28 March 2014

Why do I travel?

It wasn't until I was 21 that I stepped on foreign territory, saving of course, for short trips done as a kid from which I have little memory. But after that great journey with my university friends to Cuba I have not been able to hold still.

Cuba was followed by a summer in London which started with the honest intention of learning English while paying my way through the summer working at a Costa Coffee or a Pret-a-manger. Evidently, as all of those who come to London with the exact same thought every summer would know, getting a job in the badly paid, terrible-hours industry in August is practically impossiblele. Hoards of students flock London with the exact same intention and very few make it. I was not luckier than the average. But I could have returned home as I had promised my dad yet the city cast a spell on me. 

So after some bargaining and the change of plans for a more educational pursuit I eventually spent almost two months there. In those weeks I mastered the art of getting by on close to nothing in a city which can blow your budget away very easily. The experience changed me. 

Needless to say, I learned some English, although not enough to feel at ease the following summer as an intern for JPMorgan's Investment Bank. My face on the first day at work must have been telling of the fact that I couldn't make a word of what the presenter was saying, too strong a British accent.

London was eye-opening. Cuba had been quite an interesting experience with communism, rationing and black market practices at the top of the list of out of the ordinary day-to-day topics but London was on a different league. Aside from the daily laughs at language missunderstandings it didn't take me long to realize that South London can be a daunting place. My student residence room was 30min bus ride from Elephant & Castle underground station. Arriving there on the first day was quite a cultural shock. Age 21 I had never seen a black person in real life and there I was surrounded in the bus, the underground, the street...Spain at that time had very few immigrants and most of them were from Latin American with whom, at least at first sight, cultural differences are minimal. 

I was enchanted by their intricate haircuts and hair styles and I loved the loud music they played in their ear plugs and the cultural mix and match that I was a part of every day. 

With the incredibly wide range of cultural alternatives and sights to visit the two months passed by faster that I had imagined. I met people from all over the world and the more exotic to my usual interactions the better. I spent a night with a friend and some Jordanian guys eating Lebanese food and smoking shisha. I witnessed street fights regularly and I almost got robbed once, I only avoided it because I got into a public phone (there were no mobiles then!) and called the friend whose house I was heading towards who came get me while the perpretrator was waiting outside. 

I soaked in the culture, the museums, the art, the religious and historical places...everything I could get my hands on.

I give credit to that summer and to London for the travel bug which has not left me since. It is an ailment which I do not want to be cured of, a passion which consumes all my time and savings and which I gladly devote my spare time and hopefully will be my full time passion soon.

So, why do I like travelling so much?

I have been to 75 countries, most likely 80 by the end of the year looking at my already planned trips for the year and I just can never get enough. 

I am not a blackpacker nor am I a luxury vacation seeker. I have been on extremely luxurious trips such as the Maharaja's Express train trip in India, the Gorillas in Uganda or a wonderful stay at the Aman Resort in Borobudur but I have also been on semi-backpacking trips in Mozambique or Brazil where our budget was less generous and we took the slow path or on a low-cost sabbatical in the Pacific islans of Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Solomon. I enjoyed all trips equally. The comfort and incredible experiences in high-luxurious and exclusive trips are an experience on their own but sometimes detract from the interactions with the local culture which can be contrived and limited. I enjoy wandering through alleyways, chatting to street vendors, sampling snacks and talking to strangers at a bar.

I go on holidays with friends, groups, colleagues, my boyfriend, travelers who I just met and even alone. Each formula has its time and place and is right for a certain type of trip. I adapt to any circumstance and nothing is too painful or too hard when on the road.
But underlying this obscene passion for travel I realized a few telling realities:

  1. I have a insatiable need to consume experiences, to absorb new places, to discover hidden gems. I just can never get enough. My wish list is endless and only getting longer every day, literally. Will I ever get to do, experience and live everything on that list?
  2. I do not like going where others have been. I often get advise and recommendations from friends and I add a lot of new items to my wish list as a result of chats with other travelvers but you will hardly, at least for now, see me in popular and civilized places. I have seen 20+ countries in Africa yet I have never been to Germany. I avoid metropolis and crowded places and I tend to de-prioritize the "must do" or the "top-10" places. I like to go where nobody has been before. As a result, I am the only one among my friends who has been to places like Palau, Timor, Sudan, Madagascar, Samoa, Solomon, Vanuatu, American Samoa, Yemen...the harder to reach and the more antagonic to my reality, the more fascinating they are to me
  3. I go places to experience and to live and rarely to just see. I want to participate in the experience, be a part of it not a mere spectator. So I talk to the locals, read about the places and whenever I can, jump in! I have seen active volcanoes exploding, I have swum with humpback whales in Tonga,I have dived with sharks,...I am not brave but I like to feel not just to observe
  4. No trip is ever a bad experience. I hardly complain about things going wrong or about miss matched expectations, every experience is worth living. I learned to accept the slow pace at which things move out of the "Western" word long ago - waiting an undetermined amount of time at passport control in Tanzania's airport under the heat and a swarm of massive grasshoppers helped me develop an aptitude for patience. Things in Africa move at a different pace and no matter how much you rush things the only outcome you will achieve is stress and frustration. Even after bad service, bad weather, failed attempts at reaching a destination, dirty places and ripe-offs I still do not regret having gone anywhere. Except for Nigeria. I never once felt save, wanted or interested. It was an extremely dangerous place even with the airport escort service featuring riffles and cars with tinted windows not stopping at anything and I always felt like anything could happen. Humidity floats in the air, rain pours down at any time and people are aggressive and rude. The only place I don't want to return to. I once read in a travel guide to the country: "Do not go there"
  5. I don't believe there is an perfect travel companion with whom to share all trips. I go on holidays with friends, groups, colleagues, my boyfriend, travelers who I just met and even alone. Each formula has its time and place and is right for a certain type of trip. It is important to share each trip with the right person who needs only to have two things in common with me: passion for the destination and opennes of the mind. Because things will go wrong at some point and the last thing you want is for the mood to be brought down by a pessimistic, disappointed or angry companion
And you, why do you travel?

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