Why I Travel

I travel because traveling makes me less afraid of the world. Drop me anywhere in the world, and I’ll survive. (Cue Destiny’s Child, now.) I may not speak the language or know another soul, but I’ll survive. This drop-me-anywhere confidence confers meaningful psychic comfort.

I travel because it makes me less racist. Racism is something we have to un-learn.

I travel because it introduces randomness of the most intense degree.

I travel because I enjoy the cultural exchange. Sharing the best of American culture (peanut butter, hamburgers, individualism, and entrepreneurship) while appreciating the non-obvious intricacies of other milieus, such as pandas in China, drug dealers in Colombia, and beer in Czech Republic.

I travel because travel enriches my internal mental stream. I think more original thoughts when I’m traveling, I think more critically about where I am, what I’m doing. My memory comes alive in interesting ways. In Beijing the other day I stared out at a huge lake and mountains and the scene reminded me of standing at a cliff on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I couldn’t quite recall the Alaskan memory, but the connection was felt, and a tremendous stream of thoughts followed. Alain de Bottom: “Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts requiring large views, news thoughts new places. Instrospective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.”

I travel to force myself to live in the real world as opposed to in head-land. Familiar territory dulls my antenna to the world. When I go to my gym in San Francisco, I am unobservant. I’ve done the walk so many times, down the same street so many times, that I mostly stare at the sidewalk and live within myself. When I’m in a new place I have to pay attention to the street signs, and thus to everything else.

I travel abroad to remember why I love my country. I travel within my country to remember that while founded on perfect ideals it remains an imperfect place.

I travel to be anonymous. Abroad, I am not “Ben.” In China I am a foreign devil. In Latin America I am a gringo. In Europe I am, apparently, just another tall blond German. In Ukraine I am an unmarried American penis with the power to marry and immigrate my spouse. My individuality is subsumed by a group label and the associated stereotypes, and that is, in small doses, oddly liberating.

I travel not because it makes me happy in the moment — in fact, many moments are uncomfortable and stressful as they’re experienced — but because it makes me happy afterwards. I’m happy when recalling memories, embellishing and sharing stories, and reading articles in the newspaper and being able to say to myself, “I’ve been there.” Buying new experiences makes you happy; buying more things generally does not. (Why oh why do wealthy older people keep buying things instead of experiences?)

I travel so I don’t regret not traveling when I’m older. And this is one of the top regrets of well-to-do professionals over 50.


Here are all my posts on travel. Other random links: against Adderall, Justine Musk comments on “voice” in writing, Philip Tetlock reviews the latest crop of political-forecasting books, how to tell if you’re a douchebag, parsing the few differences between school and prison.

21 comments on “Why I Travel
  • Glad to see you think through these issues. I am annoyed when people put down big $$ on travel without ever questioning the costs and benefits and just assuming travel is unequivocally good.

    This post inspires me to write my own about why I only travel opportunistically (meaning when my company pays for it). I will this post as a starting point.

  • Hello! First time commenter, though I’ve been reading for a few months now.

    Just wanted to note the surreal timing of your post yesterday and today. I’ll explain why.

    Yesterday, you published an extended interview with Penelope Trunk and linked to her blog, which I went to promptly. As I browsed, I came upon one particular post which made me want to throw something at my beautiful laptop and beat my head against the wall repeatedly.

    It was a post detailing four reasons not to travel, the gist of which – if I keep all sarcasm out of my language, is – you don’t love your life (and yourself, by extension) if you feel the urge to travel to exotic, fun places. And now your post detailing all the reasons why you travel. I wonder what you think of Penelope’s post? Or am I to just take it in the spirit of she’s-poking-at-you-to-get-a-reaction and let it go??

  • I don’t agree with Penelope’s post on why travel is overrated. I think it
    misses the point. To be clear, she posted that before this post of mine, and
    I was not specifically replying to it.

  • I like your comment about the correlation between thoughts and the landscape in front of us. I rode a lot of trains when I was in Japan and there was definitely something about watching the roads, trees and rice fields pass by that generated stream of conscious reflections and musings about life. I ended up always carrying a notebook to capture those thoughts.

