“What does travel mean to you?” A question we all get asked from time to time, if we’ve spent some time on the road, living location-independently, as a backpacker, digital nomad, long-term traveler, or whatever you like to call it.
For me, the difficulties in finding an answer to this question begin already when it only comes to defining and delimiting travel: When does is start? When does it end? The longer we are on the road, the blurrier the answers seem to get. May the meaning of long-term travel be related to losing track of how to confine it?
A vacation, a holiday can be clearly delimited: It could be, for example, a fortnight of relaxation in a nice resort. But travel? Isn’t there more to it than just being on the road? More than just spending a couple of days at a pool bar, more than visiting a foreign country or a new city? In a broader sense, travel is something each and everyone of us does, all the time – both as individuals, and as humanity as a whole.
The Voyage of Humanity
If we look at the voyage of humanity, unfortunately we have to go way beyond cozy hotel rooms and elegant restaurants: There is, without doubt, a dark side to travel and human movement, and I am not talking about the traffic jam on your commute. Just think about the horrors of colonisation, slave trade, or forced displacement caused by wars, natural disasters, and poverty.
How did all this begin? With a universe that is itself permenently moving? With our ancestors, starting to walk on two legs about four million years ago? With the outset of long-term travel almost two million years ago, when homo erectus left Africa? Or only with modern human beings who, as far as we can tell, left East Africa only 50.000 to 100.000 years ago, virtually to “conquer the world”?
And how does this travel end, where does it take us? We managed to colonize the whole planet, but what’s next? Are we up for conquering even bigger spheres, like the Moon, Mars, and Goldilocks planets? Or, much to the contrary, will our travel end in the microcosm, leaving even atomic level behind, reaching quark and string levels? Time travel is another fascinating concept, and although we haven’t been able to make it real yet, we might, at some day.
The Colombian Kággaba Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are great travelers. They wander around their marvelous mountains, living on different levels of altitude. From time to time, they collect sea shells at the shores of the Caribbean, only to bring them up to the highest peaks of the Sierra, at more than 5700 metres above sea level. By doing so, they establish a connection between the sea and the mountains: a kind of travel, whose material side is complemented with a spiritual aspect. The spiritual representations of the shells travel in another world, called aluna, unseeable for us mere humans. The Kággaba permanently practice a sort of transcendental travel between our material world and the untouchable, yet for them far more relevant world of aluna.
If we look at travel in a broader sense, we must consider these spiritual voyages, that are usually smiled at by scientists and natural philosophers since the Renaissance: Are we able to transcend time and space to visit God, meet him for a chat? What about telepathy? What about the ungraspable scope of drug-fueled trips into consciousness? And, finally, what about the travels we realize in our dreams? Even if we were tied to bed with a horrible illness, not being able to see, hear, talk, or move us, couldn’t we still be traveling? Our mind, I guess, might be wandering as long as we are alive.
But what if we are neither spiritual voyagers, nor rocket scientists, nor quantum physicists? Delimiting travel can still be tough. For example, I have spent more than two months now in one city, living in the same room. Have I stopped traveling already? And when did I start? When I left Germany almost ten years ago to spend my first year in Colombia? (Was that traveling, or living abroad? Was I an expat?)
Does our voyage start with the sexual intercourse of our parents? Does it start when we leave the womb, or when we move out of our family’s house? Many people will be convinced it ends with death – but only as long as we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell: From a religious perspective, death might only be the start of our more important travels. Or it might lead us to a circle of resurrections, that may be broken one day as we reach Nirvana, the state of mind which “no longer is coming (bhava) and going (vibhava)”, but which “has attained a status in perpetuity“. Travel would probably end here, but would we still be humans, then?
The Meaning of Travel
What does travel mean? After all we’ve seen, travel, in the material world and in the sphere of thought and spirit, seems to be part of the human condition: We are permanently moving from one place to another, if we like it or not. Maybe we travel because of necessity, in search for a better place to live. Maybe because we are forced to. Maybe for adventure, honor, or the pure joy we feel when crossing borders and boundaries that were hold up for centuries, before we decided to accept them no longer.
Even if we were born into the most comfortable life, we still have to move, we still find ourselves traveling: We might be provided with an “all-inclusive package for life” by our parents, yet we don’t know what will happen during our trip, and if it works out as planned: Our plane may crash down, or we might find the love of our lives.
The meaning of travel, then, must lie either in its divine ground or, in an existentialist sense, in the meaning we decide to give it. Our individual travel can be motivated by feelings of isolation and fear, by necessity and longing. At the same time, it can also be motivated by our wish to experience this world and its beauty first hand, to transcend the boundaries perceived by us personally or by the human race as a whole. Whatever it may be, we have to move. And we should consciously decide about it, or we will die in bad faith, without ever realizing our true potential.
Mindset and Meaning
In travel, as in the whole life, there’s no objective value in permanently crossing borders. It doesn’t matter how far we travel, or how many places we visit. What matters is the mindset with which we approach them. Essayist Alain de Botton gives a nice illustration of this: Imagine a hundred people sitting on a plane to Berlin, Bogotá, Bangkok, or almost any place in the world. Half of them might be displeased to reach their destination. They may be coming home from holidays, and they fear the boredom or the unpleasant tasks of their daily lives ahead of them. At the same time, the other half might be thrilled and happy, about to meet some dear friends, or to get to know a new city. Yet all of them are going to the same place! The difference is their attitude towards it.
Once we accept travel as part of the human condition, we may fill it with meaning on our own, no matter where we currently happen to be. In the end, de Botton says, travel is about being receptive, which requires an attitude of humility and overcoming our “rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting”. We can travel spiritually or in our dreams, we can travel to exotic places. But we can also travel in our immediate surroundings: We can visit a new neighborhood, walk a new road, choose a new means of transport. More importantly: We can speak to new people, listen to their thoughts and beliefs, give them a smile, help them if we can.
When on the road, anywhere and everywhere, we should notice, not just look. Smell, not just breathe. Listen, not just hear. We will be able to find interestingness within the known and the unknown, and this is where I suspect we will find real meaning in our voyage. It’s a very personal decision of each and everyone of us how far we want to go, but as long as we are alive, we will always be part of this immense travel community called humanity.
This post is my entry to become the next Flightster travel writer. I decided to think about the deeper meaning of travel on this occasion, and hope you enjoyed the resulting post. Now, for a change, you might be up for some lighter travel writings! Please feel invited to read my post on eating the whole cow, and nine other things I learned in Colombia! :)