The Case Against Living a Life of Travel

August 27, 2018

Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek popularized a life filled with freedom and travel. Sites and forums have popped up all over the web helping people turn this fantasy into reality. To turn their life in a cubicle into a life on a beach. As strange as this might sound, I really don’t think we should be trying to do this.

While it may seem difficult to create this lifestyle, with the advent of the internet it’s not that hard. There are plenty of cases of people who have made this travel lifestyle their reality. Whether they start an e-commerce business or consult as a programmer, there are ways to make good money online. And with the cost of living so incredibly low in many places (notably South America and Southeast Asia), a monthly income of $1.5-2k is often enough to live your life on the move. In addition, jobs such as teaching English or being an au pair for a family abroad also provide access to other countries without much prep work.

With some elbow grease and patience this kind of lifestyle is possible. There has been plenty of literature written about how to build this kind of lifestyle so I won’t expand on that (not to mention that I’m not qualified to). What I do want to write about is why it’s not ideal to chase after this lifestyle in the first place. Maximizing travel won’t lead to a life of satisfaction.

“As it is, instead of travelling you are rambling and drifting, exchanging one place for another when the thing you are looking for, the good life, is available everywhere” – Seneca the Younger

In November 2017, I took a trip alone to Kenya. I had never been to Africa and was craving a view of the large, expansive wilderness of the savanna. I went on a safari and saw over 35 different kinds of animals on my trip. It was fun, and I would recommend Eastern Africa to anyone who hasn’t been.

During the trip, however, I also experienced cognitive dissonance between how cool this trip was supposed to be and what I was feeling. I got great pictures and saw some animals I could only see in zoos back home, but something felt off. Maybe it was the half-dozen vans that huddled around a jaguar so tourists can get pictures. Maybe it was that most of my interactions were with other Westerners on this same safari. Maybe it was that even when we did interact with Masai people, it was scripted and felt fake.

However, one thing did pique my travel interest – the story of a man I met on this trip. After getting past the pleasantries, I started to get a better picture of what this guy’s life was like. He was a doctor, born in South Africa. He had no consistent job. Instead, he got medical gigs that lasted from a few weeks to a few months that carried him all over Africa and the rest of the world.

I asked for some of the things he worked on, and the first job he described was when we was working at an NGO the year prior. He offered to go to a dangerous area to help in a first-response type situation and was placed in Kabul, Afghanistan. If you aren’t familiar with Kabul (I wasn’t), it’s known for having frequent bombings / terrorist attacks. This doctor lived less than a mile outside the city center and when a bomb went off (as they inevitably did) he was part of a first-response team that rushed in to help the victims.

Another story revolved around a job that took him to a remote Indonesian island. He was traveling to a small village doing checkups of all the townspeople, and one of his last patients was an old man who walked up to him very slowly. Before the checkup, the old man stopped the doctor and told him to be extra careful, as he was the most respected and honored man in the entire village. Why? “My father ate the last white man that was on this island.” As it turns out, this village had been visited by a Christian missionary years ago and the old man’s father was the chief of this cannibalistic society (and thus had been granted the honor of consuming the late missionary).

The rest of this article explores the differences between these stories (and my personal cognitive dissonance) to understand the role of travel in a human’s life.

Categorizing Travel

Thinking broadly about travel, I propose categorizing it into three buckets.

  • Touristic Travel – the kind of travel to see the big-ticket items that most people participate in. Machu Picchu in Peru or the Colosseum in Rome. There are limited barriers to get there, and the value of seeing them stands on its own.
  • Extreme Travel – the kind of travel that is defined by the traveler doing something risky or dangerous. Climing El Capitan in Yosemite for example. Or being a war correspondent. These are things that most people can’t do (or wouldn’t have any desire to try to do), and that is their defining quality. Travelers know in advance that it’s going to be difficult yet they still embrace the challenge.
  • Uncharted Travel – this is the kind of travel where something new is being found or discovered. Most (but not all) of the stories involving uncharted travel are stories of the distant past. A great example of this is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s adventure to the South Pole.

Creating the latter two categories appeals to my inner desire to be a traveler instead of a tourist. How do I get satisfaction like that with my own travels? What is the essence (if there is one) that separates the extreme and uncharted travel from touristic and how do I capture it?

Reverting to my intro on Africa, we can place the situations neatly into the three varieties of travel. Touristic travel is what my trip mostly consisted of – a guided trip, planned in advance, to see something really cool (namely a bunch of animals up close).

