Part 1 of 2
I love to travel. And over the past two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make travel a priority in my life. Among other trips, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires and traveled around South America, braved a long flight across the Pacific to see Australia and New Zealand, visited friends and family across the country, and participated in a service-learning trip to Rwanda.
Travel has enriched my life. I’ve met people, been exposed to new points of view, and seen things that I would have had no chance of laying eyes on back at home. As St. Augustine said,
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
But the more that I travel, the more I look inward and wonder just how much it has changed me. I wonder if some of the lessons that I’ve learned wouldn’t have been easier and simpler to learn closer to home. I wonder if all of the money I’ve spent on airfare, hostels, and alcohol was worth it. I wonder if my life was changed enough during my travel experiences that I’ll be able to make a bigger impact on the world in the future than I otherwise would have – or if I should have just donated the thousands of dollars I spent on travel to charities that tangibly improve people’s lives right now.
Every time I start a trip, I manage to convince myself that it’s going to be life-changing. That somehow the experience of physically being somewhere different will fundamentally change me – make me more outgoing, more interesting, more motivated to learn new languages, more likely to walk up to that girl in the bar, more like the Dos Equis man.
I think this is in part what has been sold to us today. Travel has become commoditized and romanticized. We’re hooked on images of exotic lands, pristine beaches, new adventures, strange tongues, and moonlight trysts. It’s a mental state, an attitude that companies try to package and sell to us. They claim: "If only your surroundings change, so too will you as a person. You can be anything that you want to be; you can be the person that you've always dreamed of being."
The more that I travel, the more I realize that the whole claim, while alluring, is utter bullshit. I'm the same person in Argentina that I am in New Zealand that I am back home.
We all expect that travel will be “life-changing” or “incredible”, so we only share the highlights of our trips. We don’t tell our friends about the long nights spent sleeping on airport benches, the lost luggage, the feelings of loneliness thousands of miles away from anyone in your support network, the boredom as we lie in bed at an empty hostel in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do at 10 pm on a Saturday night.
Our problems don’t disappear when we travel. We still have the same worries, insecurities, anxieties, vices, and character flaws that we do at home. Physical location doesn’t change any of that. Yes, travel can lead to incredible growth experiences, but you have to work at it, just like anything else in life. Changes don’t magically occur.
Emerson recognized this. He claimed,
“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
I agree with Ryan Holiday that there is no inherent value to travel. You don’t win an award for having more stamps in your passport than your friends. Talking about all of the places that you’ve been comes across a little bit like bragging about your SAT score. Nobody cares and everyone is just a little bit put off.
I’m guilty of this myself. When I’m on a trip, I find myself wondering about what countries I can “do”. As if flying into a country and being there for a day or two somehow makes me a more valuable human being.
All that being said, we can work to make travel incredibly valuable. Travel can be a great learning experience, can enhance and enrich our lives. But we can’t let it fundamentally define our lives.
The first step is to define why you’re taking a trip. Have a purpose or an objective. Do you want to learn about a new language and culture? To escape the normal routine of everyday life? To just lie on the beach and relax?
Any of these are fine. But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing. And be realistic about your expectations for what the trip will bring. Realize that the whole concept of “things falling into place” or “things just happening” is ridiculous. You have to work to make those great experiences happen.
Seneca once said,
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” It’s definitely true that travel can recharge your batteries and give you the perspective that you need to take on new projects back at home.
But he also claimed,
“They [travelers] make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.”
Travel to enhance your life. Not to escape your life. You can’t outrun your inner demons. Your physical location doesn’t matter so much as your mental state and actions. Wherever you happen to be in the world.