Why Travel is Important - A Short Essay on Travelling
Before I started travelling, I was a different person – of that, there is no question.
My focus was narrower, and my worries and concerns were more confined to that which was in front of me. The minutiae of my life in Toronto seemed larger than life, and I think that’s largely because I couldn’t conceivably attain a macro perspective of the world without the realization that what I had been operating with was a micro perspective.
Sure, the most recent garbage strike is important, and the comments made from a councillor in Ward 34 do matter, but in the face of crises around the world –well, they don’t.
I firmly and unequivocally believe that perhaps the most important gift of all that we develop with travel is that of empathy. For that reason, I don’t think of travel as leisure, or something we do with the extra time we have, but rather travelling as part of education itself.
We can only learn to put local problems in perspective if we understand and empathize with international problems.
I’m not suggesting that it’s only through travel that you can develop empathy, I’m only suggesting that, at least for me, I feel different pangs in my heart when reading about the struggles of a nation that I have been fortunate enough to visit.
I stopped thinking of countries and cities around the world as “anonymous” places that didn’t effect me. The world just became smaller.
All of a sudden, I wondered how my friend in Sudan was dealing with the impending civil war, or that one restaurant owner would fare with the growing resentment towards immigrants in Oslo, or how that tour guide might be handling the steep decline in tourism in Turkey.
Travel forced me to care.
Today, I’m taking a moment to dissect what I feel is the value of travelling in today’s world, and I’m doing that through the medium of this short essay on travelling.
Before I Get Into the Importance of Travelling, I Want to Acknowledge A Few Things
It doesn’t seem right for me to break into the importance of travel without a few qualifiers.
Firstly, I want to recognize that I’m fortunate to have been born into a supportive, middle class family in Toronto, and one which valued education, and always had a full fridge. While not all travel is expensive by any means, I was able to travel a fair bit in my youth, and the fact that my family was financially able to prioritize travel is something I don’t take for granted.
This little essay on travel is not meant to suggest that somebody who currently is just trying to put food on the table needs to travel to find meaning in their life. That would be absurd.
All I’m suggesting is that I find some semblance of enlightenment and humility through my travels and feel that those who have the opportunity to travel should, with no judgment on those who currently aren’t in a position to travel.
Travel is a privilege, let us put that firmly on the table.
I also want to acknowledge the footprint that travel has on the environment. Especially with the recent climate strike, climate change and climate action is at the forefront of my mind.
If you follow @travelingmitch on Twitter, you’ll know that I’m something of a climate activist, and I try to use my medium to promote awareness about these aforementioned issues.
However, I’m writing this article on a plane right now, and planes are horrific for the environment. I now prioritize trains and environmentally friendly buses wherever I can, but sadly I cannot take a bus back from Prague, which is where I just was.
I’m looking for a solution to this, and I appreciate Rick Steves’ carbon neutral initiative, but at the very least I want to acknowledge that while travel is important, nothing is more important than the health of our planet. Travel is only great, my friends, if we still have places to travel to.
However, I believe that travel is important in establishing a deep love and reverence for the planet which can persuade people to take these issues more seriously.
Living in a place like Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua, albeit briefly, showed me what can happen when an economy is based on fishing, but the government is on the hunt for oil and other resources, and has no regard for who lives and dies as long as the coffers of the bank are full, and pockets are padded.
Similarly, my time working in small villages in northern India, and in communities in Ecuador’s Amazon reminded me of much the same. It is indeed safe to say that I’ve learned lessons in all 80 countries that I’ve visited in terms of the environment.
In sum, travel with an understanding that it may not be your country, but this is our world.
Let’s Talk About Why Travel is Important and the Value of Travelling
Below, I’m going to talk about the importance of travelling by using some of my favourite travel quotes, and taking them apart.
I’ve always been a fan of quotes, and the written word in general which is illustrated by other content on my site such as “Ancient Travel Quotes Worth Remembering,” and “The 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes.”
I’ll be honest – I love writing itineraries about the places I’ve visited to enable you to see more, but sometimes I need to take a moment to reflect, and share on a deeper level what I feel I’ve learned throughout my travels.
I’m proud of the work that I do on a regular basis, but it’s a disservice to both you and myself for me not to take the necessary time to examine and think more deeply about why I continue to feel the need to explore – about why travel still matters to me, and should to you.