  • I can definitely relate to your description of your ritual walk to the gym, and how you don’t notice your surroundings because it is so ingrained in your mind from repetition.

    I think there’s a positive side to this, too. When you’re going about your daily life, in routine circumstances, it is much easier to zone out and think deeply about an interesting concept. When you’re in a strange place, you have more distractions (albeit happy, enriching distractions).

    My goal is to find the right balance between exposing myself to strange new things (via not only travel, but also by reading and talking to people) and giving myself space to digest those things by remaining in the comfort zone of my routine.

    Also: I hate to nitpick, but if you’re referring to the author of “The Art of Travel,” it’s Alain de Botton (not de Bottom).

  • Adding to the mental stream and in-head land, I’d add a point about the value in diversity of people.

    Contrary to what you may think, there aren’t many different kinds of people in your home country – even less in your hometown. It doesn’t take long before you’ve met most types and know what everybody’s about. While the typical midwesterners are certainly different than your local San Franciscans, they all have more in common than not and generally play the same game by the same rules.

    You can’t achieve truly different perspectives until you leave your home continent, national history, language, government system, religion, etc.

    I travel because, without those different people, I’d die of boredom.

  • Fantastic post. You have more travel experience than the average bloke, thus more data on which to reflect – keen observations. I am on week 2 of a 60 week RTW adventure and it is hard for me to answer the “why I travel” question at this point. But the simple reasons are 1) see nature’s beauty 2) learn about myself and my dear girlfriend 3) develop life skills only learned by being throw in the fire 4) be an ambassador of the USA. It will be interesting to see how my motives for world travel will deviate along the path. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Here is the blog I am keeping: http://www.followourfootsteps.com

  • If someone is going to leave a comment anonymously, it had better be
    substantive. I don’t respect people who can’t sign their name to what they
    say. Anything that’s anonymous and veers on the worthless or falls in the
    personal attack category, I delete.

  • I travel to be anonymous –

    While there is the possibility of being stereotyped, there is also the joy of trying to recreate identity without the labels of the past – we are not the product of XYZ school, or XYZ racial group or XYZ corporation but rather the product of who we choose to present ourselves as.

  • I liked your thoughts on the benefits of leisure travel. Business travel is a whole other bag. I have gotten better at over the years but it started off for me on the wrong foot and has kind of stayed that way:

    When I was working I used to attend conferences every once in a while – they kind of gave me the heebee jeebies. I used to look around the room and go – “How did I become one of these people?” But I think that was because I worked in an industry which historically has not attracted people with particularly high aspirations or capabilities (and if the conferences were over night somewhere – they were a real boon to the bars, people stayed up way too late and were too tired to focus the next day). I ended up discouraging attendance at any out of town conferences for anyone who worked in my department since I hated them and most information presented was available locally or otherwise. Some argued that networking is as important as content at such things and that may be true. I am not sure.

    I may have been traumatized into my dislike of conferences – the first one I ever attended when I had my first real job (working at a public school) was in South Carolina (a part of the country that made me a little uncomfortable) and we had to keep journals and hand them in at the end and all I did was write about fascism and Nazi’s and oppression (I thought by journal they meant like inner most diary – not reactions to todays presentations – boy was I dumb.). It was like I had a mental breakdown and I think whenever I had to go to conference after that I kind of had flash backs to this really confused (and lonely) place I hung out in for three days in SC having an identity crisis. The good thing about it was it made me want to leave that job because I realized it was not for me. The funny thing is the conference was really great and run by terrific people. ** It was about oral history and how they could be used in classrooms and they had great presentations – but I felt like I was in some sort of cult training prison.

    ** In the airport on the (finally) way home I rant into the main guy who ran the conference – he was young and had longish hair and his suitcase was more worn leather satchel than whatever dorky thing I was carrying and he wore one of those sort of cow-boyish yet urban brimmed hats that guys sometimes where that can sort of be cool but can also be ridiculous but on him it looked totally cool (and this was way back in the day before those hats became kind of everywhere. I do not recall what shoes he was wearing but I am sure they were awesome. One on one he was very relatable I found out but talking to the group he might as well have been speaking Martian to me.

