Why Do We Travel?

Posted by - August 16, 2011 | Category: Library

C.J. Denis, Poet with funny face

I can’t stomach poetry.  It’s just not in my nature.  There’s just something vaguely hoity (bordering on toity) when someone pipes up with, “I read poetry.”

Poetry was the springboard responsible for rap music.  At least in my mind.  And while I have been known to tap a toe or two to Eminem in my weaker moments, it’s not likely to be a staple on my iPod anytime soon.

So trust me when I say that I have never bought, borrowed, or Kindled any book on poetry.  It doesn’t really ooze that cool factor. 

“Hey check out this killer Yahia Lababidi haiku – it’s the shiz!” 

But I do appreciate a well-written word.  And if that well-written word happens to be in iambic pentameter, well then, I will just have to suck that shit up.

I recently came across a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled “Questions of Travel”.  Here’s the good bit:

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework…”

And it got me to thinking, “Why do we travel?”

I know I get asked that question a lot.  It’s easy to ramble on about “oh there’s so much to see” and “oh there’s so much to do”, but that’s equating travel with distraction, not purpose.

Bus Ladies

So what motivates a person to willingly abandon unbridled convenience to wedge into undersized seats, queue in unforgiving heat, and suffer undercooked foods to see sites that are readily available in exquisite High-Def, Blu-ray, 1080p.  Reassuring arms of Lazy-Boy at their side.  Pause button and microwave at the ready.

Passengers queued

The answer is not one-size-fits-all.  We all have our reasons.  But for many that intel is far too personal, or perhaps too complicated, and they’ll retreat to “oh there’s so much to see” and “oh there’s so much to do”.  Or maybe they just have two weeks and want to get drunk on a beach.  Or perhaps they’ve never really put that much thought into it.  But I like to think there is a greater purpose to travel than drink umbrellas and sunscreen.

I get asked a lot of other questions when it comes to travel too.  Here are some of the most common:

People ask me, “Aren’t you afraid?”

Afraid yes.  Afraid of not living up to my potential.  Afraid of having a mediocre life.  Afraid of just giving in and giving up.  But afraid of travelling?  Not at all.  I may have my monsters, but more often than not, they thankfully tend to stay at home.


People ask me, “Aren’t you lonely?”

Alone yes.  But never lonely.  I travel solo, but I know there’s a whole army of ‘kindreds’ out there that I haven’t met yet.  Like-minded mortals — dreaming big, but living simple.  Some of them are arseholes, but they show their stripes pretty quickly.  And then I know it’s time to move on.Lonely Lady

People ask me, “How can you afford to travel?”

To that I say, “How can I afford not to?”  If I had stayed at home with that exquisite HDTV watching faraway vistas peppered with people soaking it in, I would have always thought – that could have been me.  I could have aligned my life to make that happen.  Instead I am here, wishing the week away, praying that the Lord or the lottery will deliver what only I can create.

People ask me, “Don’t you get tired?”

Tired yes.  Tired of answering so many questions.

Have a Good Trip Sign

So what are your reasons for travel? 

What questions do people ask you about your purpose for travel?

*All images, except the last, via Flickr Creative Commons

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74 comments - add one
  1. I was thinking about writing a post of this kind myself, I’ve even started a draft and am still pondering what to write. I don’t usually write these posts either, I like to devote my site to describing places and cultures I visit, but I was moved to start it by one of my recent facebook contacts. He asked me why I traveled, and after my answers he kept asking, insisting, wanting to know the “real reasons”, “what I get from traveling non-stop”. He was so insisting that I started thinking it over myself, what if I’m unconsciously looking for something that I feel my hometown can’t give me? Sometimes I feel it’s becoming an addiction.. I think I will finish that post, but I still need to think what to write.

    1. I think we’re all looking for something to fill a void that can’t possible be filled by a “normal” lifestyle. Some people are just wired that way. You should write the post. Dig deep — the answers are there, it’s just about finding the right words.

      I look forward to reading it!

  2. “That’s equating travel with distraction, not purpose.”

