Yes, you are awesome.
You are an escapading, adventuring, questing piece of brilliance. Carefree and casual, you walk through the streets of any city, shaking hands with street vendors, high-fiving school children, and bargaining with the closest auto-walla. Today it’s a temple, yesterday it was a palace, and tomorrow it’s a hike – to a temple (in a palace). Before you reach your destination you have the tour book memorized (or are you the type who eschews tour books altogether has already begun to use it as toilet paper?). You are a postcard-scrawling, shade-sprawling, beach-balling traveler, bouncing from souvenir stall to bar crawl. You’ve no challenge in constructing a 140-character epithet that communicates to your internet social life the elusiveness of daylight, the splendor of the moment, the extraordinariness of the experience. Life is good: the world is being seen, changed, experienced.
I love you, transitory traveler, for all that you are: from the sandal-tan on your feet to the local headgear you sport ironically. From the slightly-too-sexy number dangling off your shoulders to the less-than-sexy holes in the crotch of your decaying denims. I love you, but I do not envy you.
When people hear about where I go and what I do, they often exclaim over the amazement of travel – “You must love it!” they encourage. “Tell me some of your craziest stories!”
Confession: I do not love traveling. Here’s why.
On the move and on the prowl
A defining aspect of travel is mobility. This differentiates it from the “real world,” where mutual accountability and reciprocal exchange are vital. The traveler glides along the creamy film of local society in hotel lounges, tourist attractions, and expat bars without ever settling to the bottom of the chai cup. This is unfortunate, for it is only after a good long soak that we can begin to ask informed questions about the inner workings of the local society, and that we can begin to parse out the multiple realities from the answers we receive in return. Yet, this mobility is so much easier. Privilege is left unconfronted, power is left unchallenged: no one demands anything of you beyond an extra 10 rupees videshi daam, and no one expects anything more of you than your devoted consumerism.
Routine is another aspect of the “real world” that must hide its ugly head while the traveler is checked-in to their adventure. Traveling is fueled by the impetus to escape the burdens of ordinary living in turn for the extraordinary that is out there, somewhere, anywhere. We seek the new, the incredible, the invigorating! We seek local authenticity and encounters with the genuine. We seek the natural beauty that will be the background of our Facebook profile picture, the local catchphrase that will be our Facebook status. We seek the oldest, the bravest, the boldest. Put a sign in front of it that says it’s the 1st or 2nd biggest ___ in Asia (biscuit factory, earth dam) and I will pay you 10 rupees entrance fee (true story).
This unmediated drive for the extraordinary, combined with the constant mobility of the traveler, creates an alternative reality in which locals perform the authenticity tourists expect, all for the almighty buck. And yes, this occurs because part of us – perhaps buried deep, perhaps not – believes that we deserve this. Our lives in the real world have earned us an escape. And we get what we pay for: validation in our own earned and deserved right to choose experience over relation.
Yet, I opt for the latter, and invite you to join me.
The worlds of experience and relation
Martin Buber, philosopher and theologian, wrote about different kinds of human interaction in his book I and Thou. One type of interaction is experience-based. According to Buber, when we experience the world, we do not participate in it: there is no reciprocity, no mutual exchange, and the treatment of others is as means to an end. We understand what we see on our own terms, and are not challenged to redefine these perceptions; rather, we focus on fitting new information into our own limited worldview. To me, this is embodied in the activity of traveling, and is why I don’t love it.
The alternative is the world of relation. In the world of relation, we do not act alone: everyone in our periphery participates and co-creates shared realities. In this world, people engage each other without expectation, necessity, or purpose. Rather than seeing one another as lacking (he is just a shopkeeper, she is just a maid, he is just an intern), the only thing lacking is our mutual understanding. We focus on process over outcomes. We leave our personal bottom-line behind and engage in mutual accountability. We leave our comfort zones at home and together enter regions of volatility and grace.
What if traveling fell into the second category? Instead of creating momentous experiences to hold inside of ourselves, we can be motivated to exchange with the world from a place of humility. Rather than choosing destinations based on what extraordinary experiences will be showcased after, we can choose destinations based on what relationships we would like to further, which people we would like to meet, from whom we would like to learn. Rather than following travel adventures that will fit our expectations, we can open ourselves up to be proven completely wrong.
I choose not to glide, not to skate, not to skim. I choose not to expect, not to imagine, not to preconceive. I choose not to vacation idly inside a bubble of self-assurance, when I could instead be on my most vulnerable edge, challenged in how I define the world.
I choose not to trap others within my own definitions and reality, to create the extraordinary as an escape to my ordinary, to seek validation of my own privilege and power.
I choose to decide where, what, when, and how based first on who.
I choose to understand traveling not based on my own enjoyment or mission, but instead based on how I relate to and impact others.
I choose – wholly, mutually, and with no expectation of beginning nor end – to travel through relation, rather than through experience.
And you are invited to join me.