Anyone who travels for a long time is either running away from something, or searching for something. Most people are quite content to stay where they are: surrounded by a comforting familiarity and the order of their known universe. Visiting somewhere different is fraught with personal and sometimes physical challenges. Words with meaning at home suddenly become gibberish. Comforting habits and customs are thrown out the window (along with garbage, as I discovered on a bus in Albania). Like children, we have to rediscover a new environment with strange people, foods, dress and currency.
Further, we are constantly reminded that travel is accompanied by risks. Planes disappear, bags get stolen, meals take revenge, untold violence and political turbulence lurk around the corner. With so much fear in the mediascape, it’s a wonder anyone travels at all. Yet, after oil and automobiles, tourism is the world’s third largest industry. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, over one billion people travelled internationally in 2013, increasing year-over-year since records were kept. If travel is dangerous (as the news is suspiciously quick to remind us) and counter to our craving for security and comfort zones, why are more people traveling than at any other point in history?
We run away from stagnation. Holidays revitalize us with relaxation, family bonding, pampering, a space to think. Adventures rejuvinate us with inspiration, natural beauty, personalities and wisdom. Whether you’re at a beach resort or trekking in the Himalayas, fresh landscapes and different cultures wash over us with the energy of a waterfall. Leaving home, for even a few short weeks, simply wakes us up. Meanwhile, escaping a failed profession, personal relationship, project or challenge is the fastest way to remind us that perhaps we didn’t fail at all. Sometimes we just need to step back, inhale, observe ourselves within a more illuminating context, and exhale. Travel is no substitute for living. But you seldom feel as alive as when you’re experiencing something new.
Almost ten years ago, I set out to travel the world. I condensed my life into a backpack, and journeyed to 24 countries in 12 months. My friends and family asked me, “What are you looking for?” I wanted to get lost, to rediscover myself in the last place I expected to be. I didn’t have to wait long: three months into my journey I got lost biking in Chile’s Atacama desert. I had left a dirt road, rather stupidly, to get a better view of the surrounding volcanoes. Now, with the pink sun setting, I found myself alone, disconnected from everything and everyone I’d ever known. I climbed a dusty hill, and let the remarkable beauty and fear envelope me. The warm desert wind and early evening stars were accompanied by the realization that wherever I am, is where I am supposed to be. I was rescued by a stray Japanese traveller lost on his own bike. When two lost people find each other, neither is lost anymore.
In the decade since, I have visited over 100 countries on six continents. The failures I had initially run from at home rearranged themselves into the jigsaw puzzle of my life –a beautiful wife and daughter, loving friends and family, a successful and meaningful career. I continued to get lost, yet find unexpected peace and wisdom. My personal discoveries of travel needn’t apply to travel at all. We can run from things and search for things at home too.
Travel is change. In fact, you can read this post from the beginning and substitute the word “travel” for “change.” It makes just as much, if not more, sense. Change is no substitute for living. But you seldom feel as alive as when you’re moving forward.
Robin Esrock is the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and co-host of the National Geographic, CityTV and Travel Channel series, Word Travels. His stories have appeared in The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Mental Floss, MSN and Globe & Mail. You can find him at www.robinesrock.com.