    Very insightful point. I don’t know that I’ve found my true purpose for traveling yet… and I think in my case, part of my journey traveling is the process of discovering that.

    And just because of your diatribe against poetry, I’ll leave you with this nugget:

    I wish I was a glow worm,
    a glow worm is never glum.
    Because how can you be grumpy
    when the sun shines out your bum?

  3. Hey Ray,

    That was an insightful little ditty about why people travel. I couldn’t agree more that too many people are too insular, too distracted and too timid to take the plunge to explore regions outside of an all-inclusive resort for more than a week (I hear Gandamak is lovely this time of year :).

    Aside from seeing, hearing, tasting and experiencing all that the different regions and cultures around the world have to offer, simply put, people come back better than they were before when they’ve been abroad…whether they come back with a superhuman tolerance for hallucinogens, a piercing in the wrong place, a penchant for stir-fried locusts or encephalitis is moot – what doesn’t kill you makes for fantastic story telling to those friends willing to listen or too polite to say ‘no’!

    Looking forward to the next installment,


    1. Would you believe I had to Google Gandamark?

      Thanks for swinging by Carleton! Always good to have a like-minded soul in on the action…

      And love your insight! Wish I had wrote it… 🙂

    2. Traveling alone sends my perspective into a lush theater of the senses, as if i was living within a movie, zooming in on my favorite esthetic fetishes with in awe attention. The foreign language becomes the sound track to the film with melodies and rythms. Getting my needs met to survive becomes a magic maize with characters to help me, coming out from the wood work of my undreamt dreams. The pace of my minds’ movies puts me in the center of the moment, where i attract with intention or not, the mistical, bizzare, and most kindred, ,By then I have forgotten who I am, and where i’m going, … Where all obsticles are lit with oportunity to create an outcome beyond what can be imagined during a plan.
      Travel makes me leave myself behind and live as the genious within, from where intention, imagination, and abandon are one thing…

  4. nice post.
    i think i started travelling because it looked fun.
    i loved seeing something so totally different daily that just blew my mind.
    i love meeting people from all over the world and having a chat with them.
    i love jumping off things.
    there is just so much to love about travel i find it more of a quandry why people choose not to travel.

  5. Nicely done! I really enjoyed this post. I guess one of the main reasons I travel is because I enjoy the connections with people and places that I make while on the road.

    1. Thanks Randy. I know the same is true for me — I bore easily (and I bore others easily too!), so I find it hard to have a routine. Constantly changing vistas keeps me entertained…

  6. I travel because I love learning. The world is a big place, and the thought of staying in one place for the rest of my life is agonizing. There are so many cultures and customs beside my own, and I want to discover them through travel.

    Great post. It really got me thinking about why I travel and other people’s reasons as well.

    1. Thanks Danielle. I think you’re a little like me — I just don’t see the need, or have the desire, to stay put. It is a big fat world out there — I’d feel I was missing the mark if I didn’t at least attempt to cover part of it.

    1. I thought first you had said shingles.

      They’re all from Flickr’s Creative Commons. There are some gems in there if you dig.
      That last one I took in a garden in Chiang Mai.

  7. love this! esp the photos. let’s see, i travel for a variety of reasons: to see other people and cultures, to experience life differently, to try new things, to explore new foods, to venture into new places – and to do the same in familiar places to which we travel!

    1. All of these are great reasons. I would have known I liked Thai Green Curry soup had I not gone to Thailand. I find I’m more set in my ways back home, but far more willing to branch out when I’m away.

  8. Why do I travel? That’s easy, after a lifetime of perpetual wanderlust, I simply love the challenge. The challenge of pitting myself/my wits against an utterly unknown environment. The challenge of not knowing what comes next, and inviting the serendipity that only comes with just “letting go”.

  9. I think I travel because I get cranky, bored, tired of being in one place for too long. I have to explore, I have to get out there- I would ask the question, “Why don’t you travel?”

  10. I travel because I am curious and I love to explore. I learn by being on the road. However, I also wonder if I travel to escape- when you move around you have no time to be still and to face some realities that you have to make peace with. I don’t think I will be a long term traveler but I also would like to take a gap year because it’s just a practical way to cover a lot of ground for a lot less money.

