by Olivia Hanks
Do you keep thinking you should travel more, but find yourself doing other things instead? If so, the internet would like you to believe you are a bad person. Hyper-motivational Instagram culture has led to a panoply of blogs enumerating the reasons Why Everyone Should Travel and Why Travel Makes You A Better Person. International travel, once the privilege of the very few, has passed straight through the stage of being considered a right: cyberspace now deems it a responsibility.
It’s top of millions of wishlists: “I want to travel.” It’s the vagueness of it that is so peculiar – not “I want to go to Colombia to see the incredible variety of bird species”, or “I’ve always been fascinated by Russian architecture and I’d like to see it for myself”, just a generalised desire to be somewhere else.
This flies in the face of one of the most commonly cited reasons to travel: the uniqueness of each culture and place. For the purposes of Travel, in its white, privileged, gap-year sense, anywhere exotic will do.
So, if you’re worried that your failure to have ridden a mule into the Grand Canyon means your life will never be worthwhile, or that having white-water rafted down a total of zero south-east Asian rivers makes you a morally repugnant individual, here’s some reassurance.
Myth 1: Travel teaches you to tread more lightly on the earth
The travel evangelists (travangelists?) would have you believe that thanks to Thailand, they will never again need to own anything except a camera and a pair of flip-flops. But today’s western consumer culture isn’t so much about accumulating goods as discarding and replacing them (think smartphones and Primark clothes). Backpacker-type travellers are also mostly young people, who tend to have fewer possessions anyway, for non-ideological reasons. Be honest: is the fact you don’t own a sofa really because you’re a minimalist? Or is it because you don’t yet have a house to put it in?
The biggest point here, though, of course, is that international travel just isn’t low impact. If you spend your life forever jetting off to other continents in search of adventure, you will have a massive carbon footprint, regardless of how many rainforests you visit while you’re there.
Myth 2: Travel gives you the opportunity to volunteer
There are people who bring real benefits to others’ lives with hard work and compassion on their travels. But there are also hundreds of millions of people around the world who do the same kind of unpaid work in their own communities – without blogging about it. If volunteering is what you really want to do, think carefully: what skills can you bring to the people you hope to help? Are you simply taking work away from local people? What does it really mean to that community to have rich foreigners parachuted in to ‘save’ them?
If, on reflection, what you really want to do is see another country, be honest about it. Travelling can be fantastically exciting and fun – but in the vast majority of cases, it is an essentially self-indulgent activity. Don’t kid yourself you’re doing it for somebody else.
there are also hundreds of millions of people around the worldwho do the same kind of unpaid work in their own communities – without blogging about it
Myth 3: Travel broadens the mind
It certainly can do, if your mind is receptive in the first place. Of course it is enriching to discover that your way of life is not the only way. But in order to ‘soak up’ the culture of your host country, you have to be ready to listen and look, and to talk to people who are not just other travellers. Living abroad for three years, I spent a lot of time with people who travelled a lot, learned languages, studied…they may have been from any number of different countries, but in many ways they were much like me.
I also met travellers who would visit six countries in a weekend and tick them off on a map of Europe, while making racist jokes; and fellow migrants who, after two years in Slovakia, had got no further with the language than “Pivo, prosím”.
In today’s globalised world, socio-economic status is a bigger cultural barrier than nationality. Want to learn about people whose life is different from yours? Talk to some people from the poorest part of your home town.
Myth 4: Travel gives you great stories to tell
Firstly, there are stories everywhere. Experience is not the preserve of people who have travelled. Secondly, this tendency to live in the future perfect tense (‘will have done’), seen also in the phenomenon of tourists photographing landmarks instead of looking at them, is troubling. Where the travangelists (sorry, I’m sticking to it) would have you believe that only when travelling are you fully alive, the focus on ‘memory making’ instead encourages us to live continually at one remove from our present selves. This is encapsulated in Expedia’s awful but award-winning ‘Travel Yourself Interesting’ campaign, which taps into the idea of travel as something to impress people with at job interviews or parties. And do you really want to be the person who starts every sentence with “When I was in Ecuador…”?
Myth 5: Travel makes you understand what really matters
Travel for travel’s sake is an escape from your daily existence, your ‘real’. Like any other step back, it can help you see things differently. More often, however, it is a chance to put off the things that ‘really matter’. When your presence somewhere is transient, your engagement with that place is superficial. Relationships are short term, responsibilities negligible. For most people, this kind of rootlessness is anything but real. People need a community to belong to – and it’s an uncomfortable fact that the existence of the traditional cultures we fetishise as ‘travel experiences’ depends on a large proportion of the global population not travelling, or at least not migrating permanently out of those communities.
Visit wonderful places, by all means. But don’t try to make out it’s some kind of moral imperative. And don’t assume that further away is better; there are wonderful places in your country, your region, your town. There’s something strange about admiring the culture and heritage of other countries while neglecting your own. Finally, don’t set out to See The World. If your goal is to see as much of it as possible, in all probability you’ll see nothing meaningful at all. In the end, it’s far more fulfilling to find a corner of it, know it intimately, try to be useful to it – and make it mean something to you.