Whilst on a fleeting work visit to Belgium recently, I read an article about a young lady of 27, who had managed to visit every country (all 196) in just 18 months. You can’t deny the achievement, or the obvious financial input that must have been required, but instead of being pleased for her, this news just filled me with a little sadness.
To travel, explore, see new things and experience new places; Words often written on the “to-do lists” of many people these days. So much so that ticking off countries could easily be mistaken as a modern fashion statement.
As a child, I was fortunate enough to enjoy summer camps, to travel to mainland Europe for annual holidays and with my parents working overseas, the traveling bug was something I inherited quickly. I never knew what homesickness was, a reaction I’m sure both pleased and upset my parents somewhat.
I was soon desperate to explore. As a child of 8, I terrified my mother by packing a bag with a map and a can of beans (staple diet for budding explorers) and left home to go explore the wild. I’d made sure I had left a letter stating that I wasn’t running away (I loved my parents), I was just going on an adventure.
After a few minutes of walking I realised I’d forgotten the can opener (can’t eat those explorer beans without it!) so I returned home, feeling stupid for my mistake, but not nearly as stupid as when I saw how distraught my mother was after finding my letter (sorry mum).
As I got older I’ve grown fonder of the idea of self-sufficient travel. By that I mean packing the basics and living on the essential. I can see the lure of glamping for those who do not like to leave the luxuries of home, but for me, camping and traveling is about just that. Leaving normal life behind and discovering the peace and exhilaration that is on offer, pure escapism.
I first traveled without assistance (parents/work/school) to New Zealand in 2011. I was adamant to see this country so I managed to focus my degree dissertation around the country’s biodiversity. I only managed to visit North Island because of time, but seeing the wild forests and climbing the rugged mountains made me fall in love with the natural landscape.
If you’ve ever been to New Zealand you’ll know all about their passion to keep things “untouched”. There are no obvious trail markers or graveled footpaths that we’ve grown accustomed to in the UK. Minimum impact, minimum trace, maximum exploration. I was in paradise.
For a while my stint in New Zealand had satisfied my itch. It wasn’t until a few years later that the wanderlust had returned.
In 2012 I was offered an unpaid job as part of a science expedition to Central America. I had never heard of the organisation before and I didn’t know anyone that was involved, but I was excited.
A quick internet search had shown that my destination was unstable; High in crime, murder and gangs. But I wasn’t going to the cities. I was going out into the jungle. Panthers and malaria are clearly less of a threat than humans…
The jungles were vast endless masses of greenery. The first thing I noticed was how loud it was. Different insects and birds would call at regular points throughout the day, but the noise never stopped. The humidity was constant. It would always rain in the mountains just after sunset but no one worried as the next day’s heat would dry everything out again.
The locals within the jungle lived in corrugated metal houses, worked on bananas plantations (or in the Coca Cola factories that dominated the region) and they were the happiest people I had ever met. They had nothing, yet they had everything.
On returning home to the UK, the roads made me travel sick. I had grown so used to travelling in the back of a pick up along jungle mud tracks that the smoothness of the tarmac would make me queasy. What I also realised was how miserable most people were. It would appear that privilege comes at a price.
My most recent but hopefully not last excursion was to the isolated regions of wild Kenya in 2016. Work had meant that I was out there for a few months, working with local tribes and enjoying the harsh beauty of the savanna.
Like Central America, the Kenyan people had so little, yet they seemed happy with their lot. Children would run around with no shoes on, but they were happy.
I will always remember the evening that my coworkers and I played a game of rounders as the sun was setting (the only time it was cool enough to considering running) and some local children came to investigate.
We didn’t speak Swahili and they didn’t speak English. But we showed them the game, and they were good!
A sight that was sadly common in Kenya was the abandoned schools and the broken water wells, remnants of the “gap year” projects. The intent behind them was good, but what the builders and organisers failed to realise (or maybe not, just wishing to gain money from eagerly paying students) is that a school is only as good as the teachers within it. If you build a school, you need to provide the teachers and resources too, otherwise the good intent is lost. For this reason I don’t believe in such gap-year programmes.
Looking back at my own travels I have enjoyed all my experiences. I have met some of the most amazing people, gained international friends and been morally and socially tested due to ‘culture shock’.
The one resounding fact I could not hide from was how lucky, ‘privileged’ if you want, I was to be British. Yes I pay taxes that are higher than I’d like, but I’m educated, I’m healthy and I’m allowed to vote, all this being amplified by the fact that I’m a woman. My travels have shown me that the world is a big, beautiful but brutal place, and not all places are kind let alone fair.
I love to travel, I love to explore, but doing so has given me an appreciation for what really counts. Just like the Honduran man in his corrugated house, or the children of Kenya with bare muddy feet. My friends, my family, my home. These are things that are worth the most, and I truly believe that I would have never fully understood or appreciated this if my traveling was simply a tick-box exercise.
Travelling should be about testing your senses, having the courage to step away from the beaten path and taking the time to learn about your environment. Gain a genuine experience of what is on offer and you’ll be surprised, maybe even humbled by what you come to realise about your hosts, your home and yourself.