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.
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.
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.
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…