Thursday, December 29, 2011

Business or Pleasure or Escape: Why Do We Travel?

I recently had an interesting conversation with Keith, a young man from Melbourne who ran a bold idea by me: People who travel, he declared, are usually running away from something, whether they know it or not.

I carefully considered his words. They sounded so familiar. A couple of weeks ago, my friends Nicholle and Noelle were visiting me in Bangkok, and Noelle told me about a conversation the sisters had had on the flight from Koh Samui to Bangkok.

"Why does Jeremy travel so much?" Noelle asked Nicholle, who replied, "I think that maybe he's running from something."

"Are you?" Noelle asked when she was standing face to face with me. "Of course not," I said, surprised by the immediacy and resoluteness of my response. "If anything, I'm looking for something, running to something." (For the record, despite what might appear to onlookers as life lived on the road, I've spent the last three months in one place, not once venturing outside of Bangkok's city limits, for despite my occasional bouts of wanderlust, I am, by nature, a nester.)

I explained this to Keith when he floated his theory by me, well aware that he was trying to shove me into a box. I know the type, some of them are my best friends, others are Facebook "friends": expatriates, frequent fliers, travel writers, people who always seem to wake up in different places. I recently ran into a Facebook friend in Bangkok who told me that when he travels, which would be most of the time, he never spends more than two nights in the same hotel. To some, that would be a fantasy life. To me, it sounds like hell.

I won't pretend to know what motivates wanderers, drifters and wayfaring strangers. I can only speak for myself. I've been a big traveller for most of my adult life, and for the most part, it's been about pleasure. For a long time, I was happy with my life in New York, but several times a year, I had the urge to visit London, or Europe. I wasn't running away from anything because there was nothing to run away from. I was simply going on holiday, and I was lucky enough to have a job that paid me well enough that I could book trips to some of my dream destinations.

But one doesn't live on three different continents in one year, as I've done in 2011, unless it's work-related, or due to some personal crisis. Though my travels over the past year have been great for my writing, when I hit the road, I was doing it more for my psyche, hoping that I'd stumble upon a place where I can have it all -- the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect love.

I've never had all three at once, but for a while, when I lived in New York City, I came close. Back then, my brother said that my life was like clockwork, and even with all of my fantastic trips, it sort of was. I always had a full-time job and a great degree of stability. In my 15 years living in New York City, I had only three apartments and spent 13 years working for the same company (a dedication to the firm that has had the prolonged positive effect of giving me the freedom to live the way I do today without worrying too much about funds).

When I moved from New York City to Buenos Aires, I wanted to try something new, and for three and a half years, my life abroad worked. Then one day, I began to wonder, "Is this all there is?" I didn't want to return to the U.S., but a change was gonna come. In March, when I left Buenos Aires and moved to Melbourne, I was beginning a journey of self-discovery. Yes, I was running away from something, a life in Buenos Aires that no longer felt exciting. But more than that, I needed a new challenge, a shot at finally landing that elusive triumvirate of perfection. I was looking for something.

Exactly, said Keith. They are the same thing. When you travel because you are looking for something, you are, in a sense, running from something, too. He made it sound so dirty, like traveling was the pastime of damaged people, swapping continents the desperate act of the emotionally scarred. "The people I know who are totally content with their lives have no desire to travel," he said.

I shuddered thinking who his friends might be, these happy people with no interest in experiencing life outside of their own little microcosm. Wanderlust isn't for everyone, but sticking to one's station is no way to evolve, and it certainly doesn't sound like happiness. Traveling can be about pleasure, or discovery of a world outside of your own, which can lead to personal evolution. Last night I was speaking to guy from Ireland who told me that visiting different countries has taught him to be more tolerant, someone who is open to so much more than what falls into the narrow confines of what he grew up knowing.

I don't know if it's made him a happier person, but I refuse to accept the notion that contentedness with one's life and a burning desire to see the world are mutually exclusive, that all of those travelers at the airport eagerly anticipating arrival at their final destinations are running away from something.

I am suspicious by nature, always searching for some ulterior motive to pretty much every action. But escaping your routine for a week or two needn't be about running away from it. The concept of "escape" can be positive, too. It can be about rejuvenation, gaining new perspective from a distance, which allows you to appreciate the life you have even more. Sometimes when you step onto that overnight flight bound to London or Rome or Istanbul, it's all about waking up in a brand new world, ready to see life from a different angle.
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