I deeply dislike the notion I hear paraded around that you either love to travel or you don’t—that you’re either a traveler or you’re not—a stay-at-home nester or a hippy.
I just don’t buy it. The dichotomies are too vast and the stereotypes associated, quite ridiculous.
I believe that everyone is a traveler—or at least, they should be.
Now I’m not saying that we’re all the same and that some don’t yearn for creature comforts, stability and a place to call home more than others.
But I believe that this need for stability, security and comfort is largely down to social conditioning and the culture of fear that it arises from.
I refer in particular to modern-day Western society that dictates that we must endeavour to own property, get a full-time job and start paying toward a pension, health insurance et al from the moment we become an adult (in most countries, age 18).
From this very young age—before our minds and spirits have developed enough to really deal with these pressures—we are told by authority that in order to survive in life we must contribute to the socio-political-economic system by working, saving money, paying taxes and essentially by beginning from that point forward to prepare for our future happiness—retirement. (As the retirement age creeps up, our real chance for freedom and joy becomes a more distant prospect.)
Depressing, isn’t it?
This system I refer to and the doctrine of fear it pervades suppresses the traveler spirit: the wanderer, the explorer, the adventurer, the grab-life-by-the-horns and live in the moment attitude, which actually, I believe we all long for inside.
We are just too afraid to realise it.
Traveling is viewed by many (due to said conditioning) as a luxury of the rich, a trivial pursuit of the hippy—or simply a phase we go through—most appropriately experienced for a short time between school and university. After which we must get these silly notions of freedom out of our head and start doing proper things so that we can make money and keep that system in check.
I have traveled a lot and I can wholeheartedly say that it is the single most valuable thing I have done in my 29 years on this earth. (I am doing it right now in fact—typing this while sitting in a charming guesthouse café in Koh Chang, Thailand, on a Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by nature, the sound of rainfall and birds chirping in my ears, the smell of freshly cooked Thai food emanating from the kitchen, and surrounded other lovely, like-minded people).
To be able to travel is one of the things that I am most grateful for in my life. Concurrently, I am grateful to my loving parents, who gave me the freedom to do it. I say able, as it is not because I come from a privileged background that got me here (yes, that helped, of course, but I always fund my trips independently). It is because of their blessing that enables me to travel and experience these moments as fully and earnestly as I can.
I realise that it is a blessing to have two open-minded parents (although it did take some years for them to really embrace my sisters and my international gallivanting) because without their love and understanding I would struggle to embrace these journeys to their fullest.
But through our example, and their own interest in the world beyond our birthright geographical borders, they understand that to travel endows life lessons which cannot be learnt in books, via university lecturers or on the television (what can one learn on the television these days anyway)?
Each time I return to the UK, glowing with happiness, bursting with tales of adventure and aged with a knowing wisdom gained through the many challenges and tribulations I had navigated along the way, I see pride in their eyes, which gives me the approval I not so much need to continue, but yearn for all the same.
Many are not so lucky.
Not all young people are given that freedom—I don’t mean the literal freedom it would take to buy a plane ticket and a backpack (which is really all you need if you have some savings), but the emotional freedom that comes with our parents, or equivalent nearest and dearest, giving us the wings to fly on our own, the time and space needed to follow our own path and to discover ourselves and our true destiny.
What a blessing it is.
Traveling has taught me so much! Here are just a few of the many benefits of putting on the backpack and discovering the big, wide world out there (beyond the obvious marvel of the physical world in all its magnificent glory).
1. Traveling opens the mind to different cultures and ways of life, to alternative attitudes, customs, habits and behaviours that we may never knew existed before.
Traveling is a doorway to new realities—a gateway to sociological and anthropological knowledge that can only be really understood by seeing it for ourselves. Through this exploration, our once seemingly entrenched beliefs on how to live and to behave may become dramatically altered, opening us up instead to other possibilities, new ideas and fresh ambitions.
2. Traveling brings about a compassion for mankind that cannot be learnt in any book or felt through any screen.
Seeing the realities of poverty, disease, loss and despair first-hand that before had only fleetingly impregnated your imagination via broadcast news, is life changing.
One such experience for me which still brings tears to my eyes, was visiting orphans in Vietnam. I saw babies and toddlers in crippling physical condition, born with life-altering disabilities caused by hereditary genetic exposure to the highly toxic dioxin or Agent Orange used as a biological weapon by the US during the Vietnam War four decades ago. (UNICEF-Viet Nam estimates that there are 1.2 million Vietnamese children—out of the 30.5 million Vietnamese under 18—with disabilities.)
Perhaps I learnt about this in school. I don’t remember. But the day I saw, held and played with those children, I will never forget.
While I found that experience very tough, those children seemed for the most part to be happy—they were laughing and smiling and playing, which brings me onto another point. Traveling, especially to areas marred by poverty, makes us realize that it is not the material things in life that matter, but human relationships. If those kids can laugh and smile and play then so can I.
3. Traveling sets our imagination and creativity free.
Traveling is for daydreaming, creating, playing, discovering, wandering (and wondering), seeing, tasting, touching and smelling all of life’s beauty. It takes us back to nature, nourishes our soul, connecting us again with the earth, the trees, the wind and the sky. In doing so, traveling allows us to flourish with creative expression.
4. It builds resilience and courage.
A friend of mine came out to travel with me a couple of months ago, the first trip of this kind in her life. I watched in awe as she, day-by-day, looked fear in the eyes and conquered a whole list of phobias that she had previously thought impossible. From spiders and cockroaches, to malaria and funny tummies, to kidnappers and muggers, to stickers (that is perhaps one that not many will relate to but she pulled those stickers off her t-shirt with courage and I was proud!)
5. Traveling ignites a fire in our belly in a way that for me, nothing else can (except maybe, yoga. Put the two together and you really get fireworks).
It is a time of adventure and spontaneity, when we don’t know what will happen from one day or one moment to the next. It’s when we can go with the flow, taking life as it comes and embrace just being in a way that is far more difficult back home.
Travelling is when lifelong friendships are born and lovers lie beneath the stars. It’s when we philosophize, fantasize and daydream, losing all sense of time and space and living each moment in its purest and most blissful essence.
Traveling is when we are free from all the aforementioned pressures imposed upon us at an early age and forever carried around with us, like a lead weight on our shoulders.
When I’m traveling, I finally feel like myself.
From the minute I step foot on the plane, with the promise of freedom just hours away, it’s as if I’ve wiped the slate clean, opened a new chapter of life and start again to connect with my true self. With the person that exists inside of me always, despite all that I’ve been taught and told to believe.
For all of these reasons, and many more, I firmly believe that traveling is not a trivial pursuit of the young (I am no longer that young), a luxury for the rich (I am really quite skint—but have never been happier!) or a phase that I will grow out of.
For me traveling is a way of life. (Perhaps an act of rebellion against all those societal doctrines that before held me back from happiness in my real life back home.)
I don’t need to be (physically) at home to know where my heart is. My family, my friends—the ones who really know me at least—know how much I love them. They know that if and when I do come home for good, nothing will have changed in that respect. All that will have changed is me, and for the better.
Because I will be richer in experience, wiser in spirit, fuller in heart and ready to take life again by the horns, knowing, innately who I really am.
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Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: Dawn Martin