I don’t really remember a time I didn’t want to travel. Of course, in retrospect, it’s easy to say that, to make your life seem like one fitting narrative where everything just happens to fall in place, events make sense, and there’s a common thread weaving through the years. But really, travel seems to be one of the few things that was ever present, a passion that has filled me since I can remember.
I’ve been lucky enough to have made this passion into a lifestyle, and there hasn’t been a moment since I’ve moved out of my parents’ house that I wasn’t in some foreign country, on a crazy adventure, or planning the next trip.
It’s the first time in many years that I live back in my country of origin, and ever since I moved back here, travel has lost a bit of its magic for me. Well, actually – a lot of it, but let me explain.
A never-ending adventure
Up until now, travel has been a constant in my life. It has always been a way of discovering foreign cultures and getting new perspectives, at any given moment – since I was living abroad anyway, even daily life turned into a continuous exploration. It was an adventure that never seemed to end.
I love immersing myself in the language, customs, and daily life of people in a different part of the world. I find happiness in trying to learn at least basic vocabulary to be able to converse with the grandmother on the Kyrgyz streets, selling wool socks, the taxi driver in Honduras who is curious to find out where, if we’re not “gringas”, we come from, or the little girl in Romania who asks me what the rest of Europe looks like. I travel to observe and to learn, I travel to grow, and I travel to understand the world, its people, and myself better.
Now that my life happens primarily within my own culture and country, and that my trips are confined to short(-ish) periods of time, the discovery has gone away. Instead, I feel like I’m buying something, consuming yet another product. So this is it, the thing I really hate about travel: its inevitable, almost inherent commercialization, which leaves traveling devoid of deeper meaning.
The tiniest of glimpses
It takes longer than a week of holidays to get to know the nuances of a foreign country. Hey, it even takes longer than a week of holidays to only get to know the nuances of a foreign city! My romantic notion of traveling always being about (self-)discovery and deep immersion in a foreign culture was shattered as soon as I got back from my first trip, post-moving-back-home.
Call me naive, but I was devastated. Everything I used to love about travel dissolved into nothingness, and I was left with glimpses – a meaningless week in some sunny country, sipping on a cocktail by the pool, collecting pictures that would go very well on a happy-go-lucky, run-of-the-mill Instagram account (you know, giant sunhats, leading the BF to some exotic place while holding his hand, and lots of sunsets. The usual).
For sale: Personal Fulfilment
I started to feel like I was constantly bombarded with shallow offers to buy the next best trip, to an even sunnier country, a more exciting place, or a more unique region. Instagram feeds full of your standard travel pictures screamed at me, Facebook posts demanded I travel to as many places as possible, and ads tried their best to promise a deeply emotional and inspiring Eat, Pray, Love experience while selling their services.
I couldn’t help but feel though that all these things weren’t showing anything of the travel experience I really love. Instead, I realized I’m a consumer and all the ads are appealing to my inner need for happiness, for personal fulfilment. Not even any of the trips I took were giving me what I really wanted – they were simply too short to really dive into a different culture.
A gear in the machinery
As a travel blogger and journalist, I’m very obviously part of this myself, just a little gear in a giant machinery trying to sell the dream. I don’t want to give up advocating for travel – but only the kind of travel that makes you leave your comfort zone, where you go out and learn something new, the kind that makes you scared senseless at times while it pushes you over your boundaries, the kind of travel that will make you feel mad and excited and exhilarated and out of your depths all at once.
I do believe that even the shortest amount of time traveling can make a difference, make you learn something, grow, and become a better person. But even so, I’m grappling with the fact that short trips will never do justice to the kind of travel that gives you the opportunity to really experience a foreign culture for an extended period of time. I can’t stand the idea that often, traveling is just a different way of buying into a capitalist, unbalanced system that favors the rich and disregards the poor. A system that wants us to buy more and more things we don’t really need, thinking we’ll somehow find happiness in the midst of this obsessive consumerism.
I don’t need a cocktail on a beach and turquoise pools of water. What I really need is a culture shock that makes me reevaluate my lifestyle, the society I grew up in, our collective behavior towards others and the environment – and much more. Who can sell me this product?
And yes, I’m aware: it’s a #firstworldproblem. I’m incredibly thankful for the privilege to have lived in different countries for many years, learning new languages and trying to get to know local customs and mannerisms. I’m also thankful to be able to come back to my home country, to choose to live here again, and to know it’s a safe haven for me to return to whenever I need it.
To put it bluntly: I’m yet another white girl from a rich country, whining about how unfair this world is. But maybe you are too, or maybe all my whining has made you reconsider some of your travel choices to be more sustainable or lead to a deeper learning experience than your standard short escape.
What do you think? Is travel often just another product we buy? Are the environmental and social costs justified? I’m honestly very curious to find out what you think. There’s something to be said for either side – and I’m lost somewhere in between. Let me know in the comments how you feel!
Photos via unsplash