When a friend asked me this recently, I was truly stumped. What an intriguing question. The dictionary tells us it is to ‘make a journey, typically of some length.’ But the journey and the motivations behind it can vary radically from person to person. What does it really mean to travel?
For one person it might be simply booking time off work and hopping on a plane to a different country for a couple of weeks to absorb the culture. For another person it might be spending significant amounts of time in different countries, really taking the time to sink into their environment.
For a lot of people, it is as I first described – a brief glimpse through a window into another culture. But for the increasing number of people who are choosing to turn travel into a lifestyle, it becomes the latter, and broader ideas of what it means to travel come in to play. The process becomes a metaphor for life itself.
Travel tears down the wall of everyday distraction, and light is allowed to shine upon the essential wisdom that was hidden before. Severing your ties with your comfort zone, and all the worries and attachments that come with it, you find yourself temporarily emancipated from the cycle of never-ending pursuit. The pursuit of success, happiness, love, power, pleasure and stability. None of that matters now – you’re a lone traveler with nothing to prove, carrying only a smile and whatever you can fit in a backpack.
Travel provides memories to cherish, reasons to live in the moment and unknown wonders to look forward to. No two days are ever the same and if you find yourself stuck in a rut, you simply hop on a train and move on. There’s no house to sell or resignation notes to hand in. This is freedom.
But there’s a catch. One minute you might be lying down on the beach, gazing up at the stars and wondering how life could possibly get any better. The next you might be rummaging through your bag to find your camera and capture this moment forever; but it is nowhere to be found. You’ve been robbed.
It’s in these moments when everything goes wrong that you are given an opportunity to grow. You can agonise over the loss of something for hours, only to realise that it’s still gone and now you feel a whole lot worse about it. Or you can accept it as the loss of something that wasn’t too important in the first place and move on.
Whether you know it or not, a commitment to long-term travel means a commitment to accepting whatever is thrown in your path. A train that arrives four hours late, a tropical downpour drenching you and your belongings to the core or cow shit you failed to notice until you were ankle deep.
When you’re travelling, things rarely go to plan, and that’s the beauty of it. Accepting this and seeing the magic within is the key to a good experience. You’ll look back at these moments and realise they made the experience what it was.
Accepting unexpected events play a huge part in shaping your experience, sometimes for years to come. One thing leads to another and before you know it, that time your train got delayed turned in to you meeting a new best friend in the hostel you were forced to check in to after arriving so late. You change your plans to travel with this friend and meet the love of your life on the way. Your flight home turns in to a flight to somewhere else to spend time with them. Travel teaches you the art of accepting what happens and welcoming the unknown.
Let’s face it; it’s something that scares the majority of us. Why are people scared of the dark? Why do so many people work jobs they hate? Why do so many people say they are going to travel and never quite make it? It’ always comes down to fear of the unknown – or more accurately – events that they have no control over.
In everyday life, we like to trick ourselves in to believing that we are in control of everything. We switch things on and off as we please. We eat food when we want to. We create routines in order to take control of our lives. We work jobs that provide security and a clear vision of the future. But actually, this linear narrative for which we think we hold the pen relies on things that sit outside the borders of our control. The unknown always lurks, threatening to destroy the control we hold so dearly.
Just like a Jenga tower, it takes just one of the bricks to come loose for it all to come tumbling down. For someone who has never peered beyond a life they control, the event that causes the collapse will probably come as a huge shock. It becomes clear that ironically, it is in fact the unknown which has control over us.
Travel is an opportunity to knock the tower down and let the cloud of uncertainty rain. When you travel for a long time with nothing more than a few pairs of socks and some feeble savings, the unknown is never far away. Except it is no longer a threat – it is the central driving force behind your reasons for travelling.
What would travel be without the unknown? An ordered schedule of days spent sightseeing and lounging in four- star accommodation? A few ticks off a list? If leisure is the aim of the trip, this will do. But for the travelers who move with more earnest intentions in their heart, this lacks substance.
This isn’t to say that they don’t also fall victim to the desire for control. But the rapid rate at which they move through places, friendships and situations on the road soon make it clear that they’re not really in control of where their trip is taking them. But they don’t mind – because they’re having loads of fun.
The unknown is what drives them. It promises growth, freedom and adventure. It challenges our desire for control and once removed, will set us free. Once we stop wanting to control everything, we embrace whatever comes next as the change we need.
Fear of the unknown also has roots in the fear of change. Most of us are creatures of habit – we create our comfort zones and happily stagnate in them – sometimes for years. This cozy sense of security traps us. Like our duvets on a cold winter morning – a million possibilities wait outside, but screw it, we’re too comfy.
On the road however, things always change, and fast. You might have become part of friendships that seem like they will last forever, but soon enough you are alone once more, on your way to a new place and those people fade away into fond memories. It’s never a concern though because a traveler knows a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. The transience of life is no longer sad, but a symbol of our abilities to love and adapt to ever-changing situations.
When you’re on the road with no more money than you need, a group of friends that change by the month and no real place to call home apart from your own body, you begin to shed the unnecessary layers that hold you back. You open yourself up to the world and learn what happiness really means. Adventure, connection, beauty, expression, freedom and love.
These realisations will stay with you even when you eventually return home. Inevitably the basic need for money will lure you back into the world of distractions – but the wisdom will remain if it all comes tumbling down, you’ll know that all is well. But where is home anyway?
The definition of home becomes looser the longer you spend away from wherever you previously thought it was. What really makes a home?
When you travel, you pass through many places and almost miraculously, each of those start to feel like home the longer you stick around. You meet people, form friendships, create routines and try your best to enjoy yourself. Just like anywhere else.
No matter how many times you move on, this inevitably happens every time you arrive somewhere new. Anywhere can be home, and travel teaches you that it’s your choice where you make it.
So when you come back to your birthplace, your so-called home, it might seem more foreign than wherever you were last. Like stopping a book halfway through and revisiting an earlier chapter, it’s almost like time has stood still here. All the people you knew before are still stuck in their old ways, locked in a cage of comfort, cowering in the shadow of the unknown and agonising over trivialities.
It’s easy to take the journey you have been on and the conclusions you have come to and apply them to your old friends and family, as if they came with you. You want them to see it from your side. But in reality it’s clear they haven’t changed a great deal and will only ever have a superficial understanding of your journey.
But that’s totally fine, and it pays to remember the role these people played in your life up to the point where you hit the road. The endless chain of events that have gotten you to this point, your old friends included. Hopefully a traveler’s experiences teach them to understand and rise above differences. Everyone’s experience is unique, and we will never truly understand someone else’s life. Whether they jet off to different countries on a regular basis or not, everyone is a traveler in their own right. Life is journey that everyone makes.
Travel unites people from wildly different walks of life for a common goal, which tells us that ultimately we all seek the same things. Fundamentally we are connected, but individually we are separate. Individuality has created a world of cultures as diverse as the rainbow, and as long as we remember what connects us as people – it’s all there, waiting to be called home. This is what travel means to me, and I hope everyone gets to experience it at some point.