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Wondering About Wanderlust: Why Do We Travel?

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With spring in the air, summer vacation on the horizon, and exams coming up, it is the perfect time to start thinking about travelling to distant lands and exploring new places. Or, I mean, to study… But for many wander-lusters, it’s hard to focus on exams when the freedom to go someplace new is so close. Wanderlust is defined as, not surprisingly, the strong desire for or impulse to wander or travel and explore the word. It’s a feeling that so many people share, and is sometimes even described as ‘compulsion’. But where does one’s wanderlust come from, and why is travelling such an appealing idea for so many?

There are obviously many reasons why someone might enjoy travelling. I am in no way a psychology expert, nor am I yet a world traveller (sadly), so I can’t offer up a scientific or universal explanation for why people are born with a desire to travel. But here are some of the reasons that I, and, with the help of my friend Google have discovered that other people around the world too, fall under the spell of wanderlust.

Of course not everyone enjoys travel, nor does everyone travel for pleasure or for the purpose of exploring a new place. Many travel out of necessity, for work, or to visit friends and family. But much of travel isn’t non-negotiable. In 2008, a study conducted by The Guardian found that only 30% of trips over 50 miles in the UK were made for business. While there are countless different reasons one might travel and different forms of travel, many of us buying plane tickets to foreign places for the summer vacation or upon graduation, are doing so (à la Bilbo Baggins) for an adventure.

When it comes to travelling, something often brought up is the supposed distinction between the traveller and the tourist: is one better than the other? The common conception of the traveller is of the person who abandons Frommers Travel Guides, stays in a local hostel, trades in the Louvre for an obscure, more unknown street in Paris where street vendors sell their art; the person who goes off the grid, with nothing more than a backpack, and a map. The tourist is the person who stays in a hotel with all the amenities and comforts that they could find back home, and simply visits the well-known spots, equipped with info-desks and tour guides. The conception about tourists is that they simply skim the surface of the place that they are visiting. The traveller is considered the more ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ visitor of a place. However, to define one type as more real than the other is to say that you can objectively measure one person’s experience of a place over another, which isn’t true. Perhaps the tourist gets a more generalized, idealistic notion of a place, but even if this is the case, it doesn’t mean that their experience isn’t genuine. Whether a person decides to dive into all the little nuances of a city or to ride a tour-bus from one publicized monument to another, the value of their trip and what they get out of it is up to them.

The similarities between the word traveller and the French word travailler could point to one of the reasons that travelling is so gratifying for so many. In English, travailler means “to work”. For me, one of the important parts of travelling is letting things unfold on their own, letting the chips fall where they may. I don’t like having a rigid itinerary because that takes away from the unexpected and rewarding encounters that come from spontaneity. However, generally a trip does not just materialize out of thin air. It is something you have to work for before-hand. But the exciting part is the work you put in once the trip has begun. Walking down a street and deciding whether to go left or right, struggling to understand a foreign language, figuring out how much a bus to a neighbouring town costs: these are all little tasks you have to perform while exploring. It’s the work that goes into discovery that makes it so gratifying. Travelling and exploring are decisions that we make, and they are some of the most exciting choices we can choose to act upon.

Surrounding oneself in things that are foreign and not immediately recognizable are some of the aspects that makes travel so appealing to some. It’s almost like returning to a kid-like version of ourselves, where we are constantly discovering new and sometimes even basic aspects of life: how to communicate, how to eat certain delicacies, social norms. One gets to participate in abundant curiosity, and sometimes being constantly surrounded by things that are different can be overwhelming or scary. But being thrown out of our comfort zones is not only a chance to learn more about the world, it’s often a chance to learn a lot about ourselves. For many, travelling often involves living more ‘simply’, or at least without the possessions and comforts we enjoy at home. Our activities aren’t as preordained, and we don’t have all of our familiar habits and daily routines to participate in. You’re free from many of the expectations and accompanying labels that we carry with us at home and you’re also forced to live in the moment, less preoccupied with worries about yesterday or tomorrow.  Things tend to be more left up to chance, and therefore we have to be self-reliant and self-aware. Putting yourself into an unfamiliar situation lets you learn about different parts of yourself that aren’t always apparent in familiar surroundings.

As Jonah Lehrer of The Guardian writes, “…our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near-infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective.” In other words, going away not only helps us understand the new, but also the old. We gain new knowledge about our own homes, and it can reshape our understandings of things we thought we’d figured out.

Reading novels and watching movies are also kind of forms of ‘transporting ourselves’ or escaping from the normalities of our own lives. Though you can’t really compare reading a novel with wandering a city across the world, they do share a similarity: What you gain from travel isn’t a badge of honour, it’s something internal. It’s kind of like a mystery movie – you start not really knowing what’s going to happen, or how the story will unfold, but you’re looking for key clues. The further you go along, the more you feel closer to an understanding of what the movie is all about. Unlike a movie, it’s pretty impossible to really have a place ‘figured out’ in its entirety. We can capture a snapshot of a place in time, whether mentally or in physical photos, and we can revisit those snapshots in order to hold on to our experiences of a place, and to better our understanding of the world at large. But ultimately, I don’t think it’s possible to encapsulate a complete, finished idea of the world, and that is what keeps those who love to travel travelling. It’s the never-ending desire to know, see, and understand more and the satisfaction of coming home with a more ‘complete’ snapshot of the world; closer to understanding the ‘mystery’.

Technology offers an interesting aspect to the ‘mystery’ of travelling. Before the age of search engines like Google, it wasn’t so easy to see what different continents look like, or to Wikipedia information regarding foreign cities. In a way, having all this information at the tips of our fingers has taken away from the mystery of travelling. Often times, you can even view the exact street you will be staying on before arriving, or look at countless images of the sights you will see before you even reach the new place. Though looking at pictures on a screen can’t compare to real-life experiences, it enables you to, in a way, expect the unexpected and requires less of a jump into the unknown. Furthermore, though taking pictures while travelling can be such a crucial and rewarding part of a trip, sometimes it’s good to forget about the camera for a few moments. To just drink in your new surroundings first-hand and in that moment, as opposed to looking at everything through a lens so that you can remember the moment later.

You don’t necessarily need to go across the world in order to take part in travelling. Sometimes just catching a random bus in your home town and riding through the streets of a neighbourhood you’ve never been in can be a cool experience. You don’t need to cross an ocean to discover some place new (though there is something exciting about putting that kind of distance between yourself and home), you just have to start looking around. Counting the reasons regarding why some people love to travel could go on forever. The places you go, the ways you get there, and why you chose to travel are all so personal. And chances are all the preconceived ideas you go into a trip with end up being turned on their head anyway. Whether you’re riding the London Eye, drinking Suntory in Tokyo, or hitch-hiking in Santiago, the values of travelling and the reasons to embark on a trip are different for everyone. What are yours?


Photo Sources

Photo One: http://www.anewfoundtreasure.com/2012/03/thursday-giveaway.html

Photo Two: http://thefashionista.blog.com…

Photo Three: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/travel%20bug






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