Why travel? There were lots of reasons in the past: simply to get away from a suffocating environment, to experience something new, get to know the world and other cultures, relax, learn something new, make new friends, and even avoid work by going to places where prices were ridiculously low. Paul Theroux, the humorous, gifted travel writer once sarcastically wrote that backpackers in the third world were just there to save money and meant it as criticism. Well, I was not able to afford traveling to many places in the Western world, but long ago we calculated (unfortunately for me, this is no longer true) that if we drove to Italy for three weeks, stayed in a tent at campgrounds and cooked our own meals, we would spend the same amount of money if we flew to Thailand, stayed in guest houses and bungalows and ate great food in restaurants three times a day. My income was below the poverty level for the first half of my life, but I traveled anyway even if it meant hitchhiking and sleeping by the side of a road (which I actually enjoyed long ago).
Travel as a way of “coming of age”? Breaking away from your familiar surroundings and confronting the outside world: I would recommend it to every young person, but it need not involve travel. Study or (volunteer” work in another country can be just as intellectually stimulating, if not more so.
See the sights? Why of course: standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal, bicycling through Angkor Wat, a ride through Pagan in Burma, Borobudur, Machu Pichu, the Tripiṭaka Koreana woodblocks at Hainsa Temple in Korea, the pyramids in Egypt, a hike on the Great Wall, etc., etc. You could of course just look at pictures of them, but authenticity would be lacking, or “aura” as Walter Benjamin once wrote about the difference between a live concert and a recording of it. And then there are the experiences of nature: trekking in the Himalaya or the Rocky Mountains, snorkeling along the coast of Flores Island, seeing the animal world of Galapagos first hand, lemurs and whales in Madagascar, the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon, sunsets on deserted beaches, a boat ride through the Mekong Delta, and safaris in Africa. Sometimes I thought I was traveling simply for the food, and I gained weight each of the five times I visited India because the food is so delicious. Culture: the dance performances in Bali, at the Festival Flamenco of Dance in Jerez, Spain, or Kathakali in Kerala, India, Chinese opera in Taipei, carnival in Venice and Bahia, Brazil, the Dano Festival in Korea, a theater play in London starring Alan Bates and a performance of Ubu Roi in Paris, the national museum in Taipei, the Louvre, Florence, Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid, the Parthenon, etc. I suppose I could just go on, and each memory is precious.
But what to do, why travel once you have done all that? Do I really know any country or place that I have visited or where I lived? I don’t feel the need to revisit many of the places, and when I have, it was usually a disappointment, since my memories and the reality differed greatly. No, not one more cathedral, temple or mosque! That might be interesting if I were religious or interested in architecture, but I am not either. I would love to trek in the Sikkim, but fear that I would not be able to do it physically even though I have a strenuous exercise program and am in fairly good shape, since my treks in the Himalaya were highlights of my life. On the trek to Everest Base Camp years ago, I felt that I was at the limit of my ability, although I did better in Tibet a few years later.
Some travelers I have met pride themselves on how many countries they have visited, but I sense that they did not get below the surface of most places. They treat traveling as some kind of contest: the most countries visited, the worst bus ride, the cheapest place, the most disgusting toilet or food, etc. And there is also someone who can top your story.
I traveled through Bulgaria twice on my way to India and back, each time taking approx. 24 hours to cross the country. So, can I count Bulgaria as a country I have been to? Have visited? Does it matter?
Recently read a book by Matthias Politycki, Schrecklich schön und weit und wild: Warum wir reisen und was wir dabei denken (my trans: “Terribly Beautiful and Faraway and Wild: Why We Travel and What We Think in the Process”). Mr. Politycki starts off by writing that he is giving up traveling after having done that extensively, but changes his mind at the end of the book. However, I did not find his answer to the reasons for traveling. A friend told me that I have not really understood the book, which is a real possibility. Mr. Politycki joked that we travel to be able to brag about it, but I think he was being ironic and did not really mean it. He also suggests that people travel to other countries where they can do things that would not dare to do at home. Plenty of examples of that: the young, drunk Germans and British on Mallorca and Corfu, the drunk Swedes everywhere where alcohol is cheap, the lecherous men frequenting prostitutes in Asia, the Australian women in Bali and German women in Jamaica hooking up with local men for sex, foreign students in China making lewd comments to their female teachers, stealing artifacts from temples, racing on motorcycles (the death rate of such foreigners is not negligible), etc.
Some people just seem to like being in another country, but without much interest in it. I recently met a Canadian/Italian in China who had lived and traveled there for 14 years, but the only words of Chinese that he spoke were “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Good-bye”. The feeling that you are someone special, different from most people? The feeling of being an outsider can perhaps increase your self-esteem as being someone out-of-the-ordinary, someone special. Another man, whom I met there, did not speak any Chinese either and ate at an Indian restaurant almost every day, but I could better understand him, since he was there studying Tai Chi.
Only other travelers are really interested in our trips. After returning from India once, an acquaintance asked, “What was that like?” I started to talk about my experiences, but before I got very far, he interrupted me and asked, “Hey, did you see the game yesterday evening?” Before I quit Facebook, I used to post a couple of pictures of each of my trips and received a fair amount of “likes”. However, I found that just too superficial and thought that if people are really interested in me and my experiences, then I need to write more extensively about such. Several friends from long ago stated that they would be interested in reading what I would write in a blog, but then very few have. Some skim through the pictures, but most do not even bother to do that.
The travelogue genre certainly has its following, although there are so many great such books that I read, but few people with whom I share such interest. Travelers who wrote fascinating accounts of their trips, but probably received little financial compensation or recognition for their efforts and whose books are mostly just collecting dust in some antiquarian bookstores: a few of my favorites (I have lots more): “The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck” by Rory Nugent, “Borderlines” by Charles Nicoll, “A Shaggy Yak Story” by Peter Somerville-Large, “A Journey in Ladak” by Andrew Harvey, “The Farm on the River of Emeralds” by Moritz Thomson, “Motoring with Mohammed” by Eric Hansen, “Native Stranger” by Eddy Harris, and so many more (including other travelogues that these people wrote).
Now, like Mr. Politycki (although maybe not in his case), I have stopped traveling, at least for the most part. I recently visited the country of Georgia to hike in its mountains, but also because someone we met traveling had raved about the country. You stayed with families who cooked for you, and then they called friends or relatives at the next stop, who met you at the bus station, and you repeated the experience in their homes. By the time we got there, it was all hotels and AirBnB. It was a nice trip, but these days I prefer going somewhere and staying put for a few weeks, getting to know the place and some of its inhabitants. The waiters in the café where I have breakfast know exactly what I want before I even order. Restaurant owners sit down next to me in the evening and talk about life. I take language courses and try to speak with the natives, try to understand the culture and everyday life of the people living there.
Of course, it is impossible to learn the language in every country if you travel a lot, and some people really have no talent for languages, like some people have no talent for playing an instrument, becoming a top-ranked tennis player, repairing mechanical devices (that’s me), etc. However, not speaking a foreign language is mostly due to lack of discipline, motivation, interest, or laziness. If you just speak a few words of the language of places you visit, you are immediately treated differently. This also demonstrates respect for the respective country.
A Greek island? Sure, count me in, any time. But just to relax, swim and hike a bit, enjoy the food and drink. But travel around, see the sights? It better be something spectacular, or count me out!