Why do I do it?

As I sit here in the departure lounge at Melbourne airport quietly downing a beer and contemplating yet another international flight, it seems like a good time to ponder the question that ultimately occurs to every long term traveller.

Why do I do it?

Why have I spent the last 12+ years in an endless procession of new cities, languages, homes, jobs and friends?  When the people that I went to school with all seem to be buying houses, having kids and financing their next SUV, why am I not?

Why is it that my friends and colleagues are busy planning for their retirement while I’m busy planning for another round the world trip?  What has driven me to live my life like this so far, and what drives me to keep doing it?

When I first travelled as an adult, the answer was pretty simple.  I was 22 years old, with a freshly minted university degree, enough money for a plane ticket and a few weeks of food and board, and an insatiable desire to see what lay beyond the borders of a small country at the bottom of the world.  Making that decision was easy – in fact, I don’t even remember making a decision at all.  Heading to Europe was just something that I was going to do.

If I was going to pin the awakenings of my nascent wanderlust down to a single event, it’d probably be the classical history class that I took at high school.  The subject matter was fascinating enough, but the passion that the wonderful – if somewhat eccentric – teacher had for the places that we were talking about is what sticks with me to this day.  From the Forum in Rome to the pyramids of Egypt and beyond, it all seemed rather exotic and incredible to a teenager growing up in a little town in the South Island of New Zealand.

Thanks, Dr Jim…

Fast forward a couple of years, and after following a fairly traditional OE (overseas experience) itinerary of working in London and travelling to various Western European destinations, it was time to try something a bit different – spending six weeks in Eastern Africa over the millennium. Wow.  What a wake up call that was.

That trip pushed my boundaries more than any other before or since – the landscape, the wildlife but above all, the people.  It was my first exposure to real poverty, and accordingly also my first realisation that material wealth is not a pre-requisite for happiness and that those with the least are often more generous than those with the most.

Maasai house

While I’d be the last person to glorify being dirt poor, when people living in single room huts made of mud and cow shit in Malawi happily invite strangers back for dinner while obscenely rich London bankers push past homeless people on the street without a sideways glance it has a tendency to make you examine your own priorities in life.

After leaving London I’ve spent the last several years living in Sydney, Melbourne and Christchurch, with an apparent inability to settle in one place for more than two or three years and an overwhelming need to regularly check out new parts of the world for a few days, weeks or months at a time.  One thing that I have noticed lately is that my trips have become much more about experiences than they were before – spending longer in each place and getting to know the local people (however superficially) rather than rushing from cathedral to castle to museum and back again.

Whether this is a natural progression after one has done a bit of travel, I don’t know, but it certainly seems significantly more rewarding at this point in my life.  I’ve met some incredible people over the years, some of whom were little more than a brief encounter while others have remained firm friends ever since.  When I’m lying on my deathbed thinking back over my life, I strongly suspect that meeting those folk will be what I remember with the most fondness, much more so than visiting the Colosseum or wandering round the Louvre.

I have been asked a few times whether the amount of travel I do is really just a refusal to grow up, or if I’m running away from something.  Although I’ve usually answered in the negative in the past, on reflection I suspect the answer is really much more of a qualified yes, and that both questions are essentially the same.  I have been running away – from the materialistic, self absorbed lifestyle that seems all pervasive in Australia and throughout the Western world.

crowded room

While I’ll happily admit to enjoying living in a nice apartment and having enough money for a few drinks or a nice meal here and there, material things don’t define me and I’ll happily give them up if it means I can go somewhere exciting, do something interesting and meet new and fascinating people.

As far as growing up goes, again I suspect it’s a matter of definition.  If ‘growing up’ is another way of saying ‘get a sensible job, buy a house, fill it with stuff and spend the next 40 years paying it off’ then frankly I’ve got no interest in doing so.  There’s plenty of time to be old and boring when I’m old and boring – until then, I’ll happily keep doing what I’m doing.

Being single helps me to make that kind of grand statement, of course, but I’m ever hopeful that whoever I do end up with has at least a somewhat similar set of priorities in life.  If not, then I guess there’s going to be a bit of negotiation along the way…

I’ll make no claims that this sort of nomadic lifestyle is for everyone – we all have different priorities and perspectives on life, and what is vital to me undoubtedly barely registers for many others. By the same token, I’m not particularly bothered whether my apparently unusual lifestyle fits into anybody else’s vision of what a thirty-something guy should be doing with his time on this planet.

