How to Travel for Self and Community Improvement

How to Travel for Self and Community Improvement
Photo by Thought Catalog / Unsplash

I couldn’t kill a baby. At least, that’s what you tell yourself six hours into your red-eye flight, one of which you spend waiting for the plane to take off and level out so you can recline your chair the 5 degrees that do little to keep your head from bobbing around until it gets stuck in neck-contorting paralysis. The aches between your shoulder blades don’t compare to whatever this sadistic excuse for a seat is doing to your bum and tailbone, but somehow you enter some stage of sleep. Or maybe you’re in business class, and you’ve managed to fall asleep already. Either way, the baby two rows ahead of you starts crying for thirty minutes straight. Then, just as you think it’s over, the baby—which you now refer to as ‘it’ — starts up again, this time ripping at your soul and inducing a migraine. You start to question your morals and what you’re capable of.

Somebody needs to kill this baby. Or at least it put it in the cargo department. But you’re not a bad person, and you would never act on those thoughts. Then the person behind kicks at your chair, and before a thought even enters your mind, you swing back, mouth open to yell, but then you see the most attractive person you’ve ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, this isn’t a love story, so you say nothing and watch movies on a shitty twelve-inch screen and use headphones that do very little to block out the thoughts of homesickness and constant humming and droning of the plane. Or maybe it is amor, and you chat it up and decide to meet for dinner later. Either way, you gotta keep moving.

The first train from the airport is on time, but the second one has a 30-min delay, not enough time to explore the area. Plus, the site isn't fit for someone too jet-lagged to pay attention to pickpocketers. So you sit your culo on the metal bench as you try and fail to ignore the sweaty clothes stuck to your body. Or maybe you decide to get a taxi or even an Uber Lux, but now you’re stuck in traffic for two hours because there was an accident on the road. A cyclist took a wrong turn, causing a driver to swerve out of the way and hit a tourist bus that took out five pedestrians as it rolled and killed 20 more people trying to get to where they wanted to go.

So why travel?

To answer that question, I spoke with Dr. Matthew Niblett and Dr. Kristine Beuret. Matthew is the director of the Independent Transport Commission, Britain’s foremost independent transport and land use think tank. Kristine Beuret is a social scientist specialised in transport and urban policy, and she’s the Director of Social Research Associates. Together, they started and wrote the book Why Travel?

The book brings together leading experts across the sciences, arts and humanities to examine the social, physical, psychological and cultural reasons we travel and how these can be reconciled with challenges such as reducing our carbon footprint, adapting new mobility technologies, and improving the quality of our journeys.

Niblett and Beuret don’t tell us how everyone should travel (they even remain objective and unbiased when discussing sex travel), but they give us plenty of information to consider the type of traveller we want to be. The biological, sociological, psychological, economical — pretty much all the ‘-cals’ — perspectives in the book inspired how I approach my Without Borders Travel Series.

The type of travel often promoted by influencers and YouTubers is for those wanting the quickest ways to fulfil a two-week holiday and their Instagram-influenced bucket list within a certain budget. I get it; in a world where many of us aren’t satisfied with our jobs and need an escape, it’s easy to get sucked into what’s cheap, easy, and sexy, but this type of travel has little to do with connecting to other people, cultures, and the mystical experiences we can only try to explain through art.

To best create these experiences, we need to slow travel and deep travel — two terms that define my travel series, but didn’t use until I read the book. Before, I categorized travel into two distinct groups, resort & cruise ship travel vs. real travel. I hate resorts, cruises and everything they stand for. Does this mean I hate cruise-taking, resort-going tourists? I thought so, but it turns out my partner would love to go on a cruise. She’ll never get me to go on one, but thanks to deep travel, I’m happy to befriend people with different opinions — even ones as insidious as thinking resorts and cruises aren’t that bad. And before you say, “Resorts and cruises employ a—” save your breath. Stuffing your gullet with all-you-can-eat buffets, throwing away your left-overs cause it was “included anyway,” cranking up the air-conditioning, and lounging away at the pool is nothing compared to spending your money at the local restaurants, small hotels or B&Bs, and getting to know the people from the country you’re in.

