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  • Writer's pictureZoë Smith

Why I Travel

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” Pico Iyer

When I set out on my first solo backpacking trip around South and Central America, it was 2008. I was 23 and had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. I’d spent five years working in the music industry in London, scraping a living, and surviving off coffee and three hours' sleep. I’d had a bad year. I’d broken up with my boyfriend, slept on the studio couch for a month while homeless, had a run of ear infections that threatened to ruin my career as a sound engineer, and finally, I’d been informed that the studio I worked at was closing and I was soon to be jobless.

Here’s where I could tell the story in different ways. I could paint myself as a heroine, telling you how I sold everything I owned, bought myself a plane ticket, and stuck up a proverbial middle finger to my childhood dreams as I forged ahead with bigger better ones. Or I could take an admittedly less-flattering stance and concede that I ran away from my problems, took the ‘easy way’ out, and set myself up for a life-time of running away from anything that resembled ‘stability’. To be honest, there’s probably a little bit of truth in both.

From what I remember of planning that trip, I didn’t exactly have a masterplan of how things would turn out. I was somewhat of an emotional wreck in the weeks leading up to it. Some days I felt super-charged with inspiration, brimming with enthusiasm for how my life was about to change. Other times I felt desperately sad about everything I was leaving behind; silently terrified that I was making a huge mistake; exhausted at lying to everyone about how I ‘wasn’t at all worried, I was just excited’ when really the thought of backpacking alone for six months was starting to fill me with dread.

The day before my flight to Buenos Aires, I burst into tears and swore that I wasn’t going. On the day of the flight, an undetonated WWII bomb was found in London and the ensuing flight delays meant that I missed my connection and spent 24 hours holed up alone in a hotel at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. I remember sitting on the bed in my AirFrance t-shirt (my backpack was caught somewhere in transition), eating room service fries that I couldn't afford and feeling sure that this was a bad omen.

It wasn’t. While it would be easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses and tell you how that trip ‘changed my life’ and ‘made me a better person’, the truth is that that trip did change my life and make me a better person. I learnt more about myself on that trip than I had learnt in my entire life up until that point. I discovered sides of myself that I didn’t know existed and did things I never imagined I was capable of. I traveled without a cell phone, made only vague plans, and navigated using maps that bore little relation to reality; I taught myself to speak Spanish; I completely ran out of money but somehow made ends meet; I made friends that I keep in touch with to this day.

There were some lows: winding up in hospital in Peru, tearing open my shin in Bolivia (a somewhat comical incident involving alpaca-wool socks on a slippery marble floor), having my emergency stash of dollars stolen, and escaping a dodgy taxi only to be left hiking through No Man’s Land between the Peruvian and Ecuadorian borders in the middle of the night. There were also soaring highs: road-tripping through the Argentine desert, galloping horses through the Andes, hitchhiking through Ecuador, and celebrating Carnival in the rain in Brazil.

I found my confidence, learnt how to assert myself, met people who just ‘got’ me and others who just didn’t, then fell in love and extended my trip by more than a year (which is a whole other story). I learnt that loneliness is always temporary, that your gut instincts are transcendent, and that perspective is everything. Most importantly, I learnt that I really didn’t know that much about myself or the world at all, and that piqued a curiosity that I have never since been able to quench.

I’ve ‘lost myself’, ‘found myself’, and ‘rediscovered myself’ so many times now that I’m starting to wonder if I was ever really lost or found in the first place.

The magic of that first trip has never left me. Since then, I’ve spent years living in Australia and New Zealand, backpacked across South East Asia, taken multiple road trips across Europe, and enjoyed stints teaching English, volunteering, and researching guidebooks in various destinations around the world. I’ve ‘lost myself’, ‘found myself’, and ‘rediscovered myself’ so many times now that I’m starting to wonder if I was ever really lost or found in the first place. And like so many things in life, I’ve come to the starry-eyed conclusion that it’s all about the journey anyway. Clichés don’t come more clichéd than the road-weary declaration that ‘life is a journey’, but sometimes you just have to accept that cliché for its simple truth.

But the reality is that as much as we believe in the ‘journey’ metaphor, we all-too-often allow ourselves to get sucked into the day-to-day and cease moving forward in our lives. Travel offers the jolt to the senses that we so often need. It propels us out of our comfort zones and opens our eyes not only to the world and its infinity, but to our world around us. Traveling reminds you what you’re missing, but also reminds you of what you have (or don’t have) to go home to.

