The peak summer travel months are upon us, and that means millions of people the world over are packing a bag and setting off to somewhere else – maybe a familiar every-summer destination, maybe on a new adventure. This summer travel season is projected to be among the busiest on record.
But why travel at all?
In a viral essay for the New Yorker, the philosophy professor Agnes Callard makes The Case Against Travel, quoting the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who writes: “The idea of travelling nauseates me … Ah, let those who don’t exist travel! … Travel is for those who cannot feel … Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to move around to feel.”
Travel may nauseate Pessoa (and, it seems, Callard). But the idea of only imagining rather than doing, and living life primarily in one’s own head and gazing inward at one’s own feelings, nauseates me – and is a recipe not for a reflective life, but a lonely and solipsistic one (even if one is a professor of philosophy whose job it is to stew in one’s own thoughts).
Human beings are a varied bunch, and virtually nothing is for everyone. There are people out there who just aren’t that into food and don’t really care if what they’re eating tastes good as long as it keeps them alive (enough of them, it seems, to justify the invention of Soylent). There are people who don’t see much value in art, who find nature too primitive, who are repulsed by children or other human beings, who cannot handle even the tiniest change in their routines, who don’t watch television, who have never voted, who don’t follow the news. There are adults who choose to vacation at Disney World, and fabulously wealthy and powerful people who choose to eat their steaks well-done with ketchup. I’m personally not wild about donuts, I don’t love movie theaters (bedbug fears), I never want to watch Game of Thrones, and please don’t hand me a bouquet of red roses. Someone, somewhere, hates baby pandas.
There are all kinds of people on this weird and wild planet, with all kinds of bizarre and out-of-the-ordinary habits and preferences. Some of those people don’t like to travel. It seems Agnes Callard and the many cranky writers she quotes are among them. If it suits them, they should lean into their impulse toward the familiar and the self, and they should stay home and examine their own navels, or disappear into their imaginations. That’s all good – it means fewer tourists crowding the streets, and certainly less stress on a taxed planet.
But Callard doesn’t make the case that travel isn’t for her; she makes the case that travel is overrated as a general rule. She’s wrong – she’s entitled to her personal preferences, but travel is often all its cracked up to be. And we’d probably be better off if more people were willing to experience new places with open minds, and had the grit to work through the inevitable discomforts of doing so.
Travel, for many of us, is not just wonderful but essential. That’s not because travel necessarily makes us better people, although in the best of circumstances it can. It’s not because travel totally transforms us – it rarely does. It is because travel both scratches a primal urge and helps us develop the skills to build richer lives.
Human beings are naturally curious and naturally social; we are natural explorers. And because we are profoundly social primates, travel expands our edges and deepens our understanding of what’s possible. It may not always fundamentally change us, but it does layer on more information about how one can be human in the world. An American suburbanite strolling through Copenhagen may notice that a bicycle-based city is a tangible alternative to car culture, for example. One walking through a public park in Shanghai may be struck by all the grandparents out doing tai chi in the morning and dancing in the evening, and conclude that would be a nice way to stay active, independent and social. A few years ago, on a reporting trip to Niger, the women I met described networks of postpartum support that made me consider how Americans could be more creative in building communities for the young families among us. For as many times in my travels as I’ve found myself lost or frustrated and wondering, “Why do these people do things this way?” I’ve also found myself looking around and asking: why don’t we do things this way?
Human beings have, for our entire history, sought novelty, knowledge, new people, and new places – even Eden wasn’t enough to keep humans from seeking out something more. Human societies have traded and collaborated and warred and migrated; we’ve always been curious about what’s over there in the great beyond, and what other people might have that we don’t. Early hunter-gatherers making contact with other groups of humans of course isn’t “tourism”. But it does speak to an innate human impulse toward the novel, and the connective.
Anyone who has ever been to an unfamiliar place where they can’t speak the language and struggled to comprehend the customs can tell you that travel is just as often exasperating, exhausting and arduous as it is thrilling and educational. The most challenging and exotic trips often come with a moment (or several) of “I want to go home.” Travel often means feeling, and sometimes literally being, totally lost. But in this way, travel also works the muscles necessary to build resilience, flexibility, and a sense of mastery. A greater sense of independence and adeptness comes with inevitably solving the problems presented to you: you wander for an hour, but eventually you find your way back to the hotel; you take the train in the wrong direction five times, but you get it right on the sixth; you order the wrong thing, and then you figure out how to order the right thing; you say the wrong thing, and then you figure out how to say the right thing; you quit walking in the bike lane, remember how to say thank you, begin to recognize the landmarks that lead you to where you want to be.
