Disclaimer: I recommend reading the post on “travel, tourism, and living abroad” first to put my critique of “travel” in a bigger perspective. What I really criticize here is tourism: “Going places just to look at them.” I’m not saying it’s a total waste, but I do think that from a personal growth (a frequent selling point for international travel) perspective that better ways exist. There are certainly bigger challenges in life than moving your physical location by charter. I think living abroad and finding out how other countries and cultures work from the inside is an absolutely commendable thing to do. Conversely, I don’t see much benefit/cost in jumping on an airplane and _visiting_ faraway places which seem to have turned into some form of one-up-manship in terms of either distance or quantity of places that people can brag about. Staying 1-2 years in a place compared to just 1-2 months is a completely different experience.

Yesterday, Baker over at ManVsDebt wrote a post with the title “Is travel worth it?“. Now, people often say that travel will create memories that last forever, that traveling broadens your horizons, or increases your understanding, but for some reason that just never worked for me. Here is what I have learned from visiting 14 countries [mostly professionally]…

  • Having to get up at 2am to start the “journey” to avoid having the last flight canceled or missing it because the previous flight was delayed or simply to arrive at the destination before all the local transportation shuts down just plain sucks. There is truly nothing like standing outside the airport in a new country at 11pm when all you had all day was 23 peanuts and 8 oz of water and a single-serving DIY meal consisting of something brown, something yellow, and something orange.
  • In the US you remove your shoes at airport security, but you can keep your belt on. In Europe, you can keep your shoes on, but you have to remove your belt. Go figure!
  • My middle name is actually part of my first name unless there is a field for it. I don’t have two last names. I love filling out forms in triplicate and making sure that all my papers are in order.
  • Flying is like sitting in a closet with a vacuum cleaner on for 10 hours. If you find that exciting, just come on over and I’ll charge you $500 bucks for the experience. I’ll even make you wait in the closet for 2 hours before I turn the vacuum cleaner on, because it needs “refueling”. If you want to sit next to the keyhole, you know, the window seat, I’ll upgrade you for a nominal fee. You can also have a life jacket in case the vacuum cleaner explodes and I’ll throw in an MRE for free.
  • The guy in front of you who puts the seat down and douses your laptop is actually not an inconsiderate idiot. If you look ahead, he’s probably doing it because the guy in front of him just did it. If not, then he truly is an inconsiderate idiot. Corollary: Each row where seats are down has at least one inconsiderate idiot.
  • If you fly west, there is little jet lag. If you fly east, expect to spend the next week being wide awake at 3am, sleepwalking at 2pm (please don’t operate heavy machinery at 2pm), and going to bed early.
  • Hotel beds are never as good as my own regardless of what the hotel charges, or at least anywhere in the $40-$200/night range, they all feel the same.
  • The gorgeous beaches of Hawaii, the mind-blowing dolphins (what, they can kill you with their brains, eh?), the impressive cathedrals, the tranquil streams running down the majestic mountains… ahh don’t get me started. I’m not a travel writer, so I am just going to use my limited modern vernacular and say it’s all awesome and amazing even if it is just a damn beach with some water, some sand, and a bunch of washed up plastic, or a bunch of old bricks stacked up on top of each other, just like at home. Seriously, if I want to see an amazing church or an awesome building, I don’t really have to travel to another country to do it. In fact, I have pretty much forgotten all the wondrous things I have seen in the world, but I’m pretty sure they were awesome.
  • I can increase my perspective just as easy by talking to people on the internet, reading foreign newspapers, or listening to foreign radio broadcasts as I can by going to another country and hanging out with the locals for couple of weeks. Of course, not everybody is on the net these days, but that goes for all countries, not just other countries. Sure, I could not get the tribal perspective from the rain forest in South America, but how many people go there on their travels? What I’m saying is that if there’s an airport accepting 747s, the natives will be much like you and will probably go on vacations in your country.
  • Travel is not a source of personal growth. If you have a $1000 bucks, you can go anywhere in the world by making a few phone calls, why you can probably even make the reservation on the internet without having to endure the excitement of being on hold for half an hour. The travel skills required for intercontinental travel are really not much more advanced than the travel skills required to navigate your local bus system. As long as you have money, you can keep moving forward. You just have to realize that. It’s the same.

Forsooth, I have come to think of travel as a big racket—you give us your money and we will give you memories, no different than cable TV, really—where the affluent try to one-up each other by reciting the places they have been to(*) because obviously the beholding of old bricks increases in value the farther away those bricks are located relative to your point of residence and so going to Turkey is better than going to New Jersey. Accumulating these precious everlasting memories is often put in the category of personal growth just like changing clothes is considered personal growth for teenage girls and young white collar workers buying their first suit. However, it mainly serves to accumulate social currency just like attending rock concerts does it for a teenager or buying “conversation objects” does it for a socialite, The currency can then be used enhance peer status … “Oh, I saw the … cathedral .. I felt I was part of … historic moment … awesome”. And everybody else goes “Oh, wow! I must also go there, so I can be awesome too”. And so we travel so we can impress each other. Just like we buy stuff and go to concerts.

(*) And I think this is a really important point, because for some reason people always go back; well, if you prefer your home, stay there; alternatively, if you prefer to live somewhere else, go there and stay there.

Another popular reason for travel is related. Here travel is done because normal life is boring or it is purchased as a reward to get out of the rut. (I would say if you need to buy stuff or travel to entertain yourself you probably have bigger problems than the social climbing mentioned above.) What normally happens then, is that people start to accumulate experiences in the same way that they accumulate stuff. Perhaps they have a spiritual epiphany and decide that accumulating something ethereal like experiences is somehow better than accumulating stuff, but it is the accumulation in itself that is their problem. Their focus has just changed from trinkets to polaroids.

Anyway, that is what I have really learned about travel.

Some comments: Before going to faraway locations, realize that your mind comes along with you. You will find what you bring. If you find much more at home, outside your doorstep, if you expand your mind instead. Here are some suggestions: 1) Do you know all the streets in your city? Have you been to every one of them. If not, geocaching is a nice way to explore the local area. 2) Okay, so you know the streets. Now can you name 5 different birds that live in your area? What about 5 different grasses? 3 edible plants? Do you know where the nearest body of fresh water? Drinkable water? Do you know where the stream originates? 3) Do you know your neighbor? What about the other people on the street? Have you gained their perspective? 4) As you wander the streets of (1), consider the buildings. How old are they? Who owns them? How long have people lived here? Has any was been fought over this area? Why? What happened to the losers? (You can consider yourself a winner since you are currently occupying the area.)