“Not all those who wander are lost” J.R.R Tolkien

Whatever it is you seek when you travel – escapism, freedom, adventure – some kind of self-discovery seems inevitable. It’s the age-old promise that saw Kerouac-inspired beatniks road-tripping across America in the 1950s, put the south of France on the map for any expat born in the decade after ‘A Year in Provence’ was published, and sent Eat Pray Love devotees on pasta-fuelled pilgrimages to Europe. But what exactly is it about travel that makes it so ripe for self-discovery?

I think that, at some existential level, travel speaks to the inner child in us. Think about it. When you were a kid you saw the world with fresh eyes. Everything was new and exciting, shocking or mind-blowing, bursting with color, and alive with possibilities. As a child, you reacted intuitively and spontaneously to the world around you, fuelled by your intrinsic motivation to explore, experience, and discover. This constant exposure to new sights, sounds, and sensations is how children learn and grow; how their brain develops and their unique personality begins to assert itself.

As we grow older, depending on the paths we choose, life assumes a certain regularity. We form routines, gravitate towards the familiar, seek comfort in the comfortable. But as much as many of us crave this stability and routine; many of us also secretly seek to break out of its chains. We might feel unmotivated, lethargic, and uninspired, but we want to feel energized, passionate, and moved. We need to be reminded of our own significance and insignificance; to be catapulted out of our comfort zones and reawakened.

Traveling offers a way to keep rediscovering the world around us as a child. We take in new sights with wide eyes, taste new flavors that make us scrunch up our noses, tune into the cadence of a foreign language; and these multi-sensory interactions begin to kick our brain back into gear. We start to feel more acutely, think more profoundly, and broaden our physical and mental horizons. Studies have even shown that the act of traveling activates our brain to release dopamine, the so-called ‘happiness hormone’. It’s little surprise then, that so many of us not only feel a desire to travel, but a need.

As I write this, we’re smack-bang in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic and, like most of the world, I’ve been confined to my house for a little over two months now. With travel restrictions in France predicted to last the rest of the year, I find myself in the unprecedented position of not being able to leave at a time when I most desire to. Like so many people, I’m dealing with a host of unwelcome changes – a promising relationship destroyed by the lockdown, job offers all but drying up, the worry of bills to pay and bank balances diminishing, not to mention the mental strain of isolation. But for the first time in my life, I find myself in a position where I am unable to ‘run away’ from my problems, escape my troubles, or reinvent my life against a more exotic backdrop. For the first time in my life, I’ve been anchored in the one place I never wanted to spend much time in before – home. And it’s terrifying in its familiarity.

Being unable to travel has made me realise more than ever that what my inner child craves most is movement. Whether physically (hiking an Andean peak or chugging along a cross-country railroad), or metaphysically (my reputation for being a ‘dreamer’ doesn’t even begin to describe the perpetual whir and spin of my mind); I’m a person who is constantly in flux and taking away my ability to move feels like the worst kind of punishment.

Dramatics aside, if there’s one thing that all my years of traveling have taught me, it’s perspective. Firstly, to recognize that with so many people around me in far worse situations, I cannot possibly complain about my own. And secondly, to know that this period will end and we will rebuild everything that was lost. These feelings will pass and be replaced by fresh hopes. New opportunities will present themselves in place of past losses. This moment will become a memory and perhaps, later, another one in my bank of great travel stories – “The One Where I Stayed at Home”.

Sooner or later, I’ll be back on the road, pouring my heartaches out to strangers, sinking my feet into faraway sands, or basking in the colors of a sunset from some as-yet-to-be-determined location. I’ll take all my fears and uncertainties, and transform them into curiosity and wonder. I’ll stumble through some new kind of spiritual awakening, find myself all over again, then trip up and watch it all tumble down again. I’ll burst into tears the day before I leave on a big trip, like I have done every single time since that first flight to Argentina all those years ago, and I’ll arrive in my new destination feeling every bit as shy and nervous as I did on my first day at school. I’ll rekindle my passion for life, feel giddy about every potential adventure that lies ahead, and share deep and meaningful conversations where I feel certain, in that split second, that I’ve discovered the meaning of life.

I won’t have, but that won’t matter. Because I’ll continue to learn and grow and evolve, and challenge myself and better myself, and sometimes completely despair of myself. I will laugh spontaneously and inappropriately. I will feel a complicated mix of anger, humility, and empathy for the world and its problems. I’ll be completely overwhelmed with my inability to help, but feel empowered to try none-the-less. I will relish every new discovery and take comfort in knowing that there will always be so much left to discover. I’ll feel alive again.

And that, that is why I travel.

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