Unless you’re Paul Theroux, it’s a pretty safe bet nobody but your parents wants to read the play-by-play description of your travels. Nobody cares about that open-air bungalow you slept in near this nearly deserted beach, or that overgrown, unmarked valley you hiked into with those cool people you met at that chill bar, or even that contemporary art exhibition you took in at that trendy museum in a gritty neighborhood.
Which is why I haven’t written lately; there’s not been much to say. In the past few months, I’ve occupied countless places (even Lower Manhattan!) and the spaces between places: planes, trains, ferries, a train driven onto a ferry (oh, those Scandinavians), subways, funicular railways, cable cars, and buses of all shapes and sizes. So many buses.
Vermont. Boston. Hartford. New York. Columbus. Minneapolis. Washington, D.C. Baltimore. Philadelphia. Buffalo. Niagara Falls. Zurich. Munich. Prague. Berlin. Copenhagen. Izmir. Cappadocia. Now the Turkish Mediterranean (Fethiye, Kabak, Kas, Olympos, Antalya). Then Tbilisi. Zanavi. Rome. Bologna. Zurich. Philadelphia. Boulder. Tires me out just typing this.
Yet, for all the new adventures and exploration, for all the interesting places I’ve seen, museums I’ve visited, natural phenomena I’ve witnessed, cultural events I’ve crashed, interesting people I’ve met, old friends I’ve visited, as much of a privilege as it is to drop everything and see the world, there’s something missing about long-term travel. Which may be among the most important things I’ve actually learned.
Don’t get me wrong. Travel for the sake of travel is a real learning experience. Trust me, I’ve learned and experienced. Sampled small-batch maple syrups. Saw the Huffington Post newsroom. Biked the National Mall at midnight. Gazed at International Klein Blue and Cy Twombly. Read Philip Roth. Designated-drove my grandfather. Zip-lined through the trees on Mt. Pilatus. Hiked a cliff above Lake Lucerne. Co-taught an 11th-grade geography lesson. Drank a liter of beer at Oktoberfest. Practiced pronouncing Reinheitsgebot. Watched a soccer game at Allianz Arena. Nearly threw up at a concentration camp. Caught the world-record finish at the Berlin Marathon. Photographed balloons at sunrise. Toasted some leg hair at the eternal flame of the Chimaera. Dropped in on people’s lives. Ate kebabs and goulash and fondue and Weisswurst. Above all, learned about hospitality from the wonderful folks who have hosted me along the way.
Travel can do amazing things. I’d like to think if all the Americans who rail against Islam were to spend one week in Jordan or Egypt or even Turkey, they’d be far more tolerant towards Muslims going forward. I’d like to think if everyone visited Sachsenhausen, we’d never forget Never Again (at very least, we’d probably stop comparing American politicians to Hitler) I’d like to think if more Israelis saw the remains of the Berlin Wall, they’d think twice before blindly supporting the “Security Fence”. Travel can open our eyes to history and culture in a way a book or documentary never could. And it sure beats watching “Jersey Shore”.
So what’s my beef? Why shouldn’t we all just quit our jobs and travel if we have the money? Why is showing up at the beach or museum on a Monday morning about as satisfying as showing up at the office, or perhaps even less so?
Because seeing without doing is massively unsatisfying after awhile. Travelers float around and see places without any imperative to do or create anything other than impressions in our own heads. We’re like Greg Gumbels of an eternal half-time, always looking in to check the highlights without sticking around to understand the context, the storylines, the ebb and flow.
Because being a responsible member of society means producing things, whether it be art or spreadsheets or sandwiches or small businesses or well-behaved children or clean toilets. And dropping out of that, even to learn and observe and not just sit on the beach, strikes me as terribly self-indulgent.
Travelers like to talk about “finding ourselves”, as if we were missing to begin with, as if we’re hiding in the next hostel or valley or mosque or minibus, as if by sharing a beer with enough strangers or drinking a cup of tea with a “local” or hiking to this totally awesome panorama, we will have an epiphany about how we should spend our lives.
Yet we find ourselves not by honing that 30-second life story we tell to every traveler who politely asks and pretends to listen, not by posturing over who has had the most “authentic” travel moment, not by looking out the window on buses or trains, not by finding the most remote place to camp, but by trying and failing and succeeding and experimenting at actually doing things. Which is why I learned more about myself in my cube in Boston or my space at the table in Rolla, MO or my classroom in Zanavi, Georgia than I ever have visiting a solitary beach bungalow or pulsating capital.
We find ourselves when we take on responsibility for getting something done, for committing to be accountable towards friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, partners, for making ourselves vulnerable to failure and disappointment. Aside from rainy weather, late buses, and overrated attractions, these don’t exist as a traveler. If our standards for adventure are just to have one, we’re not really taking any risks. Hence the muted reward. And lack of interested travel readers.
So there you have it. Here’s my advice: keep your job (or keep trying different ones), agitate for as much vacation time as you can, visit varied, interesting places and maintain a keen eye on culture and history, and don’t worry when it’s time to get back to work. You’re not missing much.