All that I know is that I’ll keep travelling, meeting new people and experiencing new destinations, until the day where it no longer continues to amaze, enlighten and excite me.  Until that time comes (if it ever does), I guess I’ll be seeing you out there somewhere on the road…

[Maasi house image via gbaku, crowded room image via meghantosh]

11 Responses to “Why do I do it?

  • I like your attitude, Dave. Keep doing what makes you happy and don’t worry about what other people think about it.

  • Hey Dave, I came across your post on TBEX, and honestly, I was just going to stumble your post like I do most others in our SU group. After reading it, however, I felt the need to comment. It is truly an inspiring post. As a 21 year old college junior with no future plans, I battle with myself everyday about what I’m going to do when I graduate. I’d love to travel for the rest of my life, but it seems the general trend is to either go to grad school or get a desk job (neither of which is a bad option, just not my preference). So many students are concerned with making money right off the bat when they graduate, I think they tend to miss out on the true experiences life has to offer. This post was not only a great read but also real motivation for people like me who sometimes get sidetracked from dreams of travel by materialistic desires.

  • Thanks Gray – I do try to live my life that way … it seems to work, at least most of the time. 😉

    Nate – first, thanks for stopping by, and especially for your comments. All I can say is: keep hold of those dreams, as it’s so easy for them to disappear under the barrage of sensible-ness that seems to start surrounding you as you go through life! You’ll never have a better time to travel then when you’ve just graduated – young, carefree and most likely unencumbered by too much life stuff. The experiences that you will have while travelling for any length of time are far more important than a sensible job or a few more dollars in the bank, and any employer worth their salt should realise that. Have a blast!

  • Dave – you are so right about Dr Jim. No matter how nutty we thought that he was at the time, he sure has inspired me to see things, go places and be inspired by people. So heres to Dr Jim!!!!

  • Years ago, while travelling through Southeast Asia, we discovered that we were reinvigorated by travel through countries like Laos and Cambodia—compared with neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, countries which were relatively, in the western sense of the word, ‘underdeveloped’. We arrived at the belief that our joy of travelling through these countries was derived in part because a significant portion of the population had lived, or was now living, through underdevelopment. We were attracted to these areas precisely because the memory of hardship and deprivation was still so fresh. It seemed there was almost an ideological resistance to rampant consumerism—whether real or imagined.

    In a few words, that’s why we travel! We believe that long-term travel is a way of surrendering to the unknown and embracing the world on its terms.

  • Hi Daniel, thanks for commenting. 🙂

    I think you’re very right, and summed it up perfectly – embracing the world on its terms, rather than trying to project your own world view onto everyone and everything that you come across. Well said.

    It’s looking like I may be spending a few months in Laos and Cambodia (amongst other parts of SE Asia) later this year, so I’ll be interested to see how it compares to Vietnam – which I loved in 2008, but I could see that consumerism and more Western ideals were slowly starting to take hold there, especially in Saigon.

  • Couldn’t agree more! I just wrote a post on how travel can actually save you money at home. Basically I found many of the things you found. Travel opens up this world of minimalism. I would also much rather have another travel experience than some shiny new gadget. I may see you out there on the road. We seem to embrace the same travel philosophy!

  • Hey Suzy – thanks for commenting 🙂 Would be great to catch up somewhere out there – meeting like minded travellers is always awesome!

  • Well said captain! There’s always time to be boring! I’ve come home to have a few books and art supplies, some haggard clothing and not much more to call my own. Fortunately my parents are gone for months this time of year to a warmer destination and I can ‘house sit’ for them. So I do have a roof to save money so I can run off again. 🙂

  • I love the studio it reminds me of mine but alot cleaner. Seriously I love the post travel does make you appreciate the simplier things in life and takes your focus off of keeping up with the jones’s

  • Hey Dave, top post, interesting and inspirational. Totally agree about the materialistic possessions. Keep the necessary, sell or give away the unnecessary, and keep to a minimalistic lifestyle. It makes us appreciate the smaller, finer things in life.

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