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In Defense of Travel

Written from Bali, Indonesia

The late 20’s walkabout is common enough to be a cliche. Does that mean it’s wrong? I don’t think so. Unless I totally screw off, travel changes my perception of the world. It makes me grow. I’m five months into a long term trip and here’s what I’ve learned and why I think it’s worth it.

Hanoi, Vietnam.

What I’ve learned

On the road, every minor errand becomes an expedition and every errand finished is something to be proud of. Eating a good meal, finding place to sleep, and navigating across a city are difficult. These minor challenges and achievements make travel interesting.

The little things that go wrong or right are what I remember. The more I remember the longer and more rewarding the journey feels. Experiencing another country by just being there teaches me volumes.

When traveling I see things that disturb me. Some of the things that disturb me would disturb anyone: sick children, homeless people, disfigured people, and poverty. Some things that disturb me make me wonder if my morals are universal — do they apply to the whole world — or are they relative and apply only to my own culture?

I’ve noticed that American manners and morals are sometimes in line, sometimes opposed, and sometimes a pretzel shape when laid across another culture. It’s possible to do two things, both acceptable in the United States, and have one please a local and the other deeply offend them.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

While traveling I’ve become more aware of gender roles and social class. I see how women are treated, how men are treated, how different races are treated, and how I’m treated differently and held in higher esteem only for being white and comparatively rich. I’ve felt strange when I get better seats on airplanes only because I’m white, when someone asks me for money only because I’m white, and when I see local models on billboard selected or edited to look more white — with bigger eyes and paler skin than average — so that products will sell more quickly.

Locals photographing us in Jakarta, Indonesia.

I spend time wondering basic questions. I wonder if women in burkas would wear them if given the choice. I wonder if locals would struggle with obesity if the country had become prosperous without an influx of western food brands. I’m shocked and saddened to see everyone on the street open their wallet to give money to a blind beggar, and I see it again and again, and wonder how America became cold enough that this is such a strange sight to me. I wonder if the United States would have more transgender people if we accepted it as openly as Thailand.

I’ve become aware of how distorted reality can be from an American perspective. When I see Chinese military propaganda in Beijing I felt uncomfortable. It forces me to think about American military propaganda in the United States and how it would feel to a foreigner.

Beijing, China.

I’ve felt gluttonous asking for a second entree when my $1 meal wasn’t enough food to fill me. I’ve felt rich when someone is happy to rip me off by charging me an extra 20 cents on a taxi fare.

On the road my internal clock has slowed down. I no longer expect punctuality. Getting stuck in traffic in San Francisco used to drive me mad, now taking a 4 hour bus to go 70 miles Indonesia isn’t frustrating — it’s just a good way to save a few dollars. My standard of living has gone down: a cheap room and a good cup of coffee keeps me happy now. Being cold, wet, or hungry for hours on end isn’t as devastating as it sounds. Not having the exact right clothes or gear for the weather isn’t the end of the world. My brain learns to distract itself and focus on what’s going well. I’ve learned to sleep almost anywhere.

These lessons are why I think travel is worth it. More than learning about the cultures I visit travel has taught me about myself. I’ve learned what I can tolerate and what I can’t. Most hotel rooms are fine, fans do fine for me instead of air conditioning, but anywhere that I’m constantly asked for money or hustled to buy things is somewhere I’ll leave as soon as I can. I generally get by fine anywhere that has convenience stores, cold water, and reasonably fast internet. I quickly get uncomfortable when I perceive locals as hostile and rude, and even though I question my interpretation of the culture I find that my own mood turns sour and rude in places like Beijing, so I get out as soon as I can.

I’ve learned that my standard of living changes rapidly. Just like it shot up when I started working at a successful tech company, it went right back down when I hit the road on a tight budget1. When I do go home, whenever that is, I’ll be much more aware of how my happiness stays mostly constant no matter how much I spend — and how my lifestyle affects my happiness far more than creature comforts.

What you’ll learn

You’ll find your own lessons on the road, but you’ll also find difficulty explaining them to people who are still at home. This is because most of the lessons are intuitive, they have to be seen directly with the eyes and felt directly in the same space — they don’t transmit well. It’s hard to show someone with pictures and writing just exactly how you feel denying money to the tenth begging child of the day. These vague, breathless, and poorly defined lessons from travel have made me want to avoid trips in the past. If someone can’t explain something I don’t generally see the value — but there’s a reason that almost everyone who hits the road likes it. It’s because the lessons, however hard to retransmit, change your mind.

Qingdao, China.

How I Travel

How should you travel? I think that the idea of traveling “authentically” is bullshit. Few people can even agree on what traveling authentically means. Does it mean living in local hotels, hostels, home stays, or renting apartments? Does it mean learning the language? Eating only local food? Doing all of that can be exhausting and may not be for you. Everyone will find what they enjoy, and what’s right for them, on their own. I’ll tell you how I travel and maybe you’ll enjoy the same thing.

How do I travel? I try to live as close to how a local would live when they are on vacation. I keep a comfortable distance from resorts and western restaurants but I also try to live like locals live today, not like they lived 50 years ago. I think that there is no need to chase the ghosts of a country’s cultural past. Being somewhere, watching how life works, and trying some new foods and experiences makes my trip worth it.

Street food in Bangkok, Thailand and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I mix it up between cheap local hotels, nice local hotels, and hostels as my energy levels fluctuate. If I’m exhausted and homesick there’s no reason not to spend one night in a nice relaxing hotel and then hop back into budget accommodation the next day. In the same way, the longer I’ve travelled the more comfortable I’ve felt ducking into Starbucks or McDonalds when I want a reasonably cheap and predictable coffee or hamburger. I’ve also felt more comfortable trying local food, getting food poisoning for the second time in a week, and taking a day to relax and recover.

I also mix my travel up between common tourist destinations and smaller, less travelled cities. Visiting one city in a country teaches some general lessons about a country, but think about a foreigner who only visits New York, Houston, Omaha, or Seattle: they’ll come away with vastly different lessons about American culture. Most of the world is so safe and well mapped out now that just hopping on a local bus and stopping in an area that looks nice from the road is a fine way to find an interesting experience. I budget money for mistakes and strikeouts — like when I got stuck in Mumbai and could only find a $70 hotel at three-thirty in the morning — but generally a random new city is a nice experience that’s worth it.

Go do it

That’s my defense of travel. If you think travel is only for the rich, the self indulgent, or the spiritually lost I hope you’ll reconsider your opinion. Seeing the world has been one of the best things I’ve done.

I like this life. I like arriving in a new city with expectations and biases and seeing if they’re true or false. I like seeing how people are remarkably similar across countries, how we laugh at the same mimed jokes and make the same faces, and then I like seeing how we can be so different in how we treat each other. I like using photography to catch people in the moments when they’re on autopilot, when they’re not thinking about a camera or how they look, and just seeing how people naturally act.

At this point I’d be comfortable enough to go home, but there’s more to see. I enjoy this lifestyle and sharing it enough to stay on the road for the foreseeable future.

Beijing, China.

  1. About $40/day, $50/day total when I factor in insurance. [return]