BY: JACQUELINE KEHOE
A couple months ago, one of my best friends and my boyfriend (separately, of course) booked trips out West. He was going to Seattle for work; she was off to Portland.
For some reason I lost it. I opened Hopper on my phone, found a cheap flight (that almost felt like a sign), and booked it. A second later, I came out of this pseudo-trance, questioning what I had done and why.
It was strange. I had booked flights spontaneously before, but never feeling any lack of control. This time, it was even beyond envy. Sure, I was jealous, but more than anything it felt like a threat to my identity. If all these other people in my life were traveling and I wasn’t…well, I wouldn’t know who I was. I was the traveller. I was the one who usually went off and left others behind.
This got me thinking. Why do I travel? Why does anyone travel? Maybe we travel to celebrate. Maybe to relax or to “get away from it all.” Fast forward to the days of Eat, Pray, Love and Wild — these films have told us we travel for reasons of self-discovery, mid-life crises and curiosity.
While travel is often still about bonding, broadening your horizons, or any number of good, healthy reasons — that’s only the tip of the iceberg, and what lies beneath often goes much deeper.
The way we travel has shifted. One look at our Facebook newsfeed and it’s easy to tell that we’re becoming a society that travels for a number of other psychological reasons. Shame, envy, addiction, pride and probably most common, self-definition. I’m definitely one of these people — the first generation to travel not necessarily because they want to, but because, well, they have to.
I began to think that maybe I was the only one who thought about these sorts of things and twisted them. So I asked around and found that – I’m not.
TRAVEL AND FEAR
I set out to find others who also felt this twisted, unhealthy love affair with traveling — admittedly because my sanity depended on it. I could find few people who fully resonated with what I felt, but I found plenty who offered their own tangled relationship with movement.
The closest I could find to my experience – what I’ll call travel shame, although I guess you could also call it commitment issues — was Shannon Dell, a travel writer and social media assistant at Matador Network. When I asked her how she would feel if she could no longer travel, she took the words right out of my mouth: “Well, damn. Now I actually have to belong somewhere.”
“I think my motivation to travel comes from a mix of fearing roots and the feeling of not belonging. I grew up in Chattanooga, but it never felt like home. Then I found Savannah, and I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. But Scorpion Teas and cobblestones got old, so I took off to Atlanta, which made me feel completely out of place. Now I’m in Denver. And so far, I find connection far better when I’m in a brand new place with new people than I do when I plant roots somewhere. There’s just something about knowing the place isn’t permanent that’s comforting to me.”
One of the more surprising responses I received was from Katka Lapelosová, Art Director at Praytell, who talked of travelling to escape yourself. “I’m generally more outgoing and friendlier when I travel because I have nothing to prove. I can be my best self when I travel, because no one knows otherwise. By embracing the people and cultures of other places, I can escape the person I am, someone I’m not 100 per cent thrilled with on a normal day-to-day basis.”
Her response intrigued me. Plenty of people travel to be worse — my immediate thought is the sexpats I’ve met while in Thailand — but few are willing to admit that they’re working to find their better selves. She ended her response with, “Success to me is bringing those good qualities back home and integrating them into my everyday life.”
Next I spoke with Ailsa Ross, an editor at Matador Network, who touched on travelling plainly out of fear. Talking of her own travels when she was younger, she got right down to it, “I was just like, ‘Is this it? Is this what you want?’ To just hostel around and drift and get tiny insights into different cultures but nothing really real beyond, ‘Oh! In Brazil the supermarket assistants ride through the aisles on rollerskates!’? You are so scared of life. You are so scared to not get on the career path you wanted. And you won’t. Not here. Not in a hostel surrounded by other lost kids.”
And, really, this chord weaves its way through all of these responses, including my own — it all boils down to fear. Fear of not belonging. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of failing. Fear of never amounting to the person you could be. In a strange turn of events, there’s a group of people that are afraid to stay in one place, who find that roots, the comforts of home, continuity and consistency are harder to deal with than abrupt, in-your-face change. And they’re not outliers, either — after all, what isn’t motivated by fear?
TRAVEL AS AN IDENTITY
Though only a percentage of the people I talked to opened up about fear, failure and belonging, it was too easy to find travellers that hold it integral to their identity — really, that was just about everyone I talked to. When I posed the hypothetical, “Imagine you can no longer travel,” I viscerally felt a few of them dart their eyes back and forth and their eyebrows furrow, shifting in their seats and shocking themselves at even just imagining such a bleak scenario.
Kim Swanson-Huff, owner of MAP Connections and Wanderlust Creative, responded with, “If I didn’t travel, it would leave me without direction for my life….both literally and figuratively.” Is there a group of people that equate movement with progress? Stagnation with defeat? With this response, another thread in the web is woven, complicating things even further. Maybe there’s something nomadic in us after all.
For a male perspective, I talked to Tim Wenger, Journeyman journalist and copywriter at Inkwell Media Services. He took it one step further, “Not traveling would severely limit my perception of freedom and of reality. Travel helps me to see the world from a perspective other than that of a middle-class white guy from a cookie cutter US suburb.” He leaves me to wonder how much change he’s gone through and what kind of person he was originally. Though travel can’t possibly be the only remedy to a close-minded perspective (or can it?), I know the addiction it can foster — like the first hit of a soon-to-be addict.
He continued, “It helps keep my opinions fresh and objective because the more I see the way that other people live, the more I’m able to call out the bullshit hypocrisies and privileges in my own worldview. I think that not being able to travel would have a deep impact on progressive values because the more a person sees, the more a person is able to adapt and accept. My worldview is limited to my own experiences but if not for travel, that view would be even more shallow and contained.”
Jason Frye, food and travel writer, looked at it a bit more globally. “Travel provides such a well of inspiration to me that it would have serious implications on the arts — visual and performing — and in how we value the arts. Suddenly a picture wouldn’t be worth 1,000 words, but 100,000 as we try to embrace that experience more fully and wholly.” He touched on the aspect of travel that gives us a sense of importance, status, prestige, and — clearly — meaning.
THE REAL REASONS WE TRAVEL
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all this certainly seems like some great psychological shift sideways. A new generation — and, yes, a privileged one — that depends on travel for happiness, self-fulfillment, and the ability to breathe easy. Their (well, our) egos are addicted to it, in a way. It’s a charge, a zap, a caffeine buzz for weeks on end. The ability to look yourself in the mirror without being repulsed. If it weren’t for travel, what would we be using instead?
Before, it was easy for me to forget about this — now it’s all I see. The next time you open up Facebook and scroll five seconds before you run into a travel photo, the next time you see a pretty Instagram shot of the back of some girl’s head, framed by mountains and her casually wind-swept dress, maybe you’ll see it, too. Ask yourself, “Why is this person really traveling? What do they want me to see from this? What are they afraid of? Who are they trying to be?”
And then ask yourself the same questions.