Killian Conyngham reflects on the ‘why’ of travel, and some of the ethical considerations that come with it.
The pandemic continues. As does it’s accompanying travel restrictions, both legal and ethical. And as I daydream of far horizons and future trips I can’t help but wonder, what is it about travel that has me yearning for its return?
While there are many things to look forward to, and outside of human contact in general, travel always seems to be the one my mind fixates on. And it seems worthwhile exploring why that is. Why is it that I have continued to write, read and obsess about something I can’t do at the moment, and haven’t been able to for most of the last year? What is the strange force that has me feeling stuck when I stay somewhere too long, prodding me to take the leap and get myself somewhere unfamiliar? And, more generally, what is travel, and why do we do it in the first place?
Travel as a definition
I suppose I should clarify what I am talking about in the first place when I say travel. Because you can travel to work, you can travel to college, you can travel for business, and you can travel for necessity, but none of these things are what I am talking about. What I am talking about is travel for its own sake. Moving for the sake of being far away, rather than getting somewhere.
It also seems important to detail my personal, and somewhat arbitrary, distinction between travel and going on holiday. Because while going on holiday certainly involves travel, they are not synonymous. Travel is an activity, a verb, something you do which puts distance both metaphorically and physically between you and what you are used to. So while most holidays usually do involve travel in some form, it’s entirely possible to spend a holiday eating the same food, staying somewhere familiar and avoiding interactions with the locals or their culture, and return to find you have done very little travel at all. By my own narrow definition of the word at least. This is balanced by the fact that you don’t have to go far to travel. As many who embraced the staycation last summer experienced, there is plenty of travel to be done without going too far at all. In fact, even short day trips and outings can contain every bit of what makes travel unique, if the right mindset is employed.
Travel as Leisure
Starting at its most basic, travel is a form of leisure. We travel because it is an enjoyable activity. As a friend of mine noted, when asked why he had spent the vast majority of the 4 years preceding the pandemic on the move: “maybe it’s just because it’s fun”.
And I think that's important to acknowledge. Part of what makes travel enticing is simply reckless hedonism. And regardless of whatever other benefits it might bring, sometimes that really is the crux of it. Even when we go out of our way to get out of our comfort zone, when we push ourselves through discomfort or challenges, or try to make our journeys about something greater than ourselves, it would be dishonest to treat travel as a selfless endeavour.
Leaving our consideration of travel there, however, also seems unwise. Because if it exists purely for thrills, we could arrive at the conclusion that travel is inconsequential. That the world would be no different if it were to be substituted out for another form of leisure. And so if it were to emerge that there were some serious negative consequences associated with travel (spoiler alert: there are), we should probably give up on it, leaving it to rot with other abandoned pastimes, such as croquet and duelling. But, to me at least, this doesn’t seem quite right either.
Travel as escapism
This to me seems like the perfect place to start when understanding how travel can become idolised. As a kid, I was lucky enough to be brought to faraway places by my equally travel-obsessed parents, and I can distinctly remember the sensation of feeling like I was on a different planet. Not just because my surroundings were different, but because it felt like all the worries and concerns from my life were so far away. There was a purity of mind, a singleness of goal: to enjoy myself.
Years later and there is still something about travel that evokes this feeling. Holidays or time off spent at home can leave me with a sense of guilt that I am not doing enough. Surely the time I am spending watching Netflix would serve me better finally learning to sew, or sorting out my old notes or finally fixing that problem with my bike or whatever else is on my mental to-do list. When I am travelling, this all disappears. I get to wake up every morning with a sense that my only real obligation is to live that day to the fullest, and exactly how I decide to interpret that today is up to me. And even when there is something that needs doing, some task that the internet makes impossible to outrun, I have found myself far more capable of just sitting down and getting it done when travelling. The calm derived from distance seemingly gives me the strength to turn toward and face whatever it is head-on, free from the usual cloud of panic and guilt.
Sometimes the escape can be more literal too. There is a city in the south-west of Poland, which in my memories appears as a sort of limbo. A place I spent my days alone, wandering mostly, enjoying the pierogi from the local market and taking what was, in retrospect, some much needed time to recover. During my time there I saw some sights and got to know the three other guests in the hostel meant for almost 100. But more than anything, what that trip gave me was some mental clarity, some detachment and some rest, which were all much needed. And so now, when times are hard and things seem insurmountable, I can’t shake the feeling that a pertinent response would be to get myself far away. I like to imagine this isn’t just an exercise in avoidance, but a way to give myself the distance and time to reflect. So that I find myself ready to get back in the ring when I return.
Travel as a romantic ideal
It is often very tempting to romanticise travel. Not just as an escape, but as a journey. From Around the World in 80 days to Into the Wild, popular culture has had a hangup on the fanciful notion of the tourist as an idealistic adventurer for a very long time. A brief glimpse at any travel-related tag on social media will make this abundantly clear. There seems to be nothing quite as inviting for a foray into poetry or prose than a photo of someone in a different country.
And I speak with no detachment from this phenomenon. It seems as if, returning from a stint abroad, I have barely even downloaded the photos off my camera before my fingers begin to write about how the experience has changed my perspective or something as equally trite. It is worth considering to what extent this tendency comes from a desire to communicate how we truly feel changed, and to what extent it is just a post hoc attempt at justifying an experience - an attempt at rationalising the travel already undertaken, giving it a greater meaning or goal beyond personal enjoyment.
