Why We Travel
Two age-old questions: What is travel? And why do we do it?
- When languages, cultures and peoples collide – that is, when we travel – the categories that label and classify us into separateness begin to soften.
- Travel also teaches us that people everywhere have similar concerns – even as we have different goals. In India, for example, we wait for the rain, in Belgium they wait for the sun.
- Travel puts our own reality in context. A Bruxellois inevitably groans about the terrible traffic on Chaussée de Waterloo until he encounters Beijing’s third ring road.
- The real traveler is more than a tourist. And travel is an education rather than an event.
- By travelling to foreign countries, we also travel into ourselves. We discover inner passageways that remain opaque to us at home.
- To travel is to celebrate the diversity of the world and appreciate the humanity of people. It is to fall in love anew.
The most obvious answer to the question “why travel” perhaps is one that entails movement. Traveling is about going somewhere, seeing something and returning with pictures to prove it.
We travel for excitement, a break, relaxation. But travel is also a state of mind, even an emotion. It is the feeling of capaciousness that transcends the confines of “home.”
When languages, cultures and peoples collide – that is, when we travel – the categories that label and classify us into separateness begin to soften.
How and why travel unites (!) the world
Human beings are divided by political borders, oceans, religion, skin color, gastronomic predilections and sense of humor. But if we keep our eyes and hearts open, travel reveals how much also unites the world.
Pico Iyer, the writer and an inveterate traveler, put it neatly when he described travel as “the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.”
Travel and personal conquest
Before I traveled to China, a country that I lived in for altogether seven years, I had believed it to be inscrutable.
The scale of its architecture had felt outlandish, the Chinese language sounded impenetrable to me and the art of the chopstick was certainly beyond my grasp.
And yet, once I was in Beijing walking around the city’s old, crisscrossing warren of hutong alleyways, what I noticed was the familiar cadence of kabariwallahs crying out for waste to recycle as they slowly bicycled past the faded glory of courtyard-style homes.
I delighted in the spicy sizzle of street food and noted the manner in which strangers addressed each other as family: auntie, grandmother, older brother.
Rural folk shared their boiled eggs and oranges with me on bus rides across the country, reminiscent of similar journeys in India.
In the unlikeliest of places – whether on the outside the Great Mosque in Xian, on the waterfront Bund of Shanghai or in a taxi in the far northeastern city of Harbin – I bumped into people singing old Hindi movie songs like “Awaaran Hoon.”
In Turkey, on my honeymoon, I discovered that the dessert most often recommended by the locals is halwa (a staple in India).
In an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia’s East Java, I was told that the three Muslim reformers who founded the school are referred to as the trimurti (literally the “three forms”, that denote the three Hindu Gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva).
And in Spain, where I now live, I learned that families are as boisterous, complicated and annoying as any in India.
Travel as teacher
Travel also teaches us that people everywhere have similar concerns – even as we have different goals.
In India, for example, we wait for the rain, in Belgium they wait for the sun. (But the celebration of “fine” weather, when it comes, is the same.)
In China, it is considered rude to arrive late to a party but being early is entirely forgivable.
In India, only Chinese diplomats and Huawei employees arrive before 9:00pm for a 7:00pm invite. But hosts in both nations treat their guests lavishly.
Where IKEA is still hip
Travel also deconstructs the categories of what is “normal” and what is “exotic.” While shopping at an Ikea in Sweden may be the height of banality, it is not so in Beijing.
On Sunday afternoons, entire families make a pilgrimage to the store in the Chinese capital. People test the beds on sale by actually taking naps on them.
Grannies in Chairman Mao hairstyles chow down on Swedish meatballs, while a band plays at the restaurant. It is the hippest place to be. (It is almost as fun as watching Europeans in India exploding in excitement at the sight of a “water buffalo.”)
Thinking beyond our own confines – 1, 2 and 3
Travel puts our own reality in context. A Bruxellois inevitably groans about the terrible traffic on Chaussée de Waterloo until he encounters Beijing’s third ring road.
A Beijinger cannot imagine anything worse than the gridlock on Dongzhimenwai on a weekday evening – until she experiences a traffic jam on Jalan Sudirman in Jakarta.
And a Jakartan only need spend a weekend in Mumbai to feel a lot better about the traffic in his city.
Travel and humiliation
Of course, not everything about travel is salubrious or enriching. There are humiliating experiences at immigration checkpoints.
There are moments of great frustration when you cannot be understood and cannot understand. There are limits to everyone’s ability to embrace cultural diversity.
Travel and aggravation
Even though there were occasions when I pretended to the contrary, I never developed a taste for sea slugs in the years I lived in China. In Jakarta, I grew aggravated with my inability to find a hair salon that used warm water for shampoos.
And in Tibet, I ran out of inventive excuses to pass on the butter tea (not to mention Yaks testicles). In Brussels, I was robbed at the airport, barely ten minutes after landing. In Berlin, I lost my luggage. In Cambodia, I lost my temper.
Then, there is London. That is where I lost my heart.
On balance, I always gained more than I lost.
More than a tourist
The real traveler is more than a tourist. And travel is an education rather than an event.
Through travel, we have the opportunity to realize that the truth is rarely singular and always messy.
By travelling to foreign countries, we also travel into ourselves. We discover inner passageways that remain opaque to us at home.
To travel is to celebrate the diversity of the world and appreciate the humanity of people. It is to fall in love anew.