It’s making our way through the miserable parts of travel – the confusion, the frustration – that give us a greater sense of competence and control. And that greater sense of competence and control can offer us a greater ability to navigate future challenges and to take more risks, whether that manifests in our regular lives, or in a willingness to seek out farther-flung places and more people who live very differently than we do. My first travels as a young adult weren’t particularly out of the ordinary for a white middle-class American – more Amsterdam than Abidjan – but learning, on the fly, how to navigate unfamiliar and often wholly flummoxing places (particularly in the days before smartphones, and often alone) eventually imbued in my young self a kind of confidence that would not and could not have come from staying home. That sense of competence, coupled with an innate restlessness and curiosity, set me on a career path as a journalist covering women’s rights and health around the world, and, later, a host of international writing retreats. Cultivating the ability to move through unfamiliar spaces, negotiate unfamiliar customs, and connect with unfamiliar people laid the groundwork for my career, and made me both better at my work and at my life.
Travel, for me and I suspect many others, has also been an extended lesson in human kindness. For all the nightmare stories that range from rude Parisians to murderous tourist-targeting locals, most of the time, people are fundamentally decent and often exceptionally generous. In my travels, people have opened their lives up to me in ways large and small. I’ve been guided around art galleries, welcomed at the table, taken out on the town, invited to Nonna’s house for dinner. American children, and particularly American girls, spend our young lives worrying about stranger danger, and it’s certainly good to try to keep oneself safe. But walling ourselves off can eliminate opportunities for magic. And it turns out that other people, including strangers in strange lands, can bring a lot of magic in to your life.
Not that travel is always whimsy and delight. Often, the reality of moving through new places and dealing with unfamiliar people means confronting the less-than-superlative aspects of your own personality – impatience, perhaps, or inadaptability, or judgmentalism, or failure to fully appreciate the place and moment you’re in. I am embarrassed to say that I have often found myself, while in unfamiliar places, annoyed at what I perceived to be inefficiency or ridiculousness or some nonsensical way of doing things. Often, that has said less about the place than it did about me – generally, it’s not that particular practices or customs didn’t make sense, it’s that I hadn’t yet made sense of them. (Or that I was hungry.)
Travel is, in other words, a great exercise in humility. By putting ourselves in new places and circumstances, we begin to see ourselves more clearly. That information is useful even if it’s not universally flattering. And hopefully, we learn some lessons from it, and our next trip isn’t spent whining about the lack of AC or feeling put out by a lack of ice in our soda.
If you aren’t the kind of person who seeks out the negative, or if you train yourself out of that habit, travel is fun because it’s novel, exciting and indulgent. Whether you’re hiking a peak in Patagonia or having your fifth croissant in a Parisian café or watching elephants amble by on the savanna or pitching a tent in a campsite an hour outside of your town or pulling up to the cabin your family rents every August, part of the joy of travel is being able to say, “I don’t get to do this every day” and behaving accordingly. We know from a great body of research that we are emotionally and often physically better off when we live lives of gratitude, and when we pause to appreciate the good and the beautiful. You don’t need to leave your home to find gratitude. But being in a new, interesting place sure helps to encourage you to hit the pause button and say, wow, I am lucky to be here.
Travel touches our happiness-making buttons in other ways, too. It’s well-established that experiences, not things, offer us the most happiness bang for our buck, and when it comes to travel, that happiness is extended: we enjoy a happiness increase from the anticipation of the experience, which means even planning a trip is enjoyable. And sharing experiences with other people has proven happiness and bonding benefits. This is purely anecdotal, but travel has helped me to move with a little more ease through the world – to be comfortable in more places, and better-adept at talking to a wider variety of other people.
Travel isn’t a magical tool that by itself makes us happy and sophisticated, evolved and capable. Like anything else some people (even many people) find pleasurable, it’s not for everyone.
But perhaps travel could be useful even for those who feel the most challenged by it. I’m sure it’s lovely to live within the vast expanse of one’s own imagination. But the vast expanse of planet earth, and all the different ways humans live on it, offer a kind of inspiration you can’t find in your own head alone. By leaving our comfortable places, little by little we – hopefully – see the world with more wonder and offer other people more patience, generosity and tolerance than we would if we simply stayed home.