The quality of your life is defined by the quality of your questions. Ask a lousy question, and you’ll get a lousy solution with ditto results – and vice versa. So I’ve come to enjoy asking myself and others some good questions. It helps me learn a lot about a new person very quickly. And my favourite question is deceivingly simple – what do you REALLY want to do with your life?
A big question indeed, but the answers I get are truly puzzling – because they’re always the same. Take the amazingly gorgeous girl I know in San Francisco and compare her to the rowdy aspiring author I met at a corner café in Amsterdam, for example. They didn’t seem to have anything in common whatsoever. Until I asked them what they really want to do with their life, of course.
As always, the response was what I expected. And it came instantly, as if they had an internal automated response machine programmed to answer the question for them – “I really want to travel more”.
Whenever I ask somebody what they really want to with their life, “travel more” inevitably comes up. In imagined ideal world scenarios – if money were no problem, if time were abundant, if one’s responsibilities were fewer – most people default to “travel more” as the preferred activity to fill one’s days with.
Why is that?
I pondered upon this question from the rocky shore of Lake Como, Italy. Then I sketched out this post while sipping explosive espressos in Milano. I wrote the first draft in a hostel bar in Trieste, and the second from a garden in Ljubljana. The final edits were made from a coworking space in Zagreb, and I’m now about to publish it from my Airbnb apartment in Budapest.
All the while, I asked myself why I’m doing this. Why am I travelling? I believe it’s an important question to ask oneself. Yet it’s a question frequent flyers, vagabonds and travellistas rarely have an honest answer for. Do we as humans have a genetic predisposition for wanting to explore far-away lands? Or do we just follow a cultural narrative of travel as a cool thing to do? Furthermore – do we even truly enjoy being on the road?
The Power of Cultural Stories
In his insanely great book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the history of the human species, and presents a theory of how we came to rule the planet. He argues, somewhat surprisingly, that the key to our global domination is our ability to construct, share and believe in stories. While many animals can communicate with each other, none others share common narratives that can spread across tribes, to an unlimited number of individuals, like we can.
The stories we share and believe in unite us into massive groups of people. The sheer size of our united groups enables humans to accomplish much bigger things than other species. That’s why humans dominate the Earth.
Religion is one example of a story which unites us across tribes, and makes us feel connected and similar to other people we’ve never met before. Countries, the law, and human rights are others such stories. Money is perhaps the most powerful shared story in the world – money is only valuable because practically the entire WORLD agrees on its value and believe in the underlying myth of money. If people suddenly stop believing in the story about money’s symbolic value, cash will revert to what it technically is: worthless green papers with pictures of dead white slave owners on them.
“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
–Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, illustrating the power of humans’ exclusive ability to share and believe in common stories and myths
The belief in the value of money is so ingrained in most of us that we don’t ever question its validity. Even calling it a story sounds kind of weird. That, of course, is what defines the most powerful shared myths in our societies – we don’t see them as myths, but as inherent truths.
Keep in mind that the stories we cling to and believe in vary from place to place, and from one time period to another. For example, in medieval Europe, the story of witches’ evil powers united people around a common cause – to burn young women alive for entertainment and subsequent peace of mind. That narrative isn’t so popular anymore. In today’s Western world, the story we tell ourselves about those same women is one about spiritual hipsters, to be respected as individuals, to be adored as edgy fashionistas and great yoga teachers, and most certainly to be kept away from roaring fires.
Our shared stories are always evolving, but some change faster and more dramatically than others. For example, the collective story about drugs is changing fast in the West right now. The so-called war on them didn’t pan out well. So now marijuana gets legalised all over the place, and scientists are finding productive uses for compounds which were considered solely dangerous just yesterday (one of many examples: using MDMA as PTSD treatment).
Whenever a post about travel takes a tangent to witch burning and MDMA, it’s a good idea to step back for a moment. How does any of this relate to being on the road?
The Modern Travel Tale: Going Places Means You’re Going Places
Here’s my point – the belief that travel is unanimously positive is just another wide-spread cultural story.
Just as there’s no inherent value in green pieces of paper, there’s no inherent value in the activity we know as travel. We’ve just collectively agreed that travel is a positive, aspirational activity on which we can spend our limited time and money.
But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, this collective story is quite new. The Egyptian pharaos didn’t load up their proverbial weekend bags to go explore far-flung areas just for the fun of it. That activity wasn’t collectively considered a fun nor aspirational thing to do. The cool kids in that time and place were building pyramids to show off their grandeur, not collecting passport stamps.
As far as I can recall from from the story of Moses, the good old Israelites didn’t want to spend fourty years “travelling around” and checking out the desert either. They were cursed by God, and the punishment was to spend fourty years of wandering around with no plans laid out. In our modern time, spending time out there would be praise-worthy, admirable and get you a gazillion Instagram followers at your @DesertDame account (#thatnomadiclife). Back then, all the Israelites really wanted was to hang out in one place, the Promised Land, forever.
In other words, throughout most of history, travel was considered a burdensome activity. Going far away was something you would only do out of necessity – to escape a draught, to avoid confrontation with neighbouring tribes, or, let’s not forget, because God forced you to hit the road.
So we’re talking about quite a turnaround for the reputation of travel. Any PR firm would win awards for such a fundamental shift in the public’s perception of an activity. We now associate going places (in the most literal sense) with “going places” in the metaphorical sense – with being successful in some capacity.
If you’ve ever wanted to travel more, you’ve probably bought into this story too. As with all such stories, questioning the validity of it can be valuable. Do you really want to travel? Do you really get intrinsic value from doing it? Or do you just follow the deeply ingrained cultural narrative about this activity?