  • Another angle I discussed with Matt Huebert: he claims that when he travels, he meets other travelers and people interested in travelers. These people tend to be more friendly, open-minded and interesting than the general population. Travel, then, may also be useful as a personality filter: travel and you boost your chances of meeting the friendly, open-minded and interesting. Perhaps you have confirming/disconfirming evidence from your own travel experiences, because I sure as hell don’t have any.

  • Very true. But per my “Urban Nomadicism” post from a month back or so, they
    also tend to be more insecure, less dependable, and more aimless (which is
    not always a bad thing).

  • One other thought- If you can bear with my round about approach to your musings on travel…

    I took my daughter to the train station the other day for a trip she was taking to visit a friend for a few days in another state and I complimented her on her back pack which was a very interesting, large, old fashioned style that you do not see too often. She said it was her “possibility bag”. Upon inquiry she explained that when she goes camping, in addition to packing what she knows she will need, she also packs for possibilities (e.g., rain, thirst, sun, hunger, darkness, getting lost, bugs) so now, whatever the environment, she tries to pack for what could possibly happen.

    I replied that I try to do the exact same thing in my head – be ready for possibility – and I spend a lot of time packing my brain with the things I may need when I go out – flexibility, some humor, curiosity – all the stuff I can think of that might be needed at any given moment. Sometimes I am well provisioned, other times (too many) I totally left the bag at home.

    Turning to travel-

    Imagine what it’s like to see a door in front of you that you never saw before. You have no idea what is on the other side of the door but you and a group of people you do not know are standing there and all agree “lets open it, walk through and see what happens”. So you open the door. You are now all on the other side standing there together, tentative, taking small steps, exploring a new place, meeting new people who have also walked through their doors and all the time working hard and talking about it – how are we doing, how can we do this better, what does it mean?

    And there you all are; exploring, and sweating, and worrying, and working and maybe even freaking out but always (above all) caring. And then it’s time to go back. But amazingly the door you walked through does not close behind you when you leave. It’s still open, maybe not as wide open as when you were there but still there remains this new place inside you that is also newly opened. And maybe when you first go back home it takes a few days to get used to being back on the other side of the door again. Or maybe you spend a few days wandering around, keeping the door open and running into other people on the same road and you talk to them and recognize in each other this thing that has happened: that you packed your bag of possibilities, walked through a door you knew nothing about and explored with a group of young people (everyone is young (no matter how old they are) when they go through the door).

    The insight gained from travel – that there are doors everywhere – could be across the globe, could be in your living room. Go through the door and you will always come back the better for it.

    Warmly – Rough Fractals.

  • I love and relate to this so much! When you say that travel enriches your internal mental stream, that’s exactly the phrase I’ve been looking for – for quite a long time. Thank you.

  • A very good friend of mine, reflecting on his fabulous year (in which he himself was so fabulous, of course, as anyone could devine with a little background), said to me: “Isn’t it fabulous we live in a time where one week I can be at Waterton Park and the next in Patagonia, and the next Nepal!!!!” Well, yeah, I thought – if you can entirely divorce yourself from the laws of cause and effect.

    Travel, as we do it today, is utterly unsustainable. This is the bottom line, regardless of how many people realize this or not. And “unsustainable” is not, as many people seem to (conveniently) take it today, synonymous with undesirable. It means, if we don’t wake up and change, we – or at the very latest our children – will be facing “game over.” At that point, you’ll be lucky to have a shithouse to travel 50 feet to.

    As for myself, a guy who once “traveled” as others would define it, I can honestly say I derive every benefit you list above by staying put on my own little farm, and actually derive it better than when I travel. No lie. Zero emissions, no knife in the planet’s back.

    So, Ben – you likely also travel because you are a junky, and because you are able to ignore cost/benefit relationships as they apply to our continued well-being today. And perhaps because you are unwilling to do the truly elevated intellectual work of deriving all the said benefits from within yourself, right at home.

  • “In Ukraine I am an unmarried American penis with the power to marry and immigrate my spouse.”

    I had to chuckle a bit when I read that. It would have made a lot more sense if you had written “…unmarried American wallet….”

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