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“Make your vacation your vocation”

Published 2007-02-18
This is one of my favorite essays

Lonely Planet I realized on this trip that I don’t particularly care for travel. For me this is a big admission, although in retrospect it’s kind of obvious. I didn’t travel out of the U.S. until I was 24, when I visited Karl who was living in Belgium at the time. So: it took having my closest relative move to probably one of the easiest foreign travel destinations to get me out of the country. This is not the lifestyle of an incurable traveller. Realizing I don’t like travel kind of deflates an image I’ve long had of myself (and that I want to project), of being an adventurous, worldly person. I’m not really that person. I’m more Sam than Frodo. (In fact, given my preferences, I’m a pretty Hobbitty person all around.)

OTOH I lived out of a bag for almost two years after college. In 1994 — my best travel year — I slept in 22 different towns, averaging a new bed every 16.5 days. (Sidebar: since 1992 I have kept a list of every place I ever slept. I backdated it as far as my memory would allow, to about 1980 (age 8). As of today, I have slept in 182 towns in 14 countries.) Granted, all of those beds were in the western U.S., but I acquired good travel habits. You know: pack light, eat anything, sleep/crap/shower anywhere, be unparticular about hygiene, wait patiently for buses/trains/airplanes/hitched rides. So maybe it’s just that I hate foreign places, hrm? Oh no, wait, I live in China (which seasoned expats tell me is not an easy place to live) and it turns out, yeah I actually like foreign places pretty well.

What I realized in Bali is that I hate the hassle of travel. I hate changing money, haggling, ordering vegetarian, stomping around town looking for a room, securing lifts to the next town. In fact, I my ire with travel hassle begins the moment we start the conversation of “where are we taking our next vacation?” If it were up to me, we’d spend every vacation in someplace we’ve already been, because then half the work is already done.

Boat Eyes My most-dreaded moment on any trip is the one right after we’ve cleared customs, and now we’re in a strange airport and have to figure out where to sleep and how to get there. So for the sake of avoiding the first 30 to 60 minutes in a foreign country, I would avoid travel altogether.

The other aspect of travel that rubs me wrong — and this is kind of abstract — is that I’m still unclear on what it’s supposed to be doing for me. I’m pretty sure that whatever impressions I gleaned from six days in Bali are bound to be just that: impressions. I have no depth or experience with Balinese culture, geography, economy, langauge or anything else. (This is not entirely true. You can’t study Anthropology for six years without reading a lot about Bali, because a lot of theoretical work was pioneered by work with Balinese people. But I ain’t talking about book-learnin’ here, I’m talking about life-learnin’) By definition, I’m experiencing the things that foreign tourists experience. So I’m not really learning very much about the place itself.

We can rule out the travel-as-relaxation explanation straight away. Travel, to me, is about the least relaxing experience imaginable. Over the last decade I had constructed, in Oregon, the most relaxing lifestyle I could imagine, in the place I most wanted to be. Every day was literally filled with my favorite activities; reading, riding my bike, walking the dog, working, sleeping, drinking beer with friends. In Ubud we saw a sign that read “make your vacation your vocation,” which is pretty much what I had in Oregon. Every so often, for want of a change of scenery, we could visit Jenny’s mom in Bend, or take a long weekend in the San Juans. So if travel’s main goal is to let me relax or show me a pretty scene, it seems to me the problem is that my life is insufficiently fulfilling or my home is insufficiently worth living in. No amount of jetting to other locations will fix those problems.

Ozone Cafe in Padangbai The other reason usually advanced for travel is basically self-improvement. Through travel I’m learning something about myself. Well on one level this is obvious: I’m learning that I have issues with travel, which seems kind of tautological. But after living a few months with highly seasonsed expats I can say pretty unequivocally that travel doesn’t provide much in the way of personal improvement outside the travel environment. Well-travelled Americans are, in fact, some of the most American Americans I have ever met. I don’t think it’s much improving me on those fronts either. Last night we had dinner with a Mexican friend who’s been living in Xiamen for four or five years, and we fell to discoursing about Chinese culture and habits. I literally had to stop myself talking at one point because I was surprised at the probably racist stuff coming out of my mouth.

Travel does provide a certain level of introspective distance, in that it provides a context for comparison: “Bali is like/unlike other places in _______ regard.” But see my point re: impressions, above. Can six days provide a valid platform for such comparisons? We’ve been in China six months and I feel like I’m learning it backwards. So the problem is: travel only works if you spend a lot of time in a place.

Household doorway Perhaps longer exposure to a place provides a better substrate. Except that, when I observe long-term travelers (and most expats), I realize that they tend to cluster together more strongly, which produces the effect of creating a separate culture-within-a-culture, what I like to think of as the export version of International EuroAmerican culture. Case in point: our favorite places in Ubud were the coffee shop across the road from our hotel, and a vegetarian-friendly restaurant-slash-grocery. They were almost completely geography-neutral. They could have been hippie-light eco-friendly businesses in Hilo or Berlin or (most especially) Portland Oregon. They even smelled like New Seasons. The main difference is that the people serving you aren’t your neighbors, they are brown people speaking a foreign language. Which led me to wonder: do I travel because it reinforces a kind of colonial mentality, an imperialist fantasy? After all, one of the main barometers of a place’s travelworthiness is “how much stuff you can get for a dollar,” which is just another way of expressing how steep the economic gradient is between myself and the brown people serving me. There are places where this gradient is reversed: Paris, or New York, for example. I have no qualms at all about travel in such places, and harbor no illusions that travel there will deepen my soul or any other such stuff.

All of which kind of sidesteps the question: is a thing worth doing just because, in the process, I learn something about myself? I’m sure I’d learn an awful lot about myself by murdering a stranger, too, but I don’t think I’ll try it just to find out.

Abike Of course, this discussion is pretty much about a particular mode of travel, which is usually called “independent travel” or “backpacking.” I haven’t touched other kinds of travel with which I have little or no experience, such as sea cruises, RVing, luxury resort stays, or five-star urban jetsetting, which are all either out of my price range or really unappealing. For that matter I’m excluding road trips — which I’ve done so many of that I scarcely consider it “travel” — or what is lately coming to be called “adventure travel,” e.g. kayaking, bicycle touring, around-the-globe sailing, etc. Based solely on a single bike tour down the Oregon coast, I’d say that this last kind of travel might provide the best “experience” in terms of the stuff I’m talking about above. It takes you off the main tourist paths, and moves so slowly that you can’t help but live closer to local culture. And you certainly learn a lot about your own abilities when you’re forced to provide your own propulsion. So maybe this is the big lesson here: travel is worthwhile (and fulfilling) only to the extent that it requires time and effort. And did we provide much of that by zooming off to Bali for six days?

So why do I bother? Am I just gathering “experiences” and passport stamps? At what point do I have enough of those? These are genuine questions, people. If you have some insight here, please help.