On the Merits of Travel

Travel, for the most part, is tricky. It can be expensive, take up quite a bit of time, and cut into plans that may have already been established or prevent you from making new ones. It may take you away from home life, family, or– dare I say it– work. It can be scary, too. Travel has the potential to wrench you out of your comfort zone into an experience of the unfamiliar. True, travel can be a quite costly hobby, and for all the reasons lifted above it’s not irrational to wonder out loud why someone can possibly catch the travel bug.

But for the same reasons travel is also an integral component of the human experience. By traveling, we broaden our horizons and challenge our long-held assumptions and ideas of the world. Depending on where we go, it can either remind us not to take our superfluous comforts for granted or open our eyes to something we never knew we desired and push us towards new goals.

Swiss alps

Traveling can also mean removing yourself from people, and getting to know who you really are.

Before this thought runs away in full, I want to take the time to stop and remind you that there is a difference between travel and vacation. Let’s start with “vacation”. Even the etymology of the word is brimming with implications. (Side note: Google search “[word of choice] etymology” to have your brain wowed by extensive linguistic trees tracing the origins of a particular word!) “Vacation” is descended from the latin “vacare”, which means unoccupied. Be it the house or the mind, a vacation is void of social challenges or complications. By all means this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! When you hear the word, you probably think of an extensive holiday complete with sandy beaches, drinks with tiny umbrellas, luxurious hotels, and absolutely no obligations to your lives of either work or home. Sounds good, and even necessary! During a vacation, you pack tourist destinations, whether stony town squares or grassy commons. And then there’s the camera: the tool of choice for documenting your enjoyment. Think for a moment about how many selfies one could possibly take during a vacation trip. Face aglow with a smile, that picture is about you, your enjoyment, and your unfettered– albeit temporary– social freedom. But at the end of the day (or week, depending on how many vacation days you have) you board your plane or train, and trek back to the home, and into the office. How have you grown? How have you enriched your life? Again this isn’t to say they’re mutually exclusive ends, but during a de-stressing or unwinding time, expanding your self may not be priority number one.

Now let’s think about “travel”. Travel comes from the Old English “travail”, which is still a word in use today. Travail as a verb, means “to engage in a painful or laborious effort”. As a noun, it refers to the effort itself. “Travail” and “travel”– two sides of the same coin. Now, what comes easy is nice, but that which comes through challenging effort is even better. And that’s what travel should do. In some instances, yes, it can be painful or laborious. Not in a physical way, of course, but in a matter that creates a dissonance between what you are used to and what you long for. Traveling well means forcing your reality back into perspective, to hopefully make you a better person.

Let’s take language for example. If you’re a native English speaker, then you’ve probably expressed frustration at some point when trying to convey your ideas or desires to someone who is a native speaker of French or Norwegian or Khmer. It’s a natural frustration that’s doesn’t have to be rooted in intolerance or bigotry. We’re social animals, and breaks in communications are not always desirable. But if ever you think “oh, why can’t this other person communicate adequately in English!”, then perhaps it’s time for a travel session. Even sticking close to home could do the trick. Break out of that comfort zone and go to Montreal and struggle with French or head down to Oaxaca and stammer in Spanish. Now, the native speaker is the one who must be patient with you. Such an experience once again opens your eyes to a shared part of humanity- communications barriers. Take that moment with you back home and use it to exercise more empathy.

You could also travel to expand your own personal interests. Consider yourself a foodie? Head over to downtown LA and check out their thriving food scene (Umami or Shanghai Rose anyone?). Expand the pallet and head over to Azerbaijan and Georgia to experience some cuisine of the Caucasus. Really into wine? A trip to Bordeaux could be next for you. Beer more your thing? Head to Belgium. And for the music lover, why not check out the Scandinavian jazz scene or the Vienna Opera House. The point is, to expand your knowledge of your hobbies and passions, you’re going to have to step out of the familiar and into the cultural unknown. It could be a dud or a hit, but boy, are those hits worth it!

So next time someone asks “why is travel important”, be sure to remember some of these reasons, and how it is different from vacationing. Traveling is like chicken soup for the soul. It makes you, as an individual, more empathetic, culturally aware, and generally interesting. Get out there, and challenge yourself.

Still can’t figure out where to go next? Check out the New York Times’s annual list of places to travel, and get inspired!