio show. The second guest was a Canadian philosopher living in Dublin. I’m pretty sure he made that up. That’s not even a real job. That is less of a real job than saying you’re a writer. Anyway, he had lots to say on the topic of why people travel, and he had ideas of the wrong way to be a traveler and the right way. Well, wouldn’t you know it? According to him, I am a bad traveler. Mr. Canadian Philosopher said something like (I was driving so I didn’t write this down verbatim): People like to differentiate themselves as Travelers versus Tourists because they think that they are experiencing rather than consuming. I stand guilty as charged. But these Travelers, he says, are just consumers themselves. They are consuming culture, he said.
What the hell? I don’t consume culture. I devour culture while traveling. Inhale it. Roll in it. That doesn’t make me a bad traveler, does it?
Whether you are an Arctic explorer or like nothing better than a trip to your folks’ lake cabin, a weekend at a B&B in the Berkshires or a year-long road trip across the USA, I want to hear from you. What is it that makes you pack that bag? Has travel changed you? How? What expectations do you have before you take a trip? Let’s start a conversation. Leave me a comment below or contact me on facebook or twitter: @StealJustOneDay
I appreciate it!
Note to my parents: I was four years old when you took that long-ago trip and deemed too young to come along. Maybe you thought I wouldn’t remember any of the trip when I grew up anyway. Well here’s the deal: I remember being pissed off at not going on that adventure with you. I remember running upstairs at Gram’s house so I could watch you drive away, while crying “I can be good! Take me too!” I remember that you brought home a pair of green pajamas for me from Jellystone, that fake park for little kids. I never, ever wore them. Missing that trip probably set me up for a lifetime of travel desires. Of taking journeys to see what was on the other side of that hill, that border, that ocean. I owe you guys a huge debt of gratitude for not taking me with you on that trip. I still hold a little grudge though. And I am never going to wear green pajamas.