Fortunately, Niblett and Beuret are more evenhanded when pointing out why people enjoy these holidays and their effects on the environment and local people. They explore all types of travel, whether flying across the Atlantic to find love, going on a pilgrimage to get closer to God, escaping political prosecution, or catching the 96 on your way to work. But what the book clarified for me goes beyond the financial, romantic, sexual, religious, and security-seeking reasons for travel. Why Travel helps us to understand what makes us human.

In the biological chapter by Charles Pasternak, we review that around 60 000 years ago, homo sapiens left Africa and spread the globe from there. And even when we started settling down around 10 000 years ago, we kept travelling. Why?

Curiosity. Many animals are curious, and by stating travel is, in part, driven by curiosity and that travel makes us human, I’m not saying this to separate us from other animals. If anything, separating ourselves from animals and nature makes us less human. That said, our bipedalism, large brains, dextrous hands, and speech help to explain our ability to travel to more places than any other animal on earth.

We are designed to be curious travellers. It all started with our ability to stand up straight, scan the horizons, and seek more food, shelter, people, and information. According to Biederman and Vessel, only hunger urges, harm avoidance and the need to find a mate distract us from this information-craving. We love to learn, even though our flawed educational systems sometimes make us forget that. We need to remember our curiosity aids our learning. For instance, in the biological chapter, we learn when taking a new track to travel out of curiosity, our brain simultaneously remembers the details of that route better than if we had taken it out of necessity or by command.

Our curiosity and need to travel don’t only help us remember how to get places but play a role in all parts of our intellectuality. In one study, researchers found participants asked to solve a problem they are told originates from a faraway place give more creative solutions to the problem than those participants who believe the problem is local in origin. Another experiment by Madden and Galinsky shows that people who had spent time living outside their own countries were less fixed in their thinking and more able to accept and recombine novel ideas, as evidenced by the fact that they were more likely to solve the Duncker candle problem given only a box of thumbtacks and a candle and told to fix the candle to a wall (you need to divine that the tack box can be used as a shelf). From the research by Marian C. Diamond, we also learn that being placed in an enriched environment can aid brain cell growth.

It is no accident that many companies, from Google to Goldman Sachs, from Kraft to Colgate, were founded by immigrants. People born outside the US are more than twice as likely as Americans to start a business there. It’s not only our minds and bank accounts that benefit from travel, but our bodies.

A portion of the book describes the benefits of travel when getting to a location through physical exercise. Endorphins released when exercising are our natural “opioids” and ways of getting “high” without the risks involved when taking drugs. But I doubt I need to get into all the details of why exercising and moving are healthy. I’m not here to convince you to exercise, but convince those who already love to exercise to slow travel.

Slow and deep travel is all about taking the time to connect to the people and culture without rushing to get to your destination. Regarding physical health benefits, not rushing can mean walking, biking, sailing — in other words, using your muscles to get you around. It always surprises me that environmentalists/tree huggers/rainforest buddies/perroflautas, or whatever you want to call us, have a reputation for being soft. It takes a whole lot more grit to get to where you need to go sustainably than unsustainably. First off, we shouldn’t stereotype people, but since stereotypes aren’t going anywhere, it should be the people lacking the mental and physical toughness to bike to work when it’s raining, don’t like the train because it’s uncomfortable, and can’t plan ahead of time to take public transport who have a reputation for being “soft.”

Rhetoric issues aside, thanks to Why Travel and my interview with Niblett and Beuret, I understand that entirely cutting out air travel and cars is unrealistic. If everyone who takes planes were suddenly to take trains, the railroad systems couldn’t handle the demand. And there are situations and places when a vehicle is your only option. If everyone could take the train, bus, bike, etc., instead of planes and cars, we’d have a healthier population and environment. But of course, sometimes you need to take a plane to explore faraway destinations, and taking the occasional flight doesn’t stop you from benefiting from slow and deep travel. Some of my deep travel experiences are thanks to float planes and trucks bringing me secluded, natural wonders where I can spend days camping and getting in touch with nature.

