Reflections on Travel
Travelling Well is quite a vague concept. Since travel is such a personal experience, it’s hard to find a fit for all model. Numerous travellers have come up with different theories on what the ideal way of travel is. Some, as Ruskin praised trips in nature and the importance of drawing while travelling. Others, such as Humboldt, believed a traveler should study a variety of domains in order to understand the world. History, Biology, Geology, Chemistry and Physics would be the must know areas of education for the ideal traveller.
One of my favourite interpretation is Allain de Botton’s, who refers to Travelling Well as the Art of Travel. Just like Art takes multiple forms, awakens various feelings and becomes a representation of the artist , so does travelling.
Last year, I’ve written on the importance of reflection on the types of travellers we are. Drawing on the same concept, I think it is equally important to be honest with ourselves in terms of what we want to make out of travel.
Here, I will provide an account of what I consider to be Travelling Well. You, or others might very well disagree with my views and that is perfectly fine and normal. We all travel for different reasons, in different ways, and pursue different goals. However, at times, we get distracted by shallow pursuits and are in danger of forgetting our values that push us to travel. The very act of reflecting on those distractions and honestly admitting their shallow nature allows us to begin Travelling Well.
Travelling More does not mean Travelling Better
When I first started travelling, my dream was to visit all 195 countries of the world. (or 197 if you include Kosovo and Taiwan) I used to love reading about people who had visited all countries in as little as one year. I had hoped I would once do the same, and would eventually put together a photo album of pictures of me standing next to the most famous landmarks of the world: Eiffel Tower, The Great Wall of China, The Statue of Liberty, The Pyramids of Giza etc as a celebration of my achievement.
However, since I’ve started travelling 13 years ago, my perception on what travel means changed dramatically. Gradually, travel became more than just vacations, and objectives more than landmarks. I’ve started seeing in travel not just relaxation, but a way to learn more both about the world and myself.
I’ve never given up on my dream to visit all countries in the world. However, my perception on how I would do it changed. Although I’ve been travelling for the past 13 years, I’ve only truly seen about 5 countries. I did set foot in another 15 or so, but only seen small parts of them.
I often feel guilty when people praise me about having travelled to twenty countries. Because I know that although technically I am not lying, I’ve only scratched the surface in most of them. For example, I can’t cross the Netherlands of my list when I’ve only visited Amsterdam for a weekend. Or Mexico, when I’ve only travelled in the Yucatan region for a week.
The Most Travelled is not the Best Travelled
It seems that nowadays, the trend amongst travellers is collecting as many stamps on their passports in the least amount of time possible. Most of them seem to be reducing countries to names, collected in the form of a social media vanity contest. The winner is not the wisest or most knowledgeable but rather the Most Travelled.
The Most Travelled’s raison d’être is Setting Foot in Them All as fast as possible. Once a country has been ticked off as stepped into, the mission is complete. A shallow mission whose primary focus and direct result is feeding the ego. Rushing to see a place only gives you a superficial understanding of its culture and also potentially the illusion that you can tick it off your travel list.
The Most Travelled mentality is, understandably, part of all of us. We all want to be the best at something, and if possible do it the easiest way. I was definitely guilty of it when I first started travelling. So guilty that I even wanted to tick off Russia since I had a stopover in an airport in Moscow.
By boasting of having visited an X number of countries I felt empowered, worldlier. I thought I was wiser, more interesting and happier the more I exaggerated the places I had seen. So, I would rush to set foot in a country just so I could tick it off my list and then pretend I’ve completely seen it.
However, while I had managed to fool the people around me, there was one who never bought my bullshit: myself. Deep down, I knew I was not completely honest with myself and others and hence I felt a sense of guilt and responsibility.
Thinking Regions, Not Countries
Now, when I think about how much of the world I’ve visited, I think in regions rather than in countries. A free platform I have been using to track my progress is NomadMania, originally The Best Travelled. This platform splits the world into regions, allows you to select the ones you’ve seen and then calculates the percentage of the world you’ve actually seen. I find this a more accurate way of measuring travel, but also a reminder of the long journey ahead.
I would rather spend a few weeks in a country than travel to multiple ones in a short amount of time. Or, if I can’t afford to take a couple of weeks to visit a country, I would rather split my travel into small trips over several months or years.