    1. I understand what you mean — some just need to get it out of your system and do it in one great big fell swoop. I don’t necessarily think that everyone who travels long term though is attempting to escape certain realities. In some respects, they may have faced their demons and are creating new realities. At least, that’s the category I hope I fall under… 🙂

  11. I like your point on “how can I afford NOT to travel”. I think travel is essential in shaping a person. Curiosity and willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone are important!

    1. And it completely changes your frame of reference. It opens you up as a person — you’re more flexible, less rigid, and overall a better person. Or you get into drugs and wind up in a Turkish prison. In which case scratch all I said before.

  12. St. Augustine said “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Here’s to discovering what’s on the other pages …

    1. And Noel Coward said, “‘But why, oh why, do the wrong people travel, when the right people stay at home?”
      Who you gonna believe?

      Thanks for stopping by!!

  13. These are all great reasons to travel! For me, I always come away changed completely and I need that in my life. My work is pretty much creative and if I don’t get out in the world and see what’s happening I’m pretty useless. This year has changed me significantly already and we’re still on the road. Great post!

    1. Good sir — how dare you!! Hee hee…

      I like the cut of your jib Robin. And I’m sure there are some out there like that. Thankfully, having spent countless years in my hometown, I’m pretty sure I’m not ne of them. 🙂

  14. The best answer I have for this question is…

    I travel because I want to.

    That of course usually leads to the question of why do you want to. I could probably write my own 1000-word post on that.

    I think the more important thing is that I am doing what I want to do.

  15. I’ve been thinking about why I travel a lot lately, and I believe all the reasons you said are true for me, too. And just the idea of making life worth it, I guess. I have chronic health problems and I live a lot of my life in pain and scared about my health and stuff, and it makes me more aware, daily, of making sure I’m spending my time doing things I really want to do and making sure I feel like the time I’m spending is worth all the pain I go through. So that when I’m stuck in bed in pain for days or weeks at a time and thinking, damn, what can be worth all this? I can easily tell myself, well, all of these things…

    1. Thanks for putting it into the big picture Faith. Health is EVERYTHING, but something so many take for granted. When I read something like this, it really makes me appreciate just how lucky some are. Thanks for taking the time to stop by, and I do hope things get better for you…

  16. Interesting post! I don’t really have a reason for travelling… or I suppose I must have, somewhere… but not at the top of my consciousness. Travelling is just a natural thing to do.

  17. I travel because seeing a photo of it is not enough. I gotta satisfy alll the senses. Why? I don’t know. Probably could be attributed to a personality disorder or the ego. Or intelligence? Or is that my ego speaking? See, I don’t know. This could be a major study for some psychiatrists out there. ;P

  18. I’m in constant need for something to truly capture my attention (which is really hard to do). And what better way to do that than to travel? I have no real explanation as to why I am so intrigued with the places around the world and its people; I just am. I think you feel it more than you can explain it. BTW, I’m really digging that first photo.

    1. Creative Commons archives baby! Lots of great photos like that in there…

      I agree that it’s a hard one to explain. I’ve been told “Time for you to grow up and quit this business of travelling.” Not sure how giving up what I love is growing up…

  19. Another enjoyable post, Raymond. I can totally relate, especially with the when you wrote, “people ask me, ‘How can you afford to travel? To that I say, ‘How can I afford not to?'” I only wish I were in SE Asia right now too!

  20. Brilliant article, mate.

    I think you’ve hit a lot of the reasons I travel on the head. I’m afraid that someday I’ll be old and sickly and I’ll look back and wish I hadn’t wasted so much of my life working 9-5 and buying things that only bring me temporary joy.

    I feel like I wasted the first twenty something years of my life by being shy and inwardly focused and materialistic. I missed out on romantic trysts and amazing friendships and unforgettable experiences by taking the road people pointed me down.

    It’s much more fun to blaze your own trails.