You can slow down and keep an eye on your carbon footprint once you get to the place you want to be. And once there, don’t be a dick who hops from hotspot to hotspot to be all like, “Look where I’ve been” on Instagram. Slow the hell down and put your ego to the side. As travel writer Pico Iyer has said, “Deep travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty.” He also said, “In an age of acceleration, going at human speed suddenly begins to look like sanity and freedom.” And he’s right. When I’m researching the ‘top 10 ____,’ searching for affordable flights that work around my schedule, getting patted down at security, dealing with customs, and stuck in some generic, over-priced restaurant in an airport, I don’t feel free — and I feel more at home in airports than most people. I feel free when biking through different cities, hiking through various landscapes, and meandering through a city I have yet to discover.

Slow travel goes beyond the environmental, economic, and health benefits. It even goes beyond the words of Mark Twain when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness… Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Slow travel not only increases empathy and understanding of other people, but opens you up to whatever connects us; whether you want to call it God or the universe, travel connects us to what we can only hope to explain through art.

“Wander where there is no path,” tells the Zhuangzi: since the goal of life is losing one’s desires and joining with the flow of the universe, which is always in flux, a state of indefinite and infinite travel is almost a utopian end in itself. For me, this is what I strive for when I travel — even though not striving often gets me there. For others, it might be connecting to God and others within their community. According to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the UN World Tourism Organisation, about 200 million pilgrimage journeys are made annually (perhaps considerably more). But whether or not you’re religious, humans want to connect to something greater than themselves. Whether that is shown through artistic or philosophical movements, travel is always at the forefront.

In Why Travel, we learn how travel has influenced our metaphors and art. We tell each other not to “rock the boat” in a difficult situation, that we’re “at a crossroads” when we need to “choose which path to take.” Other examples mentioned in Why Travel include the French “Y aller par quatre chemins” (to get there by four paths), which means avoiding the core of the subject in a discussion, and in Russian “галопом по Европе” (galloping across Europe) means to do something hastily.

You’ll also find countless examples of how travel influences art and fashion, whether it be the orientalist turn in European art or The Shan Shui artistic school depicting meandering pathways and rivers. After you read the book, you’ll notice the influence of travel in art all around you, but none so much as in literature. After all, writing is a journey in itself.

Think about some of the most famous books, poems, and stories of all time: Odyssey, Canterbury Tales, Divine Comedy, key journeys from The Bible — three-quarters of Shakespeare’s plays were set in foreign lands, from Denmark to Spain to Syria and of course Italy. Later we have stories like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Dracula, and kid’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are, Alice and Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. And even though leisure travel dates at least as far back as the 4th century BCE, with Hellenic writers listing the Seven Wonder of the World as “must see” (literally themata “things to be seen”), none of these books support quick “must see” travel, but rather human journeys — and yes, some of them like Dracula and Where the Wild Things Are are rather racist or at least imperialist. Still, we can gain that understanding thanks to travelling back in time through literature.

The best things in life take time, whether that’s reading and understanding a book like Ulysses (or so I’ve been told. I still haven’t managed), having good sex (or so I’ve been— just joking), cooking a delicious feast, creating solid relationships, or travelling. Slow and deep travel have shaped the person I am today. I was born in Santiago, Chile, took my first steps in Antwerp, Belgium and grew up in British Columbia, Canada. I was born without borders. That means I’m a third-culture kid (a person raised in a different culture than their parents or country of nationality and lived in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years). Even though third-culture kids are prone to identity crises, struggle to find belonging, confuse loyalties and values, and have a painful awareness of reality, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. How I was raised expanded my worldview, increased my cross-cultural competence, and, most importantly, helped me emphasize with people who have different worldviews than me. The effects of third-culture kids are something I hope to explore with Dr. Matthew Niblett and Dr. Kristine Beuret if they write a new edition, but for now, I hope to use my identity as a world citizen to break down borders. And one way I plan to do that is by slowing down as I explore our world.

I'd also love to know your thoughts on how we can increase the popularity of slow travel.

In our conversation, Matthew brought up the experiment by the SNCF to see if we should separate train carriages into different ambiances (like work, play, social, etc.) instead of the classist system we have now. Do you think this is a feasible idea?

What are some of your best slow travel experiences?

What kinds of policies can government bodies introduce to increase slow travel?

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