1. “A ship in harbor is safe – But that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd
Now, this isn’t a quote that I use to illustrate the importance of travel to make people who are anxious or worried about travel feel bad.
It’s actually quite the contrary.
Before I took my first trip on my own (to Ireland in 2006), I had all sorts of trepidation and hesitation. I sat in my room in Toronto and I imagined every single worst-case scenario that could happen and lived it out. I was worried that I’d be laughed at for ordering something wrong, or that I’d be “found out” as inexperienced traveller who knew nothing. I was worried I’d be permanently disoriented and I’d only find comfort in the confines of my bed.
Do you know how powerful it is when precisely none of your concerns come to fruition?
The people of Ireland welcomed 16 year old me with open arms (and cold beers, I might add), and that trip was when I solidified my love of Irish authors and recognized the value of storytelling in my life.
Yes, it would have been easier to stay home, and I would have saved myself some of the anxiety, but anxiety lingers if it isn’t satisfied or answered. If I had never gone to Ireland, I’d still have that worry and fear about travel in my heart.
The second trip gets easier, and the third and so on.
I’ve travelled to 80 countries now, and I still get that touch of anxiety, but I’ve come to realize that it’s almost impossible to separate the feelings of anticipation from anxiety, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling the butterflies of excitement and anticipation.
I’ve also come to realize over years that sometimes the best stories precisely from the situations that don’t go to plan. Everything doesn’t need to go perfectly for it to be perfect.
It would be easier to never leave the town or city you were born in, but life isn’t about finding the easiest path, it’s about finding the meaningful path.
2. “The journey not the arrival matters.” - T.S. Eliot
We’re taught from youth that it’s all about the payoff.
It’s not the writing of the report that matters, but the grade at the end. It’s not the playing of the sports that matters, but the medal around your neck. It’s not the quenching of knowledge that matters at college or university, but the lonely piece of paper you hang on your wall shortly thereafter.
In today’s age, it’s tempting to do this with travel as well. People plan trips that are 8 days long and go to 7 capitals around Europe. There is now a whole industry around finding Instagrammable places.
For some, it’s all about checking off boxes which indicate they’ve been somewhere, without thinking about whether they’ve actually seen anything.
Real travel in important because it reminds you of one thing – that’s all bullshit.
I still remember the conversation I had with Jozsef, a Hungarian man in his 80s that I met on a plane to Budapest in 2010. He told me about life behind the Iron Curtain, and his escape across the border in the late 60s, which eventually led him to resettle in Pittsburgh. We left the airport and he refused to let me take a cab. His son dropped me off right at the steps of my hostel.
I never saw him again, but I still think of him.
It’s easy to think of life in terms of segments. We think of our life after our next promotion, after we buy a house, or after we have our first child.
What about right now?
What travel taught me is that all we have is the present. All we have is this moment.
So, when I walk to a “must see sight” in a foreign city, I don’t think of the time that it takes me to get there as any less valuable as the time I’ll spend when I’m there. In the end, it’s all the same.
That side-street in Barcelona might not get the same amount of likes as La Sagrada Familia if you posted it, but some things are just for you.
Before and after every post on my Instagram feed, I’m in the present, and I firmly believe that’s why I’m able to dive deep into what makes a place tick.
If you only pay attention to the major sights and major cities, you’re reading the summary, but we’re all capable of reading the whole book.
3. “The more I see, the less I know” – John Lennon
Before I started travelling, I thought I knew a lot about the world, but, quite frankly, I didn’t.
How could I properly understand Canada without visiting the United Kingdom? How could I properly understand North America without visiting Mexico, and the United States? How could I possibly understand the world and my place in it without seeing it?
What I’ve always adored about travel is that when I get on a plane, I usually have a list of questions or queries that I’ll look to answer.
I might, for example, want to know more about French cuisine and how the baguette became so popular. Well, once I get there, and I start to investigate a question like that, I’m quickly going to be led to the sociological side of things when I notice how the French share baguettes, and how there’s a very communal and social approach to their cuisine in general.
I may also recognize the French insistence on eating locally and sourcing fresh ingredients, which would lead me to the environmental and the ecological side of things.
What I’m getting at is that is that my initial questions are predicated on a small base of knowledge on what I know prior to departure, and asking those questions leads to further questions while I’m in the destination, and all those answers position my better to understand the nation at large.
I tend to treat every single person I meet as a witness in my hunt to solve the case of , “what’s this country all about?”