For example, I really wanted to see Spain but could not afford to take a long time off work to do so. So, in the past 2 years I’ve travelled to Spain about 20 times, every time in a different place. I’ve seen most of its regions and islands, spoken and learned from the locals about culture, languages and politics. And yet, there are still parts I haven’t seen or wish to revisit. Although I think I deserve a break from it temporarily, it’s always going to be a place I will return to.
Understanding Culture and Travelling Well
For me, making the most of travel is understanding and experiencing first hand a different culture. It is only then that I feel fulfilled, happier and wiser as a traveller.
Understanding a different culture goes well beyond observing passively and quickly different customs. It implies actively participating or engaging with the given culture. Asking questions but also looking for multiple answers. Trying out new cuisines instead of trying out new McDonalds. Listening to new music. Dancing on different beat. Learning a different language. Or at least some phrases of a language instead of relying on English for communication. (or on your native language) At the same time, understanding a culture requires time, which can be tricky to manage. If we can’t take our time to experience a culture, lack of time will overwhelm us.
When visiting a place for a short time and find that it offers multiple attractions, many of us try to squeeze in as many things as possible. Ironically, the reason we invoke is making the most of our trip. In fact, making the most of our trip is exactly the opposite.
When we travel at a fast pace, constantly pressured by time, we are limited in genuinely enjoying any of those given attractions. At the same time it also threatens our perception of the places we see. Rushing when travelling only give us a superficial understanding of the places we see. Not only do we get a false idea about our destinations but we also risk completely losing interest in them, especially if we experience unfortunate events in the short time we visit.
Two years ago, I was on set filming for a movie in Nottingham. There, I met a fellow traveller. She told me she had extensively backpacked through Europe but had had a terrible experience while backpacking in Bucharest. Her experience was so bad that she called off her trip and flew back home. She had never gone back to Romania since and did not have plans to do so in the future.
‘Poor girl’ I thought to myself, expecting a horror story. However, all it was was that a taxi driver tried to rip her off and they got in a heated argument. (as he was demanding more money that she had expected) When she finished her story I asked, surprised : ‘Is that it? Really?;’ To which she replied ‘Yes, it was a horrible experience.’ My response was: ‘ Well, I apologise on behalf of all Romanians but would encourage you to visit again, as these things happen to tourists everywhere.’
The Backpacker Mentality
She is the classic example of the unexperienced traveller, the backpacker. Backpackers travel at such a fast pace through so many countries that they don’t have the necessary time to understand the culture of the places they see. As a result, they fail to properly interact with the locals and risk getting into conflicts. Then, if they have a negative experience, they generalise and reduce the whole of the country to one singular dimension. In other words, they become trapped in an illusion they themselves create.
Had she learned more about Eastern Europe, she would have understood that many taxi drivers can set their own tariffs, unlike in the West. Hence, if you are not careful and take a black cab, you can end up paying a lot more. That does not only happen to tourists, but also to locals, when they are not careful. The average backpacker mistakenly assumes and expects that things will function the same way they do back home.
While this is a very shallow perspective, it is perfectly understandable. If I only had one day in a country I’d never visited before, and I got robbed that day, I would definitely associate that country with robbery at least for a short while. While to me this woman’s story sounded ridiculous initially, thinking about it retrospectively, I do understand her. While to me, an argument with a taxi driver over a small fare would not constitute a big thing, for other people, it could constitute a major shock. We each develop emotionally differently and as a result react to certain events in very distinct ways.
Time and emotions
In a more extreme case, one of my friends only visited Shanghai once and has absolutely hated China since. That is because on the first day in Shanghai, the police mistook him for a criminal. As he didn’t speak the language he could not defend himself verbally so the officers physically assaulted him in plain street. He was pepper-sprayed and suffered wounds to his head, face and body. He was then shoved into the back of a police car and imprisoned. In order to get out of prison, he was forced to sign a declaration stating that he was at fault for not cooperating with the Chinese authorities. While I do understand and can empathise with my friend a lot better, the kind of shock he experienced was the same as of the woman I met on the set. (albeit at a different, higher level)
Both of them have generalised, based on their negative experiences, a country they’ve only briefly seen. They did not have enough time to experience a different, positive side of those places as they were constrained by time and overwhelmed by emotions. This in turn, created a psychological barrier preventing them from having any future interest in the two countries or cultures.
