There comes a time when it is appropriate to ask questions like “what got me here.” Not here in life. I’m 24. I am decidedly not having a midlife crisis. But here, physicially, where I am.
It would seem that my current existance in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hanging out before catching a prop plane to Somalia is absolutely the perfect time to ask that question. Why do I travel the way that I do? How do I, or, if I want to project myself on an entire community (always appropriate) we as travellers, relate to the places I/we drift through. What do we hope to gain? What purpose do these places serve in our own narratives?
An amazing travel companion of mine, Pablo, once asked such a question. We were passing through Popayan, Colombia, and discussing other parts of the country that we had been to separately. Which places were “worth going to,” and which were simply… “not.”
“Isn’t it weird how we just fucking… consume places?” Pablo asked.
“Huh?!” was my response as I alternated between a beer and some sort of delicious pastry I had recently come across. Consuming places wasn’t really what was on my mind at the time. Consuming alcohol and food took priority.
“I don’t know. We just… fly or bus or hitch-hike or whatever to these countries or cities and smile at how different things are like we’re in… fucking Epcot Center or something?”
I half shrugged off the question at the time. It was interfering with my consumption of Popayan. This conversation came at the tail end of 11 months of travel, my longest stretch of unadulterated backpacking to date. I had spent a few months in Scandinavia and on the Iberian Peninsula, worked my way through the Mediterranean Middle East from Istanbul to Siwa, in Egypt’s West, and was somewhere in the middle of my five months travelling the vast majority of Spanish speaking South America. It was one of the best years of my life, and I certainly didn’t feel a strong inclination to unpack my situation. My identity at that time was as a traveller (it still might be, I’m not sure), and, like most people when they feel any sort of threat to their identities, I shut down and defended it.
And, here I am, years later. Spending my 11 day Spring Break from my teaching job in the Bronx laying around in Ethiopia. It’s my first time back to Sub-Saharan Africa since I spent 4 months between the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania in the summer of 2009. I’ve travelled a lot in between then and now, but, more-so than I have felt this way in the last year or so, I really feel like I’ve stepped back into my old life, minus a few critical bits, my skin is no longer conditioned to the desert sun, despite my attempts to compensate with sunscreen.
I’ve spent my days talking to exceptionally friendly locals, negotiating Somaliland visas at the only existing Somaliland Consul (hence my presence in Addis) vacillating between expat hangouts (the German Beer Garden has been a favorite) and bumming around with the locals in share taxis. Tomorrow I have another day of the same. I’m not sightseeing at high speed. I’m not visiting friends. I don’t know a single fucking person. I cannot believe I have only been here for two days. Time, at least the way we measure it with our 11 day vacations or 5 day work weeks, becomes less and less relivant.
Why do we do it?
I remember an article in Lonely Planet Magazine about the benefits of travel. It mentions travel making you younger, because it makes time slow down, like when you were a kid and a week seems like an eternity. I think I buy that. But let’s be honest. We don’t travel to make time slow down.
I personally don’t buy into travelling as an escape, either. A lot of the non-travellers in my life are only able to understand my love for the… hobby? Lifestyle? What the fuck is it? By asking me what I am running from. What I’m afraid of. And while, like just about everyone, there’s a lot in the world and in my future that makes me a bit nervous, I’ve never felt like I was running away from myself. I have felt like I was trying to escape the constraints of my situation. That I’ve done.
Some old candy bar advert was centered around guys getting asked tough questions by their girlfriends, and buying a moment to think their response over by shoving a… twix? Snickers?… Into their mouths. Real, long haul travel is kind of the twix moment for our life decisions. It is literally time off of a pre-determined path to re-invent ourselves, not really in the present but in the future. It’s a chance for us to meet people who are of radicially different backgrounds than ourselves, whether we mean the people we are travelling with or the people we encounter while we pass through their communities.
But that isn’t all of it.
For many travellers, myself included, travel transitions from a string of international experiences to an international lifestyle. There are elements of this in almost every backpacker I know. I cannot count how many times I have had the following conversation:
XXX: “What’s you’re favorite country?”
Me: “That’s a really hard question to answer, I like different places for different reasons.”
XXX: “OK. Where could you see yourself living?”
And there it is. The liberation that goes beyond the temporary. I guess it makes sense. As travel becomes more and more of a lifestyle, and the countries that issue our passports become less and less relevant to our day to day lives, with international bank accounts set up to get paid from jobs overseas and without an apartment at home full of furniture, we start to think about where we could see ourselves settling down.
I have this list, a lot of us do. For me, though, I think it is far less about escapism than it is about control.
Come on. The Westerners of our generation have grown up to national economies imploding, unemployment looming at the end of university, international warfare we didn’t necessarily sign onto, and a digital revolution that makes it more and more possible to keep in touch and handle our affairs from anywhere in the world. There is less that makes life at “home” desireable, and far more equipment available to make our transitions to expat life as smooth and flawless as possible.
Even this short trip would be impossible without these technologies. I have graded student work on the stopovers. There’s wifi on my intercontinental flights so that when I get back to Manhattan I can rush straight to a dentists appointment, my work already uploaded and available to my team. My sister gets married in California three days after I get back. The shirt I need for my suit will be waiting for me in an Amazon locker a five minute walk from my apartment when I get back into the country. How’s that for portability. How’s that for control? I can be on a beach in Somalia, choreographing a bunch of tasks to make my personal and professional life run efficiently.
Beyond our collective experience, my childhood was a combination of interstate moves every few years, a rotating door of people living in our home, with the odd terminal illness or abuse case rocking the house from time to time. I never really thought of it before, but more than anything, I think this is what’s shaped me. It’s why I’ve always made sure to have access to enough cash to get away and at least make the first moves in the direction of starting over. It’s why I have backup plans around the world… places I’d go if my job fell through or became unacceptably unworkable. I’ve seen way too many people fall into the seemingly inevitable trajectories of their lives, and that isn’t what I want for myself. So I’ve made sure there was always an escape option.
There’s different degrees of this, of course. Somalia, it may surprise you to know, is not a place that I’d rush to move to. It’s a break from life. From the hustle and bustle. A twix moment. But it’s more than that. A reaffermation of freedom. Of the fact that there are doors open. A chance to challenge myself. And yeah. To lay on a beach, 8,000 miles from home, and read a book.