Locals, I’ve found, appreciate this, as they understand that while many tourists are comfortable riding on the shallow waves, you’re keen to throw on your diving gear.
So why is that important?
Well, it’s taught me to be humble in accepting that I don’t know all the answers yet, but that I ought to try. And that’s where this whole notion of travelling as part of education comes into play.
Travel is constant reminder that I can always learn more, and that the process of learning is not something that ever ends. I arrive, see the ball of yarn, and begin to unravel it, and happily accept that the ball of yarn will only grow, and, like a curious kitten, I’ll never tire of playing with it.
4. “Collect Moments Not Things.” - Karen Salmansohn
In our daily lives, we often let the days roll past with alarming indifference.
The summer becomes autumn, and autumn becomes fall, and each season brings the same level of surprise. We say things out loud like, “I just can’t believe it’s fall already,” myself very much included.
However, when I hear myself say that out loud, I always take a moment to do what I call “a scan of the season.” I think back to all the special moments that I’ve had during those few months. Perhaps not surprisingly, very few of those moments occurred on an average day in my office.
When we’re travelling, Bri and I are a lot more inclined to go out for a special dinner, or to attend a show or concert. Travel, in a sense, gives you an excuse to be the person you might wish showed up a little more frequently in your daily life.
I’ve got nothing but respect for people who face the grind in their city and work day in and day out to do the best at their job. No matter what your job is, if you’re holding down steady work, there is honour in that, period.
But, if your goals with your job are to buy the newest TV when your old TV was just fine, or to buy a fancy sports car to prove to the world that your happy when you might not be, I’d encourage you to remember that you cannot be buried with any of these things.
I don’t want to get morbid, but the facts are the facts.
And I wonder, at the end of my days, will I be upset that I prioritized travel instead of the mansion? I don’t think so.
I may not have a bulging wallet, or the finest suede shoes, but my memories from travel make me feel like the richest person on the planet. Someone can steal my new bike, or try to repossess my home, but nobody – nobody – can take my memories.
5. “A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step” – Lao Tzu
What’s the old expression?
I think it’s something like, “the best time to start was ten years ago, the second best time is now”?
It’s easy to think that you could have had the perfect trip to Portugal in your 20s, but my parents just went in their 60s (apologies in advance for revealing your age, Mom and Dad), and I’m quite sure they didn’t arrive and say, “If only we were here 40 years ago!”
In fact, they rented a car and cruised around the countryside forming their own special journey, their way.
Some travel writers like to make you feel like you couldn’t learn what they “know” if you travelled every day for the rest of your life. Do yourself a favour, and unfollow them in every facet of your life.
My goal in life is to empower not to alienate, and that means letting you know that what I can do and have done, you can too.
There’s a deep satisfaction in throwing caution to the wind and taking the trip you’ve always dreamed of. When my best friend passed away nearly ten years ago now, I learned that we don’t know what time we have left, so sure as hell better live life on our own terms.
As with all these lessons, this quote is a metaphor for life and living as well. It’s never too late to start what you’ve always wanted to do, and it’s never too late to go to the places you’ve always dreamed of.
Even if you don’t have kids, go to Disney World and wear those damn ears in your 70s.
I’ll tell you a secret – nobody cares about your life as much as you.
In all likelihood, people will see you and smile, and then you’ll melt away from their memories. But you, you’ll have those memories forever, and you can even hang the ears up on your wall after.
Go ahead, take the first step in the direction you’ve always felt just a touch of wind at your back – wind that you’ve ignored, but won’t any longer.
My Final Thoughts on the Importance of Travel
If you’ve read this, you might deduce that to me travel is closely intertwined with not letting life pass you by. If you’re looking for a thesis or summation of this short essay on travelling, then that might be it.
But it’s more, too.
Travel isn’t important to me because I can say I’ve been to a certain amount of places. Travel is important to me because it provides a zest to my life that I can’t get elsewhere.
I learn new languages, and try new foods. I sleep in houses with ceilings I don’t recognize, and sometimes don’t sleep at all just to catch a glimpse of the sun right as it decides it’s high time for everyone to get up. I take leaps of faith without quite caring if I’ll fall, and I climb mountains and understand that the moment atop of the summit isn’t as important as the sum of the climb and descent.
Travel is important to me because it’s a constant reminder that in the grand scheme of things, I’m only here for what amounts to the blink of an eye. And I, for one, intend to spend this all to brief moment with my eyes wide open.
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