Why We Travel

The ride from Santo Domingo started off fine enough, but eventually the 90-degree heat and humidity, diesel fumes, and constant throttling and bouncing started to grate on me. At the 3-hour mark, my head was splitting and I was relieved when we pulled into the bus station in the town of Chone. I was there in the peak of the rainy season so the whole place was basically a seething malaria pit. There was standing water several feet deep everywhere and a layer of mud caked on surfaces where the water had receded.

I asked the driver’s assistant, again, if Bahia would be next. He wasn’t sure. Ask the driver. I found the driver and posed the same question. No, he said, Puertoviejo first, then back up the coast to Bahia. 5 hours. This was not the response I wanted to hear.

This was in Ecuador, a few years ago. I was doing some recon work for Sustainable Summer, a non-profit organization I founded to teach high school students about environmental sustainability. However, it could have been an excerpt from any number of similar bus rides I’ve taken on four different continents, from the jungles of Guatemala to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

Why endure the unpleasantness of “local” transport? As a “western” traveler, why not shell out for private coach transport and convenience of an organized tour group or an internal flight? For that matter, why do we travel at all?

Calling a friend in China is free with Skype. Any place on the planet unfolds before our eyes in Google Maps. With a few keystrokes, pictures, video, and stories of fascinating places half way around the world can be piped across the digital ether to my computer screen. Furthermore, I live in New York City, where the world’s cultures intermingle seamlessly in cuisine, art, and ideas. Why get on a plane to Ecuador when I can eat Ecuadorian food in Brooklyn, see Ecuadorian art at the Met, and attend a lecture on Ecuador at NYU.

The easy answer is: to experience Ecuador. Attending a lecture on the Amazon rainforest can never capture the magnificence of such a place in the same way as actually being there.

But that’s too easy.

There’s no doubt in my mind that “experiences” yield far greater happiness than possessions, and there’s ample research to back that idea up, but playing a pickup game of basketball is a rewarding experience, as is any number of activities ranging from volunteering at a homeless shelter to skiing in Vermont to going to a concert. So why is it necessary to get on a plane in pursuit of “experiences?”

The renowned travel writer, Paul Theroux, provides some reasons: “We travel for pleasure, for a door-slamming sense of ‘I’m outta here,’ for a change of air, for edification, for the big vulgar boast of being distant, for the possibility of being transformed, for the voyeuristic romance of gawping at the exotic.”

Travel is about personal enrichment. Destinations can awe and inspire, make us rethink our priorities, and cultivate a sense of perspective about how big the world is, how small we are, and yet how interconnected.

But travel is about a lot more than the destination. As Homer said, “The journey is the thing.” In other words, it is its own reward. Of course, during Homer’s time, travel just about anywhere required hardship that is simply unknown today. Even one hundred years ago, traveling to Ecuador from the US would have required several weeks, most likely as a passenger on a steamship plying the Pacific with Ecuador’s agricultural exports, cacao and bananas mostly. Today it is a 6-hour flight from New York.

The “shrinking” of geography in the era of modern transport has been, for most people, an economic and cultural boon, but it has also made it easy to miss out on the simple joy of deliberate and challenging movement towards an end goal. Getting there is half the experience.

I’ve found independent travel to be a great way to embrace this philosophy and get the most out of traveling. Some of my most rewarding trips have even been done with no real itinerary and no advance accommodation booking. Using local transport is hard, but rewarding. Similarly, choosing a backpacker’s hostel or family-run bed and breakfast over a four-star international hotel chain may mean some comfort sacrifices, but it also usually leads to some new friends or an inside local tip. Of course, this type of travel is popular with the college-age, backpacking, hostel-hopping crowd in Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America, but it is an option for all travelers.

In fact, one well-established study abroad program for high school students, Where There Be Dragons, specializes in what they call “rugged travel.” Student participants travel on local transport and live in rustic accommodations in pursuit of “honest understanding” and “authentic” travel experiences. I think it’s an admirable approach.

An additional consideration for getting the most out of a trip is what could be described as travel with purpose. Spending more time in fewer places provides more opportunities to understand a place and get to know its people. Taking a class, volunteering, and WWOOFING are great options for  visiting a new place, but so too is any activity that has purpose beyond the mere act of just being there and “sight-seeing.” If you need to use your mind or your hands or your legs in new and unfamiliar ways, that’s a pretty good sign. If there’s a chance that something might not go quite as planned, even better. It’s the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist.

That’s the approach that I’ve taken with Sustainable Summer, which is a summer abroad program that teaches high school students about environmental sustainability. We’re running programs in Ecuador in which students study concepts such as organic farming and sustainable development while also exploring a foreign culture. The programs feature expert-led workshops on specific environmental issues and a structured academic curriculum that is designed to use the communities and environments we visit as an integral part of the learning experience.

Our itinerary takes us outside the scope of most tourist itineraries to Ecuador and we view travel through an educational lens. I think it’s a great reason to get on a plane.  Learn how you can join us this summer at sustainablesummer.org.

Jeff Sharpe Image
Self-Portrait, Vrsic Pass, Slovenia