Even still, it is hard for me to speak on travel without mentioning lofty sentiments of freedom and self-discovery and the like. I think back to the summer after my first year in college when my childhood home’s floorboards were being torn up, and I was looking forward to 6 months of crashing on couches, staying in hostels, camping in fields and eventually settling down for the college semester on a pull out bed in a living room. I remember walking away from my house literally jumping for joy, with the same cliched phrase repeating over and over again in my head, to the point where I found myself repeating it under my breath; “I am finally exactly where I needed to be: on the road”. It didn’t matter that I still had a week left in work, or that I wouldn’t be leaving Dublin for even longer than that, what mattered was that I had everything I needed on my back, and that I had no idea how or where I would be spending the next 3 months. I felt free, I felt myself, and in that moment it did not matter to me hugely whether that feeling was a cultural hangup or some fundamental human yearning for exploration.
I found myself repeating it under my breath; “I am finally exactly where I needed to be: on the road."
Travel as growth
Thoroughly interconnected with the romantic notions ascribed to travel is the more specific idea that travel can be a journey of self-discovery or something similar. It can be an idea that is easy to deride, the stereotype of someone coming from a year abroad telling you how “it just completely changed me, man” coming to mind. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t think travel has changed me, has given me huge amounts of self-confidence and belief, and has helped me realise what I truly enjoy. There is something about travel, especially solo travel, that is just very conducive to such introspection. Maybe it is the constant need to put yourself out there and strike up conversations with strangers, the near infinite possibilities to throw yourself out of your comfort zone, or just the vague sense of being lost and out of your depth. Whatever it is, it seems to be quite common, and however stereotypical, one of the main reasons given when I pryingly enquire why people I have met have opted to spend a portion of their time on this planet on the move. It’s not just anecdotal evidence either, psychological studies have linked travel to increased trust, creativity and open-mindedness.
Travel as a Privilege
Deeming travel a privilege is essentially undeniable. Not only does it usually require money, but more succinctly it requires time, and freedom from important burdens that may hold many in place. According to the World Bank, countries reported 1.442 billion tourist arrivals in 2018. As individuals can be counted twice in this metric, we can be fairly certain that the vast majority of people on this planet are excluded from travelling, whether by choice, or, more likely for most people, economic circumstance.
Travel is also a privilege in a more unassuming way. Even with financial barriers aside, the whole world can’t travel. In fact, not even a significant proportion of the world can travel. Not the way we currently travel anyway. According to research published in Nature Climate Change, tourism accounted for approximately 8% of global carbon emissions in 2018. Combining this with the fact that tourists tend to consume more water, produce more litter and often damage the sites they visit, it would be an ecological catastrophe if a significant proportion of the world picked up travel as a hobby.
As an activity that comes at the exclusion of billions, travel joins many other pastimes common to high-income nations. For travel, this seems especially bitter, as it is often portrayed as bringing us closer to the far reaches of our world. Of course, there is nothing fundamentally keeping travel from ever being better in this regard, and many movements are striving to do just that. But I find it is nonetheless a difficult square to circle when the activity that gives us the opportunity to meet the diverse inhabitants of our planet is reserved for a select few.
Travel as a way of meeting people
I think ultimately, that is what travel is for me. As the past year has taught me more than anything else, I absolutely cherish meeting people. For the first time, for the second time, or for the thousandth time, whichever it is, it’s an experience I value very highly. And when I travel, it’s my favourite thing to do by far. Of course, sometimes the people I am meeting are dead, and it’s called history, and other times they are amalgamated into an amorphous culture which shines through in the food, art, architecture and way of life. But often, it really just is meeting people that I am talking about. It’s getting chatting to your taxi driver who laughs at you for assuming there would be a bus from the regional airport of Wroc?aw at 2am, and proudly blares his personal techno mixtape as you coast into the night, having run out of mutually intelligible words. It’s the elderly Hungarian couple who happily point your way to one of Budapest’s secret tea houses after you almost walked into their apartment trying to find it, and wave at you as you show some friends the way a week later. It’s the locals; the bar staff and hostel workers, bus drivers and tour guides, who, if you are lucky enough, might just have a spare second for a conversion or a friendly greeting. It’s all the people with wildly different life stories and circumstances, with whom you can find common ground and human connection.
It’s getting chatting to your taxi driver who laughs at you for assuming there would be a bus from the regional airport of Wroc?aw at 2am, and proudly blares his personal techno mixtape as you coast into the night
Travel as an idea
Obviously, this exploration is far from exhaustive. There are many other things that draw people to travel I have missed, and many that it wouldn’t make sense to include. Individual reasons, temporary reasons, and reasons that can’t fully be explained. There is many a motivation for setting off, and no list will ever properly encompass them all.
It is still important to take stock, still worthwhile to consider the why of travel, and to do so repeatedly as it changes or as you forget. Partly as motivation, and a way to guide the type of trips you take. But mostly because, in knowing why you do something, you also gain meaningful insight into when it no longer makes sense. So when international pandemics, or personal circumstances, or moral considerations, or whatever else it may be tell you it’s not the time to travel, you can treat those things not as a nefarious imposition, but as pragmatic indicators that tell you now just isn’t the time. Understanding that travel at the expense of the very reasons for doing so would be counterintuitive at best. And remembering that when the time comes and it once again makes sense, you can drop everything and head back out into the world. Safe in the knowledge that, if questioned, internally or externally, you have at least one or two decent reasons as to why. And that you can say with some confidence:
That’s why I travel.