Are travellers lying to themselves?
Us travellers pride ourselves on being outside of the trappings of mainstream, modern society and above and beyond the rat race of consumerism. We don’t define ourselves by how much stuff we own. We have eschewed a wardrobe full of fancy clothes for a sack full of practical ones and shiny cars don’t impress us because we’re perfectly happy to hitchhike in a rusty banger or even better, to take the bus and meet the locals. Instead, we define ourselves by where we have been and what we have seen; we live for experiences, connections and things that are somehow real. This is why people travel right?
But what if maybe we are really just junkies craving a different kind of consumerist fix?
What if in fact, just as others consume products, we are consuming experience?
Should I Go Travelling?
Travel is addictive. It is a barrage of new sights, sounds & sensations. Its a whirlwind of monuments, landscapes and new friends. This causes a sensory overload and adrenalin fix which is pretty much impossible to replicate anywhere else. Each perfect moment out on the road is worth 100 days of mediocrity back home. That’s a hefty endorphin high and a costly trade-off and therefore it cannot be very healthy or sustainable. Right?
I have recently returned from a (short for me) 2-week backpacking trip in which I crammed in 3 and a half countries, 8 flights and 4 great wonders of the world. I accumulated one blackout, one all-nighter, made countless new friends and got re-acquainted with one old friend. In short, I was quite surprised and pleased by exactly how much life I managed to pack into such a short time period. The downside is that coming home feels like coming back to black and white and its one hell of a comedown.
Is this what shopaholics feel? When they hit the sales do they get a rush and a buzz from new fabrics and patterns? Does the ring of the tills stimulate them and make them feel alive at least until they get home, open the credit card bill and think “well, so now what?”.
But travel is by its very nature intrinsically better than mere products isn’t it? Even the prettiest, shiniest, tailor-made new threads will eventually fade and fray whereas the moments you have out on the road will last forever yeah? Well no, not quite. This time last week I was sat at an open-air bar in Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, eating olives, sipping craft ale and listening to the (consumerist) bustle around me. 7 days on, it’s now painfully clear that however hard I try I can’t live inside that memory and even the photographs I took are scant comfort.
The real question therefore is, what fundamental, lasting benefit have I gained from travel? Now that the rush is over, what is actually left other than a patterned scarf I bought in Jordan and a few killer photographs? The questions I am therefore forced to confront myself with are; did I really learn anything from my travels? Have they made me a better person and changed my life in any meaningful way or I am in fact, merely chasing one sensory exhilaration after another? There is a famous travel quote that says something like “travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer” – but is it actually true?
How many countries have you done?
Lets look at the language and behaviors of many (and I would say most) travellers.
How many times have you heard fellow travellers say “I have done South East Asia” or “I have done India“? Is the choice of verbs here merely innocent semantics or is it indicative of an underlying attitude? Personally, I would say the latter and that to say we have “done” a country linguistically reduces an entire nation, history and populace to a consumable experience; a box that we can tick or a bubblegum product to chewed, digested and shat out. That said, tourism is after all, arguably, the single biggest industry in the world today.
The other classic one is country counting. Many of us (rightfully) mock postage stamp collectors. The idea of spending vast swathes of one’s time and money collecting and cataloging tiny pieces of paper, which are actually designed purely to ensure the passage of an envelope from point A to point B, is utterly ridiculous. Yet is passport stamp collecting really all that different? I will admit that whenever I travel within the EU, I feel a little bit disappointed that I can move through 5 different counties in a row and yet not accumulate one single new stamp. I know that some of you feel the same.
But it is ridiculous because deep down I know that to have visited 197 countries is to have seen none of them. Its a vain and meaningless score and by sampling the full suite of cultures, the only culture you can truly have experienced is the universal homogeneity of airport-waiting lounges and in-flight service.
There Is No Meaning
So what am I saying here? Does this epiphany mean I have seen the ultimate emptiness of my freewheeling lifestyle and am therefore renouncing my traveller ways? Does it mean that I have accepted that the illusory thing we call “meaning” is not out there somewhere waiting to be chased down, captured and brought back home? Will I now sit quietly in my home town, conform to more conventional methods of consumerist existence and maybe try to find the meaning of life in my weekends, bank holidays and free time?
No, not at all. I think that all this means for me is that I accept that travelling is maybe not the ultimate meaning of life but that at least for now its a pretty damn compelling substitute. I understand that its OK to come back from even years spent out on the road and still not have life all sussed out. Realizing that travelling is in no way fundamentally better or worse than anything else, rather than being disenfranchised, is, in fact, liberating and by accepting travelling for what it frees it from any expectations.
I can now take travelling purely for what it is, my hobby, my passion and the thing that allows me to appreciate my existence. Never again will I travel seeking personal growth or fulfillment or to find me. If any of that happens along the way then that will constitute a very welcome bonus but first and foremost I will travel purely because I enjoy it. Plain and simple. And I will continue to travel for as long as I continue to enjoy it.
Travellers, I will see you on the road. Shoppers, I will see in the stores. Both are fine with me.