Why Do I Travel?

Alain de Botton has written an interesting article on why we travel. He said,

Though most of us no longer believe in the divine power of journeys to cure toothache or gall stones, we can still hang on to the idea that certain parts of the world possess a power to address complaints of our psyches and bring about some sort of change in us in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we just remained in our bedrooms. There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands can exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us.

And so, I can’t help but ask myself, what about me, why do I travel?

I think the main reason is to watch people. People fascinate me.

And how the unique way people treat other people in different places fascinate me even more. Perhaps like other tourists who gravitate toward the warmth of the sun on the beaches, I seek signs of warmth from people in various places.

In some places, the welcome is akin to that blast of heat you get as the automatic airport glass door opens to the tropical country you’ve just arrived in. In other places, whether or not you are responded to depends on what brands you have on your person.

What has surprised me is that in some inhospitable places where you don’t know whether you’re going to get mugged one moment or the next, you can find the warmest and most helpful of souls, and yet it has been my experience that in many of the safest and sterile places, people don’t really bother to look you in the eyes, let alone greet you with a smile on their faces.

I do believe that people make the country. And I don’t mean only in as much that they shape the landscape, what they build, how they build it and how garish that new building looked, but by how they dress, the profanities they shout in the street or have to restrain in their thick coats. How drivers in one place are already halfway on the zebra crossing before you’ve even reached the other end and drivers in another place wait patiently a mile away on their wide roads.

Knowing the current economic and political going-ons in the countries you’re visiting also helps in reading the locals. The worried glances as they show you around one town or the hungry way they look at your hand as you count the currencies in another town, paying $20 for a piece of ‘tourist trap’ plastic memorabilia made in China.

Another reason would be the food. I hesitate to call myself a foodie, but I would go for a long drive/pay exorbitant prices/go to restaurant openings/eat in slums or less clean and aesthetic places just for a dish. The latest ‘weird’ thing I had was tongue soup, which was of course, delicious. Seeing a place through the eyes of your tongue and experiencing the different tastes that are brought to the foreground, noticing which flavours are restrained in return and trying to memorise how ‘they’ cooked it so that you can reproduce it in your kitchen in London is the best part of travelling.

I also learnt that if you want to taste the best tofu, go to a vegan restaurant, and if you want to taste the best plantain, go to a Cuban restaurant. Taste the best the specialists make and forget the generalists when making the eat list and you will learn a lot about what a properly prepared and cooked aubergine should taste like.

Learning of a place’s history through museum visits or listening to locals is another reason why I love to travel. Why is that flagpole there in the middle of the square? Why is this town here in the middle of nowhere? So many reasons why a place is what it is and where it is, but dig deep enough, and you will find out why it remains there, still standing, for you to be able to visit. And sometimes, you can feel the town’s last dying breath, as if, come in another ten years and we might or might not be here. At other times, you can feel the vibrant potential of this new place just waiting to escape its past.

Finally, the art. Or rather, the colours they use in their art, be it canvases, potteries, wood or textiles. The usage of colours in the local art is closely tied to the weather and the look of the place. Thus, by looking at their art you begin to understand how the locals view their environment. And the imagination of the pieces is sometimes linked to the folklores they tell their children. Fascinating stories and beliefs told by hand, enabling me to experience them through my eyes.

To look at a place through the eyes of the people that belong there is to really experience a place, and not via what opinions you form of the hotels, beaches and restaurants there.

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