Travel is soul-nourishing, mind-bending, breath-taking and sometimes uncomfortable. We travel because we want to explore, push boundaries and understand this diverse planet. And in turn as we unlock earth’s mysteries we discover little parts of ourselves.
We don’t travel to seek a fake reality, or a home away from home. We travel to learn, to see the world from a 360 degree perspective, to break free from our bubble.
We travel because we are privileged. We come from a society that allows us to travel and an economy that allows us to earn. We therefore owe the world, we deserve to get a little bit uncomfortable.
War is a reality of travel, it’s something that’s impacted societies all over the globe, through living memory and beyond. War shapes the culture, the economy, the health, environment and the infrastructure. So to ignore the wars that have taken place in the countries you travel, is to ignore a huge part of what makes that country tick.
We all learnt about wars. We trawled through history books, watched the movies and listened to our grandparents tales. The more recent wars we’ve watched play out on TV, the internet and sadly our younger relatives and friends have been the storytellers. Some of us have experienced it first hand.
We learn about the wars relevant to us, our home country and we learn the version our governments want us to learn. Some dig deeper, try and understand the bigger picture, follow alternative global news sites and first hand accounts via individuals on social media.
Travelling through Vietnam, the war is still oh so present. The war we’ve seen glamourised in American movie after movie. The Vietnamese reality is shocking to the core. Yes, there will be alternative biases when we travel, but don’t we owe each country an opportunity to share their version of events?
There are war reminders, like scars that run deep, in nearly every country you’ll ever go to. Visit the war memorials, the museums and speak to the locals about their country’s history. Be open to their version of events. Travel is a great leveller and actually seeing the impact these atrocities have had will change you.
‘Oh I couldn’t travel to the places you’ve been to. All the poor people would make me too sad.’
We will all have varying definitions of poverty. Let’s say poverty is being unable to feed yourself and your family. Not having access to clean water to drink, wash and cook with. Limited sanitation, little healthcare, no employment. No stable home, or structure to call home.
We won the global postcode lottery. We didn’t earn the right to be born into relative wealth, you, like I landed here through pure chance.
So what should we do? Spend our lives avoiding poverty? Yes, it’s uncomfortable coming from a privileged background and facing real poverty head on. But, being uncomfortable is what makes us grow, learn and then ultimately want to readdress the balance.
People are happy to show off their lives, open their homes and invite us in as guests. They’re aware it fascinates outsiders, just as our lives fascinate them. There is no right or wrong way of living and we all could learn so much from each other. Yes I believe the world’s resources need to be rebalanced. But I also believe that we, western society, lost its community spirit along the way to wealth.
We live our lives so detached from purpose, we’re often just cogs in the corporate machine, not seeing the end products of our daily graft. We lost our faith and we lost our desire to support our neighbours. Our society which has so much, lost its way. We’re plagued with disillusionment, mental health issues and fatigue. We kill ourselves with addictions and we kill ourselves with boredom and frustration.
It’s obviously not all rosy, living in poverty, far from it but there are lessons we can learn. Life is about survival, not about wants and desires. I’m not saying we should all live like this, I’m saying no human should have to live like this.
Let’s meet in the middle somewhere and live more compassionate, fulfilling lives, whilst supporting those who need a leg up in life. That could be you or I, struggling to feed our families and having to make awful survival choices. When we travel there are so many opportunities to support communities. Stay in a homestay (a local’s home), buy from local businesses and use local tour guides.
Go, spend some time in developing countries. Learn from the communities, let them teach you that our lives really are simple. Through adversity bonds are formed. Then dig deep inside your soul and work out what you can do to support your fellow humans.
We travel to dive out of our comfort zones, to thrill-seek and explore our own boundaries. If we want to experience sex tourism then it’s easy to seek out. The Ping-Pong shows, in Thailand, lure many in – the acts performed are legendary and probably have to be seen to be believed.
When I started travelling I was naive. Yes, there was a faint notion that the human performers may not be fulfilling their life goals. But, who was I to judge another’s professional choices. The more I learnt, the more my worst fears were confirmed. Choice doesn’t usually come into it.
