Why do you want to travel?
To escape routine? To have new adventures? To meet people from around the world? To see the seven wonders of the world? To feel the freedom of not being chained down to any one place? To see as many countries as possible before you die?
I have probably been inspired by each of these reasons at any point in time. My travel “why” has been an evolving, growing thing, like a shadow that has stayed with me all my life. I started traveling long before I had any choice in the matter. I was six months old when my parents took me across the Arabian Sea from Chennai, India to Muscat, Oman. By the time I was 16, I had lived in 5 countries, following my father through this career trajectory. Growing up as an expat kid was no doubt a privilege but came with its own struggles at ages when you feel the world is looking at you through a magnifying glass. At thirteen, I was the new kid in school in a new country; in fact between kindergarten and 12th grade, I had been to 9 schools so being the new outsider was a constant part of my identity. In those days, traveling to and living in new places meant only one thing – leaving behind the familiar, known and comfortable. And what sensible (or insensible) teenager wants that?! I moved everywhere kicking and screaming; angry at my parents for shredding the strands of fragile roots I had managed to sink into a place. And I hated it.
It wasn’t until I graduated college and went on a trip to France and Morocco with my girlfriends that I suddenly saw travel in a new light. I found it liberating to experience a new place without any expectations tied to it; to see new things without any expectation of assimilating into it. To just be a tourist; a visitor. Suddenly the world felt like a place of endless possibilities for discovery. A spring break trip to Costa Rica, a service trip to Uganda. With every trip came a sense of invincibility; I could go anywhere, do anything, be anything. In my early twenties, it was a magical feeling. Swapping routine for adventure and old baggage for first impressions was intoxicating. I set a goal to travel to as many countries as possible before I turned 30; 30 before 30 I told myself.
But somewhere along the way of getting to that goal, I lost my way. I didn’t get the same rush anymore. I found myself doing the same things wherever I went; staying at a backpacker’s hostel…hanging out with other travelers, usually from Australia or Canada; bar hopping at nights, sleeping in late and getting in a few hours of sightseeing done during the day. Then move on to the next place. Even worse when I traveled for work; I would usually stay at a Marriott hotel (spoiler alter; a Marriott is no different anywhere in the world) and maybe sneak a couple of hours of exploring in between meetings and work events.
Yes, I could still be anything, do anything, see anything. But I started to feel like I was running away from something. Running away from what? From routine, familiarity, stability – the very things I had longed for as a kid. I found that along the way to 30 I had lost the ability to stay, to invest, to build relationships, to start and finish things, to connect. I knew I had to turn my lens inwards and reground in my travel “why”. I realized that those drunken bar hopping nights were foggy memories and seeing the seven wonders of the world in person wasn’t too entirely different from seeing it on a postcard. So then, why travel?
The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
~ Marcel Proust
The time spent sharing soup with an Armenian family in their small city apartment; admiring the ornate family temples in the compounds at home stays in Bali; partaking in an elaborate engagement ceremony in Morocco; hanging out with my friend’s grandmother at a local pub in Ireland. Those stories exchanged over language barriers, those communal meals shared, those bridges built and understandings formed are the true marquees of travel for me. Even so are the solitary moments spent on a long train ride along the countryside of France, floating in the ocean in Costa Rica or walking the streets of a town neighboring the Himalayas…. these moments where I sit with myself, by myself and let things be as they are.
I realized that all along, even as I was wandering around this magical world, I was journeying inward. As meaningful as the beautiful places I saw were, so were the deeper reflections within myself, the assumptions tested, the boundaries broken, the vulnerabilities exposed, the fears overcome along the way.
My travel “why” now is all about connection. To nature, to the world, to people in my life, to people I have never met. To the stories in a place, the beautiful ones and the horrific ones. This requires traveling in a different way; a way that’s a lot more present, thoughtful and curious. I am still discovering this but it feels like a whole new adventure.