Understanding a culture whether before or while travelling can help overcome such negative experiences a lot faster. And also help travellers refrain from developing poorly founded, negative first impressions about countries or cultures. This is a very complex situation since time and strong emotions can be an impediment to fully understanding a culture. (during short trips) Perhaps in this case, learning about a culture before travelling could help prevent such situations or help overcome them easier.
Learn More doing Less while Travelling well
If you find yourself in a situation that does not allow you plenty of time in a place it is best to choose to focus on one particular aspect. If you try to focus on too many things in a short period of time, you will most likely not have the necessary time to do so. Frustration, tiredness will get to you eventually and any small incident will completely ruin your mood and the image of the place you visited.
As travel involves coming out of your comfort zone, you will need time for reflection and adaptation. If you are in a rush, you won’t even have time to think.
Last year, I went to Cuba for a short three-days stay. Some friends advised me to stay in Havana but go to the countryside as well. Others advised me to also visit the beach resorts or the tobacco plantations. Since I only had three days, I found no point in trying to squeeze in too many objectives so I decided to stay in Havana and focus on one single aspect: people.
So, instead of trying to see as many landmarks as possible and set objectives, I set out a very simple plan: to interact with as many locals as possible and through them learn about the Cuban culture. Visiting famous landmarks became secondary and only happened through the primary objective. So I spent most of the time in the streets, parks, and strangers’ homes, talking to the locals. I told my story and listened to theirs. I learned an incredible amount of things about Cuban culture, history and street economics.
Filtering positives through negatives
In my first day I got ripped off and in my last day I got robbed. Had I only had one day in Havana and had these events happened in the same day, I would have probably been inclined to put Havana on my black list. However, because I met so many people and had so many amazing experiences in those 3 days, the two negative experiences did not affect me.
Having met so many honest people prevented me from wrongfully categorising everyone as charlatans. And having learned about the struggles of Cuban society made me understand why some people resort to desperate means.
If you only spend short amounts of times in places and focus on doing many things, the odds are that you will not make any connections. Even if you do, most probably they will be connections on a very shallow level. It takes time to get to know and trust people and when you are constantly on the move it’s almost impossible to create long lasting connections.
Looking back at my travels over the course of 13 years I’ve gained over a thousand extra social media friends. But in reality, I’ve only really made a handful of long-lasting connections. So, in the end I ended up unfriending about 800 Facebook friends since we had absolutely nothing in common except for maybe one drunken night. Other travellers that met me probably did the exact same thing.
On the other hand, if you direct your attention on a specific aspect you want to explore, you will be more likely to find others that share your interest and have them join you. (or vice versa) In this case you get the best of both: you fully understand and enjoy that one aspect and you make a worthwhile connection.(or more) If you choose to focus on several aspects you will inevitably have to divide your attention and time amongst several people. And this will decrease your chances of making purposeful connections.
The Great Travel Expectations
In 2017 I met a German traveller in Bilbao who told me her story in tears. She had initially planned to cycle all the Camino De Santiago from France to Spain but she stopped mid-way through. Whilst she had a good cycling experience in France, when she got to the Spanish side, she had an awful experience and decided to call off the trip.
To my surprise, her story was not what I had expected. There was no major incident or accident involved. She just felt that the Spanish people were quite rude to her and not as friendly as the French. That, in turn, completely ruined her spiritual experience.
In other words, she had great expectations of how how people, strangers would interact with her during her trip. While those expectations were met on the French side, when she crossed over to the Spanish side, they were shattered.
Similarly to the backpacker I mentioned previously, the cyclist obviously had very little travel experience and great expectations. And again, experience is not reflective of the amount of travel done, but rather by the way it was done. However, at the same time, her situation was very understandable. Setting great expectations before venturing in the unknown is bound to be risky in all aspects of life.
I felt the same when I first travelled to Cuba. I had a lot of expectations based on what I had heard from friends or seen in the media. And they were all shattered to pieces.
However, due to my nature and background, it did not affect me as much as it did the cyclist. I quickly got over the initial shock and dropped all expectations. Had she been able to do the same, she could have carried on with her trip.
In this case, the best strategy is probably prevention. If you remove all expectations before your trip, you lessen the chances of inconveniences affecting you and increase the chances of getting over them.
Travel and Social Media
Technology has revolutionised the way we travel and how we share our travel experiences. Gone are the days of post-cards and hand-written letters. E-Postcards aka Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook posts are the most convenient way of sharing travel greetings nowadays. And travel greetings most often come in the form of Selfies.
