I have been thinking a lot recently about what I post here on Restless. (This post is going to completely disabuse anyone of the notion that I am chilled inside my own head. Get ready for some major overthinking). I feel torn between thinking that these posts are frivolous and unimportant and reminding myself that sharing stories and writing something you think is funny or interesting is not a worthless thing to do. Also, not everything needs to be serious and important all the time. Yes, I don’t think my long posts about Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral or climbing Snowdon are as meaningful as some of the things I’ve posted about Brexit or body acceptance, but I enjoyed writing them and I think they are entertaining and funny, and maybe that’s enough.
The thing is, I read a lot of travel blogs, and I don’t think of their posts as frivolous. Or if I do, it’s totally without judgement, in the same way that a post showing all my terrible photos is frivolous in the best way. But I do feel a constant tension between what I think is valuable and what I’m choosing to spend my time on.
When I think about all the huge political, social and economic stresses that are currently going on in the world and then see a tweet promoting a ‘best European trips to take in 2019’ blog post, I cringe. But really, I’m cringing at myself, because I know that I’m also posting blogs that broadly fall into that category. I would hate for people to see my posts and think that I’m only interested in holidays and having fun without also taking an interest in the very real political and social news that’s impacting us all around the world.
I know I’m probably just feeling too sensitive here and that I need to worry less about what people think. I know that I – along with everyone else – am a multi-faceted person, whose interest in seeing the world is not in conflict with my interest in what’s happening in the world.
In fact, I think the two dovetail extremely well. It’s all a matter of perspective. At its worst and most superficial, travel can be about trampling all over the world with no thought for your impact, perpetuating tired colonial and cultural narratives and visiting places without taking any interest in the culture you’re witnessing. For many, ‘travel’ is about switching off somewhere warmer and different to home, where a different country or city is merely the irrelevant backdrop to cocktails, clubbing and bikini pictures.
But at its best, I truly believe travel is not a superficial interest at all. Travel can be about learning, opening your eyes to different cultures and foods and religions, learning other languages, gaining perspective on your own experiences and privileges, seeing some of the world’s most spectacular and wonderful sights, understanding yourself better and, yes, having a good time while doing it.
The value travel can add to a person’s life is (rightly) contentious, because it’s so heavily dependent on having the time, money and opportunity to do so. Travel is one of the few consumer goods to which we’ve attached a moral value, making experience, perspective and worldliness something that you can buy. With enough money, anyone can book a ticket to Cambodia, walk around Angkor Wat and say they’ve come back a changed person, as if snapping a few pictures of temples somehow teaches you more about the world than working multiple jobs to support your family, following your dream of starting your own business or facing racism, poverty or homophobia every day and still trying to thrive regardless.
I don’t believe travel inherently makes you a better, smarter, more thoughtful person. But I do think that it can. If you travel with your eyes open and your brain alert, you can learn a host of important things about history, culture, language and respect, things that can be difficult to learn as you go about your life at home, unless you are actively seeking out those ideas.
It’s not possible to fit everyone’s motives under one umbrella. For some, ticking countries off a list is part of buying entry into an imaginary club that only the well-travelled can enter, where crazy international stories are currency and if you haven’t visited A&E on at least four different continents, you haven’t discovered what it truly means to live. Other people are genuinely interested in seeing amazing natural wonders with their own eyes and learning about different cultures, countries and cuisines at the source. For most people, it’s probably a mix of both. Who doesn’t like having a crazy adventure abroad and coming back to regale your friends and family with the story? I have gotten a lot of mileage out of my Vietnam burn story and I’ll someday muster up the courage to share my most embarrassing travel story ever, where I nearly shat myself in Sri Lanka – wearing nothing but bikini bottoms and a sarong – when someone gave me the wifi password instead of directions to the bathroom during a particularly acute incident of an upset stomach. I love telling these stories and making people laugh.
But I know my own motivations and I know that am extremely considerate of how I move through the world. I don’t view it as my personal playground. I do see it as one of the most extensive and awesome learning resources available, which unfortunately requires a chunk of cash to access, and therefore sadly excludes a lot of people. This speaks to the bigger issue of profound wealth and opportunity inequality, but is not actually in conflict with the idea that there are tangible, personal benefits to travel. I know that the world is offering me more than I am offering back, and I am just one little person wandering around because I have the time, means and opportunity, which makes me no more special that anyone else – it makes me lucky. It makes me motivated to squeeze everything I can out of these experiences, which is sometimes political history and sometimes amazing baked items. That sounds glib, but it’s true.
I have read so many thoughtful pieces of writing about travel and the value of seeing the world. I have experienced, first hand, the wonderful things you can gain from travel, including learning about history, eating great food and that insane sense of wonder when you look out at something you have never seen before and feel like part of the map has opened up. I think it can, with the right attitude, make you more tolerant, more respectful, more knowledgeable and more independent – and there’s nothing frivolous about that.