    1. Thanks Chris! Don’t look at it as time wasted, look at it as time well spent (like A&E’s motto) — you learned a lot during those years, and you are who you are because of it. I don’t wish my past away, but I try not to live in it either. New trails baby! NEW TRAILS!!

      And hopefully neither of us will ever be old and sickly! 🙂

  21. In present Western society everything is based around serving the god of consumerism. This means earning lots of money, in jobs that provide little satisfaction in order the buy the latest “must have” or the latest fashion item in order to be somebody. “I have, therefore I am a successful person.”

    Many of those that decided to opt out of this empty life, chose travel as their escape. They found that when away from 24/7 advertising and rampant consumerism, that they immediately felt happier, more fulfilled and started to see a purpose in life.

    Travel has always been there to focus to regain our deeper selves, originally in the form of pilgrimage. Even holiday, the British term for vacation has those roots.

    That said, there must be a time when some of the digital nomads reflect and see that there is also a little emptiness in their choice. Travel awakens the soul, but the question is, what to do when it is fully awake? Is the relentless ticking off of bucket list items any more fulfilling than buying the latest smart phone, HDTV or fashion item?

    1. Thanks for your well-thought out comment John. I don’t think I’ve seen travelers and consumers parralelled like you do here before. Of course, I probably wasn’t looking too closely.

      I agree that there is a certain pissing contest quality among certain travelers when it comes to where they’ve been, what they’ve done, etc., but I think that they are among the minority.

      I think most long-term travellers would agree that the feeling granted by seeing the Great Wall of China, or bungee-jumping in New Zealand would be a different scale entirely than the feeling of acquiring a Roomba. Although a Roomba is pretty darn cool too. 🙂

  22. The main question I get asked is whether I had trouble taking my son out of school. Most people who meet us are actually envious, rather than the reverse. Which has been a bit of a surprise….

  23. It is definitely a hard question to answer and certainly not one size fits all in responses. I however do get sick of the question, “Where are you going next?”. It seems like I am always asked this right when I return from some adventure, usually before I have unlatched the seatbelt. Can’t I just enjoy the returning part of travel for a minute?

  24. Well said, as usual.
    And I have to admit I’m on your side with the whole poetry thang. I’m just too straight-forward and direct to ‘get’ the round-about way of speaking…

    When is the guy in your square gonna run again? 🙂

  25. Pingback: Meet the Nomads: Raymond Lam | flipnomad.com
  26. I haven’t ever started proper Travelling with a capital T. I can imagine the reasons why people do, I am drawn towards these people who live this boundless lifestyle without knowing those reasons. I am scared if I go I will lose everything, but perhaps that is the best reason of all.

    1. You make a great point — ‘I am scared if I go I will lose everything’ — I try not to think too much about that. I left my job, my condo, and pared down my stuff, and there is no back-up plan. I feel though that somehow things will work out and everything will be okay. I guess I was more scared by being stuck with the everything I had instead of being the everywhere I wanted to be — if that makes any sense. 🙂

  27. Hi Ray

    Nice to find quality made articles about traveling, maybe read Joyce´s Ulysses?

    People ask me, “Aren’t you afraid?”

    “Afraid yes. Afraid of not living up to my potential. Afraid of having a mediocre life. Afraid of just giving in and giving up.”

    Could have shared your thoughs.

  28. Raymond – an excellent article. I can’t really call myself a Traveller with a capital T, as I’m one of those 9-5 types who does my best to get out and around somewhere different and/or interesting when and as the finances allow. Would love to do more “someday”. On the whole why do I travel question, I don’t have any definitive or particularly insightful answers to that, it’s just fun and better than hanging around the same old neighborhood when I have time off. But I do have to say I seem to enjoy travel more and more as life goes on and hope to get out there and see new places when I can.

    If you’re interested, check out my own travel site at http://www.prohltravel.com

  29. I absolutely love your style of writing; there’s something almost Wodehouse-esque about it!

    On a side note, I wrote a similar piece a while back after being asked by someone what I found appealing about travelling (yes, ‘those’ people still exist!) And sadly, a lot of them are twenty-something’s as well.

    Anyway, happy travels!


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