Why travel?

A well-worn debate exists over the difference between tourist and traveller, and the gist of the argument goes something like this: the bumbling, self-absorbed tourist sits by the pool and complains about service, while the curious traveller, carrying just a small guidebook, explores backroads on a journey of discovery. In other words, the traveller is cool, the tourist is not. And as Evelyn Waugh, the prolific English travel writer put it, “The tourist is always the other chap.”

To me, this seems a pointless differentiation. Far more pertinent is whether we get away at all. As a society, Canadians tend to dismiss travel as a strikingly unproductive use of time, and every year, millions upon millions of vacation days go unclaimed. Travel, it seems, has fallen prey to the three modern horsemen: time (too little of it), connection (too much of it) and the ‘soon-as’ disease (As soon as I get my promotion, As soon as I pay off the mortgage, As soon as I retire.)

After twenty-five years of crisscrossing the globe as a writer and photographer, I believe in travel as a basic and elemental force for good. The road is humbling. It pares life to the essentials, and reminds us the planet is vast, complicated and richly diverse. In a polarized world, it engenders sympathy and fosters understanding of those with different backgrounds, histories and beliefs. In its randomness and unpredictability, travel demands courage, and also teaches it. The whole magical process reminds us of the elemental value of friends and family, and ironically, illuminates in a way nothing else can, the precious nature of our own home and community.

Travel is fundamentally an investment in ourselves; an investment in wisdom, skills, knowledge, perspective, and experience. In a society obsessed with accumulating clutter, it is worth remembering that science clearly shows ‘new experiences’ as far more likely to yield long-term happiness than ‘new things.’

Admittedly, some of my travels may seem a tad extreme, taking me from Mt. Everest to Arabia, from Africa to the high Arctic. I’ve crossed Iceland by foot, Mongolia by horse, and traversed Greenland’s coast by sea kayak. Most recently, I took my young family on a 22,000-kilometre, six-month trip, travelling without the use of airplanes from our home in British Columbia to a Buddhist monastery in the high Himalaya, where we lived in a small earthen room with the head Lama. But I’ve also spent glorious weeks at Canadian cottages, enjoyed wine tours in Bordeaux, and returned year after year to major ski resorts.

If I had one observation to share from these decades of travel, it would be this: it simply doesn’t matter how big or small the journey is, or whether you appear ‘tourist’ or ‘traveller’, as long as the vacation is meaningful to you. If you have a dream, just do it, I say. Don’t overthink it. There are only so many tomorrows.

And if planning the next escape feels confusing or unfamiliar, here are a few simple concepts to aid the process:

GO LONGER. On any trip, time equates to wealth, so consider going just a bit longer. Don’t worry about missing things back home. Invariably you will return to find nothing has changed.

TAKE LESS. Free yourself from the anchor of heavy suitcases, and pack minimally. Anything you find yourself in need of, you can buy on the road, and such purchases often make the most meaningful souvenirs; an alpaca sweater from Ecuador, an umbrella with Haida designs.

SEEK PEOPLE. We tend to be drawn by landmarks (the Sydney Opera House, Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower), but the most enduring memories are usually interactions with people we meet along the way. So open yourself to this possibility. Smile often. Poke your head around corners. Learn to say hello in the local language.

SPEND LESS. Generally, the more expensive your accommodations and meals, the greater the veil between yourself and the local culture. But there is nothing wrong with occasionally splurging and treating yourself!

BE CAREFUL, BUT NOT PARANOID. The world is not inherently dangerous. Use your head, trust your instincts, and if uncertain, seek expert advice.

PLAN LESS. Avoid the temptation to jam-pack your itinerary. Instead, slow down and trust in serendipity. Linger. Follow your nose. Explore.

TRY SOMEWHERE NEW. Whether it is a new restaurant, hotel, country or continent, stepping out of your comfort zone often yields the greatest rewards.

TAKE TIME TO SEND A POSTCARD. Every market, museum and beachside shack around the world sells postcards. Why not buy a few, and send a message to friends and family back home. The little things matter. And I bet you’ve never seen an email or Facebook post taped to a fridge door!

Bruce Kirkby is a Canadian adventurer, photographer, and writer.

This article was published in T.E. Wealth’s Strategies newsletter, September 2018 edition. Read the full edition here.

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