We go back to poverty. Where there is a market there is demand. Where there is poverty, desperate decisions are made. Whole industries are created to satisfy the cash rich visitors and within these industries it’s the poor people who suffer. A night or two of shock entertainment, fuels pain and misery. Sex trafficking and exploitation is funded and given a reason for existence.
We have choices, go to the shows, or don’t go to the shows. Spend the tourist buck on food, local produce, massage. It’s your choice whether there’s a ‘happy ending’.
We travel because we want to experience the weird and wonderful, get close to earth’s creatures.
Very few of us set out with the intention of exploiting animals. Most of us claim to love the feathery, furry, scaly creatures of the world. We grow up with picture books of exotic animals and our first true loves are often elephants, monkeys, parrots or tigers. This childlike wonder drives us to seek them out when we travel.
We’re blinkered in our quest for them, hoping to get as close as we dare, maybe touch them and get a selfie or two. We research where to find them, or we get led to them with our new found travelling friends.
The reality is, that in our pursuit to see these animals we can make mistakes. Hoping to get up close often results in supporting entrapment of the creatures we love and in worst case scenarios mistreatment.
Research, research, research. You can have the very best intentions but still find yourself in the sad situation of becoming an unaware supporter of your favourite animal’s torment.
Many of us will make mistakes. I’ve been to Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom under promises of well looked after tigers and amazing humans that love and care for them. I feel ridiculous even saying this now and from the minute I handed over my Baht, I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. Of course no wild animal actually chooses to live in captivity and spend their lives as Tinder photo props.
That’s a fairly obvious one, but it’s not always so clear cut. After that I vowed never to visit an animal in captivity, put there for human entertainment. But what about the sanctuaries, the animal orphanages, the elephants that appear to roam free. It’s a minefield!
I was so excited to see the pandas in Chengdu’s Panda Research Sanctuary. It’s heavily praised for helping the near extinct species breed. I arrived half an hour before the centre opened to the public and with a heavy heart I saw these huge beautiful creatures cooped up in small glass enclosures covered in their own shit.
I’ve come face to face with a great white shark, an absolute dream. I researched this and picked the most ethical sounding company who promised they didn’t bait the sharks… when it came down to it, they did.
It’s not easy to do the right thing, we probably all will make mistakes along the way. But, so long as we learn from these mistakes and use them to educate others, then we’re half-way there.
We travel because we’re fascinated by other humans, we’re curious about different lifestyles and belief systems.
At times we can feel awkward as we don’t yet understand the actions and behaviours of locals in a foreign land. That’s why we observe and tread cautiously at first, we ask questions and then ultimately immerse ourselves.
When you land in a country that’s totally alien to you, you become hyper-sensitive to your surroundings. Things you’d never notice in your homeland, because they’re so familiar, become glaringly apparent. The way people eat, dress, dance, talk and behave all become fascinating.
It’s easy to feel ridiculous when trying to mimic these behaviours. Of course this should be done sensitively and I’m not suggesting you take your baths in The Ganges river in Varanasi, or feel you have to partake in a Kava session in Fiji. But we absolutely should adhere to the society’s values, dress appropriately and be sensitive to our surroundings.
When we do this, we delight and are usually accepted with open arms. We stop being tourists and we become travellers. We learn and we create more harmony in the world.
We travel because earth is a beautiful place, we want to explore every corner of it. The oceans, the mountains and the forests all nourish our souls and fill our hearts with childlike wonder.
We strive to go ‘off the beaten track’, the more untouched by our own people the better. Most of us don’t want to hurt our beautiful planet, but most of us are also ignorant to the damage that’s being done, until we experience it first hand.
Once you experience diving in an ocean filled with plastic bags and bottles, you’ll stop taking the lazy option when you shop. You’ll see that once inoffensive bag as a turtle trap and that bottle as toxic fish food.
When you see the devastation deforestation has caused, the huge stretch marks in the land where the roots have been removed, you’ll care about all the animals that are homeless and will ultimately die out. You’ll care about where you buy your furniture and where the natural materials have come from.
We return home with open eyes and kinder hearts. Braver souls and fiercer minds. We’re not the same as when we left the familiar, we’re passionate about life and we’re ready to take on the world.
So, yes, travel does make us uncomfortable and that’s the way it should be.