Nowadays, most popular landmarks are bound to be filled with tourists taking selfies. Camera flashes and different poses reduce the meaning of these landmarks to that of props. Taking a picture for social media has become so mainstream, that as long as something looks different, or aesthetically pleasing, the background of that something becomes irrelevant. Unless of course, it could make a nice picture background.
Everyone wants to be different nowadays, so ‘new’ poses and angles are required for a Travel Instagram Influencer to flourish. However, albeit different the poses of these tourists, they share the same superficial essence. In essence, a Travel Instagram Influencer’s raison d’etre seems not to be travelling, but rather modelling.
Numerous takes to take a selfie, where the centre of attention is the self, always ensuring the outfit and make up are on spot, do not constitute the actions of a traveller, but rather of a model. In this sense, the meaning of travel is reduced to that of simply collecting aesthetically pleasing photos.
In this case, perhaps a balanced mixture of the two, travel and modelling would be ideal. You can always harmlessly flirt with the modelling side when capturing your travel memories. However, you have to be careful as vanity is tempting and can lead you away from the essence of travel. Craving knowledge on different cultures is far more productive than craving attention for likes on social media.
Using Tools Wisely
Although I am critical of the use of social media platforms, I am not advocating boycotting them. These are wonderful tools you can use to enhance your experience, capture it and share it. I frequently use them but at the same time I am aware of their potential adverse effects. I am careful to avoid my whole experience revolving around my tools instead of my trip.
As I am quite picky, taking the perfect picture most often takes quite a bit of time. (to find the right angle, composure, perspective etc) And quite a few takes. Whilst doing this, especially if constrained by time, the main focus become the practice rather than the place. Hence, I risk getting caught in the illusion that I am capturing the beauty of a place, without ever actually feeling it. Ultimately, the resulting photo does not inspire any of the beauty I might have been able to feel, and which I didn’t because I was too busy taking the photo.
What I’ve started doing lately is allocating a specific time of the day (or sometimes a whole day) for photography and restricting my use of devices for the rest of the days. This way I ensure I am not losing the focus of my travel objective. By separating the two (exploring and photography) I can focus a lot better on both and reap better results.
Focusing on the self, not the others
On a recent work trip at a conference in Spain I met an elder Peruvian man. As part of the week program , we had some cultural visits around and away the city. Every time we would see something new, this man was either taking pictures or filming. He was capturing them all: paintings, benches, rocks, stairs, houses, kittens. ‘How is he even enjoying this trip?’ I thought to myself. He did not seem to be genuinely absorbing or learning anything new.
At one point we went for a meal and we asked him to join us. He told us he would not be able to join since he had to take some more pictures. ‘Ah come one, stop wasting your time on your phone’, someone told him. (promise it wasn’t me) ‘No, it’s not a waste of time’ he calmly responded. ‘I am taking these photos and videos for my daughters, who are more excited than I am about this trip.’
When I heard his response, I literally swallowed sadness and shame. Sadness that his daughters could not be with him; shame that I rushed to judge an elder man for taking photos for his daughters and not standing up to my expectations of travelling well.
Some of us travel to better our own lives, others, to better that of others. In this case, as simple as it might sound, he made his daughters happy by sending them photos of a country they might never get to see. Had he afforded to take them on the work trip, he would have definitely, since Spain is the European Dream for many in Latin America.
He sacrificed travel time and personal enjoyment for that of his daughters. But yet again I am wrong. He did not sacrifice anything since the happiness of his daughters seemed to be enough to make him enjoy his trip as much as they did.
Making the most of Travel
What I came to conclude is that we get don’t get better at travelling the more we do it. We get better at travelling the more we reflect on it. Reflecting on the reasons we travel for, the way we travel and the outcomes we expect out of travelling can help us find our best version of making the most of travel.
In my case, I found that reducing travel expectations reduced chances of getting disappointed or affected by negative experiences. This, in turn helps me not rush into judging countries or cultures by first impressions. I’ve realised that it is not the numbers of countries that I see give me the most satisfaction; but rather the extent to which I understand and engage with their cultures. Although I like photography, I’ve learned that focusing too much on it might prevent me from fully enjoying my destinations.
Most importantly, I learned to constantly be honest with myself and not judge the people around me. This is my version of Travelling Well. Hope you find yours too.