The Quantified Fetishization of Travel
In the modern world, we’ve made travel into some form of aspirational, quantifiable success metric.
- How many countries have you visited?
- How many stamps are in your passport?
- Have you been to all 50 states?
- What’s your frequent flier status?
- How many wonders of the world have you seen (from a distance, in a packed tourist queue, without really wanting to be there at all)?
We’re collectively turning travel into a country-counting pissing contest. We’re effectively using your number of passport stamps as stamps of approval of our character.
By doing so, we’ve fetishized the hell out of the travel experience. Travel for travel’s sake is somehow considered sexy now. And that’s a problem. It leads the wrong people to the wrong places for all the wrong reasons.
The “Scrape Map” is the perfect example of everything that’s wrong with travel today. You can scrape this map to show everyone where you’ve been, and by proxy, how well-cultured, globally conscious and generally awesome a person you are. Poignantly, the main selling point in the map’s product description is literally that you can SHOW OFF your international savvy to everyone: “Imagine being able to show off in a unique way where you’ve been travelling!”.
“Imagine being able to show off in a unique way where you’ve been travelling!”
–The actual sales page for the “Scrape Map” (I kid you not!)
Well, imagine that, wouldn’t that be great! No point in going to Aruba if nobody’s gonna know about it, right? To hell with the actual travel experience, let’s focus on what really matters here – SCRAPE MAPS AND INSTAGRAM, BABY!
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Reasons to Travel
I believe there are good, bad and ugly reasons to travel the world. The bad and ugly ones are most fun to write about, so just skip the good ones entirely and go straight for ugly.
The ugliest reason is because you’ve made travel your vanity project without being honest about it. You go somewhere solely to be able to brag about it when you return home, to be able to scrape another exotic sounding country off of your (literal or metaphorical) scrape map.
This happens a lot. And if you’re honest about it, that’s fine. The problem occurs when you camouflage your travelling as an intrinsic desire to “learn about other cultures” but end up on a beach club sipping cocktail in Cancun for two weeks.
Travel as a vanity project is primarily seen online, but its offline manifestations are very visible too, typically in front of tourist trap monuments of some kind.
The quintessential vanity project traveller jumps off a bus in front of the Eiffel tower together with 30 other folks, grabs his massive camera, shoots 67 photos of the tower, then another 16 shots of himself using a state-of-the-art selfie stick, buys a souvenir Eiffel keychain, jumps back on the bus, is taken to Versaille and repeats the process until his severely limited vacation days run out. It’s a frantic game where the winner has ticked the most boxes, seen (but rarely experienced) the most places, and bought the most souvenir junk to hang on his fridge back home.
Please Be an Honest Beach-Dweller
To be clear, I have no problem with people who go far away to hang out on the beach. Nada, zero, nil problemos. But I do have a problem with those who do so for that very reason, yet say they travel “to learn about other cultures” or other politically correct reasons to go abroad.
What about the Instagram feed you’ll be able to create as your modern-day legacy project in the process? The very fact that you can now SCRAPE EVEN MORE on your map? No, that’s not why you want to go to some far off beach island at all. You want to learn about the local people’s fascinating culture and their way of life, that’s what you want! Not to be a party pooper here, but surprise surprise – the daquiri dominated pool bar at the Hilton Cancun won’t teach you a lot about the culture in the region.
The beaches of Krabi, St. Tropez and Rio are all visit-worthy indeed, and I encourage you to go hang out on them if that’s your idea of a good ole’ time (I sometimes do myself). But please don’t pull the “local culture card” as your reason for taking off to the white sands. Be an honest beach-dweller.
Just Do It – But Do It for the Right Reasons
Where does this leave me? My passport is brimming with exotic stamps and visas from explorative expeditions near and far. My Instagram feed features corners of the world you may never have heard about. Heck, I even have a huge camera! And here comes this blog post out of nowhere. Am I aiming for the prestigious HOTY (Hypocrite Of The Year) Award here?
To be perfectly honest, it’s hard for me to assess myself in this domain. I know for a fact that I find it extremely thrilling to show up in a new city with a backpack, but without a plan. Yet I don’t know whether this excitement stems from 24 years of cultural narrative priming, or from some intrinsic, genuine curiosity. That’s why I’m asking myself these questions.
I’m one of the most well-travelled people I know. And for that exact reason, I need to be extra careful. I need to continuously question my own motives for hitting the road.
I don’t want to become frantic earth-roamer because I’m on an arbitrary quest for more Instagram followers. I want my trips to matter to me intrinsically. When I’m on the move, it needs to be for me and my own reasons, not to blindly follow an accepted narrative, to get a thicker passport or to search for heart-shaped, on-screen validation.
My point is not to discourage anyone from travelling – in fact, I advocate the opposite in most cases. I genuinely believe that cultural shocks are valuable exercises for drastic worldview expansion, and that getting culturally punched in the face is one of the best reasons to travel far and wide. Most folks should experience such shocks more often, not less. That being said, I do think questioning one’s own motives and motivations on a regular basis is a healthy habit to adopt. If you can be honest with yourself, you might find that you’re booking that next trip for an unexpected underlying reason.
So if you’re so inclined, go forth and explore, see, get lost and have fun. But please do it for the right reasons – for YOUR reasons, not because of the cultural narrative to scrape more off a proverbial scrape map. And if you do end up in that Hilton pool bar, perhaps say an extra hola to the bartender. Learn a few things about the culture in Cancun. It can’t hurt.
Also published on Medium.