A month or so after returning home from my few years in Japan, I had the opportunity to play catch-up with a certain female friend of mine in, of all places, a local Japanese restaurant. There were the customary expressions of envy at the other’s experiences, surprise at discovering who was now dating whom, and the genuine pleasure of just being face to face once more.
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But despite our common interests in the past, I was slowly given the impression we no longer saw eye-to-eye on issues that mattered to me the most. As I was telling another tale of my miraculous rescue of the poor Japanese orphans from a burning building, which resulted in me marrying the princess and finding true acceptance into their society (well … close enough), I suggested to her that she might also want to consider living abroad, giving up the 9-to-5 job, and learn about the other options available to someone her age.
There was no hesitation on her part. She brushed her black hair behind her ear, and dismissed the idea with a gentle laugh, saying, “I have to grow up sometime.”
Ordinarily, I would have been quick to counter what I considered such an ill-conceived notion with numerous quotes from travel philosophy books, stories from the diverse people I met on the road, and why, above all, nothing in this world should be set in stone. I would have done so, if this had not been the second time I heard this exact sentence from friends of mine; the other had been half the world over, a few months prior, in Surattani. In those few seconds between her response and the time needed for me to change the subject before things got awkward, my mind explored this idea of “growing up”.
Is the long-term traveler really nothing more than an immature child in others’ eyes? Not a curious soul seeking answers but rather an intellectual teenager, ignorant of the future and focusing only on the pleasure of the moment? I hope so, but not for the reasons you may think.
I want to address some of the arguments you non-travelers (and parents, really) give to us tourists, vagabonds, travelers, wayward souls, and wandering minstrels as proof positive that your path on this planet is the only way to live long term, and anything else ”¦ is simply acting childish.
It’s true, we travelers don’t typically awake at 7:00 AM, try to start our car on a cold morning, navigate though 30,000 cars in traffic (though not before picking up a Frappuccino from the Starbucks drive-through), and spend nine hours every day hunched in a grey chair in an even greyer cubicle staring at a white screen. We must be insane to refuse such an enticing experience.
I’m breaking this down into all black and white, but sometimes, in reality, that’s just the way things are. We’re called immature for not opting for the mainstream definition of success: go to the right school, get good grades, get a good job, work hard, get money, retire, then travel once you’re old and worn out. I don’t think so ”¦
“What if I told you ‘insane’ was working fifty hours a week in some office for fifty years at the end of which they tell you to piss off; ending up in some retirement village hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn’t you consider that to be insane?”
Steve Buscemi, Con Air
I’ll grant you, many of us are left high and dry without the dental plan, the 401K, health insurance, and steady paycheck. But I doubt any of us are desiring the life that makes such things easier. Travel is all about discomfort, in that respect: every day we’re learning how to adapt to a different culture, speak a new language, survive without sleep and exercise to catch a midnight ferry. Sure, it’s easy to work in front of a computer screen for thirty years, but you’re often left unchallenged and unfulfilled.
How do we survive? Teaching English in Asia, which requires little to no experience. Working part-time in a hostel to pay for meals. Writing articles for above average (hint, hint) travel websites.
We don’t often have the luxury of sending out a notice on Outlook telling everyone in the office to meet for drinks at 6:30 at Molly Malone’s. In fact, if we happen to be in the same city where we read the message later that night, it would be a minor miracle.
Needless to say, friendships on the road aren’t exactly the same as those you see among people with stability. Less regular meet-ups, more “happen-to-be-passing-through-Bangkok-want-to-get-a-drink-at-The-Vertigo?” or missed messages on Facebook.
And even though we’re less likely to have friendships with face-to-face meetings and get-togethers, we are more inclined to have companions of substance and common interest. How so? Have you ever traveled with anyone for a prolonged period? It’s a great test of friendships and romantic relationships. One learns how to live in the company of another while both are never really aware of just what’s around the next corner. It’s the test of time, but more so. While growing up together strengthens relationships because both parties are going through the same life phases, so too does travel by allowing us to discover if two people can stay on the same wavelength while their worlds are ever in a state of flux.
However, just like our counterparts at home, there is a tendency to fall back on simple, no-strings-attached encounters before jumping ship or crossing the border (sometimes literally with travelers). Two misplaced bodies catch each other’s eye across the lobby of a dimly-lit hostel, swap travel stories, and suddenly find that their hands have become tightly intertwined; both seeking refuge from the loneliness of the open road or merely using each other as a window into a different kind of life and culture. It happens … or so I’m told.
Although there are shallow romantic situations while traveling, I’ve found that connections between both friends and lovers tend to be extremely polarized among vagabonds. As friends, you either know them well enough to send an email invite for a drink at the local pub, or just as the foreign face in the crowd of Japanese people, someone to give a respectful head nod as you pass each day.
For travel romances, you either find a soul mate who can keep up with your travel quirks and interests or fall back upon meaningless fling after fling. A tad oversimplified, but correct in essentials.
Score: I’d say this point is a pretty even split: 30-15. Advantage: we travelers.
I’m assuming you’re reading this from your home or perhaps your cubicle at work. Look around ”¦ what do you see? Maybe a picture of you and your family, some work you’ve let pile up, some books sitting on the mantle you’ve already read twice, clothes you’re never going to wear again?
You’re surrounded by possessions that you’ve allowed to become piled up over the years. It gives you comfort to cross that threshold that is your home and see all the trinkets you have purchased over the years sitting in their respective places. It’s also what keeps you from picking up and going at your leisure.
Want to head to Asia for a few months?
“Awww, man, I would, but my boss ”¦ well, you know ”¦”
“Ah, I can’t. Things are going really great between Monica and me.”
“A few months?!? Who would feed Mr. Tacos? And water my plants? Get my mail? Pay my bills? Change the lint trap on the dryer in case someone broke in and wanted to do a load?”
I thought we had all agreed: comfort alone is not living.
The job may keep you fed and reasonably well-off, but few jobs can offer a schedule that lets you do what you want, when you want. There’s always a meeting, or a deadline or some emergency that only you can handle. A girlfriend or boyfriend, or spouse may be a source of great joy and comfort to you, but when it comes time to spend a great deal of time on yourself, can they let you go (or more importantly, can you allow yourself to leave them behind)? Your house may give you a place to store all your worldly possessions and kick back at the end of the day, but I thought we had all agreed: comfort alone is not living.
We need to be kicked out of the familiar at times to prove to ourselves that we can survive without TiVo and microwave ovens; that we can order sushi in an out-of-the-way Tokyo restaurant without causing a language barrier stir; that the measure of happiness is not the money in the bank or the items around the room. It’s the human experience, one that needs to be pursued to its fullest potential.
See the world. Break a bone. Learn a new language. Run naked in the streets. Go dog sledding in Alaska. Run a marathon. Use your body and think about the original intent of our species ”¦
” ”¦ we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”
Score: Deuce. A tie for those of you keeping score. We are each wanting in certain aspects of life, both of us with different philosophies, different ideas as to what is important to us. In the end, that’s really all that matters. If you’re happy living in the same town, doing the same job, dating the same girl, eating the same food, then by all means, do it.
But if you crave change each and every day, waking up to the sun rising over the Pacific, learning Thai to impress the cute girl sitting across from you in the internet café, reading book after book just to locate the source of one cultural reference you came across earlier that day, then the life of a traveler may be for you.
Call us ungrounded. Call us backpack-toting hippies. But “immature”? I think not.