Extreme travel is what the doctor did in Kabul. Most people wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. And he got a different view of the world for the risk. He knew that it was incredibly dangerous yet he still went to help. The risk is what puts this experience in extreme travel compared to touristic travel.

Uncharted travel is what the doctor did in his last story. The remote Indonesian island hadn’t seen a white person in years. By interacting with those people, he was having one of the most genuine, exclusive cultural experiences. Going to one of the few locations that didn’t have lots of information about it gave him a look into a culture that most people can only dream about.

Some Locations Once Held “Uncharted” Quality

One idea I had was maybe there are certain places in the world I can go that guarantee getting away from tourism. Then, all I had to do was book the flights and I could capture this amazing travel experience I wanted. However, the disconnect I discovered is that locations which once were uncharted travel destinations quickly bifurcate towards either touristic travel or extreme travel. The places themselves aren’t what provide the type of experience.

Think of it on a micro level. William Finnegan, in his autobiographical memoir Barbarian Days, describes a Fijian island called Tavarua where he stumbled across one of the world’s best surfing waves (during a four-year surfing trip in the late 70’s). When Finnegan found it, the location was almost completely unknown:

“By the time we left Tavarua that year, we figured 9 surfers knew about the wave. That number included a couple of Aussie crew guys and it assumed that Ritter and Gary were the first to surf there. In the small world of surfing, the wave was a major discovery. In the scarcity logic of that world it was essential to keep it a secret. We all swore a vow of silence.”

However, as you might suspect with such a great surf spot, this location became commercial before long. Tavarua Island Resort popped up in the early ’80s. Then in 2010, the Fijian government liberalized the exclusivity the resort enjoyed by allowing yachts and cruises to anchor near the breaks. Even more people flooded to the beautiful waves.

Now if someone went to this wave in Tavarua today, they would experience the wave in its full force, but wouldn’t be participating in uncharted travel because it was easy to discover (they just had to search online). Why didn’t this spot on Tavarua keep its uncharted quality? So many forces were at play and none of them can be individually blamed, really. Those first 9 surfers found a great thing. Then, entrepreneurs made it available for anyone willing to pay. There was a small period where it was an uncharted location because there were no commercial tours and most people didn’t know about it, and it was at that time that Finnegan found it.

Same thing with an African safari – it’s true that the animals and the landscape are similar to before it became a hot bed r tourism (ignoring the rather large fact that we have wiped out a great number of animals). But part of the romantic appeal is imagining yourself in the shoes of the people living / exploring Africa. Putting your mind in that time of risk and adventure is what is advertised by tour groups and romanticized by your friends, yet the reality is that you are nearly as comfortable as sitting on your couch at home. If it was as dangerous and unknown as before (or when Finnegan first found that wave), chances are that you probably wouldn’t be there.

Apply this phenomenon to every location in the world, and it’s no surprise that uncharted locations rapidly disappear. As soon as a new place is found, it’s quickly deemed either desirable or not. If it’s desirable, the rest of the world learns about it and the location becomes touristic. If not, it’s either thought of as dangerous (creating an extreme travel experience) or as uninteresting. From this, it’s easy to see that it can seem that traveling to these locations will provide you with the uncharted, authentic experience that some other traveler once had. Instead, you are proceeding to a much safer, more touristic location. And there is almost no where left in the world not like this.

What I’ve argued above isn’t anything new. The fact we can create a complete world map shows that humans have always had lots of interest in exploring unknown places. The newest wrinkle comes with the internet. While not the only factor, a key factor in becoming a touristic location is that a mass amount of people know about it. And the increased rate of information transfer is making this step much quicker. In fact, it’s quicker than it has ever been before. Launching a blog can be done in as little as a few hours, and articles titled “18 Reasons to Book a Trip to Thailand RIGHT NOW” are popping up all over the internet. Not to mentioned that HostelWorld provides safe lodging and TripAdvisor makes sure you eat at the best restaurant. The mystery is disappearing before our eyes.

Problems with Maximizing Travel

So there aren’t many places in the world left that are uncharted or extreme. Even if so much of the world is now bucketed into touristic travel, couldn’t I live a satisfying life maximizing this kind of travel? First, what is touristic travel, really? What do we do in other countries? Classic examples include seeing famous sites, eating unique foods, and observing first-hand how other humans live. Moving one step past that (and trying not to straw-man the opposing argument), there are some things like dog-sledding in northern Canada, partying in Ibiza or zip-lining through jungles of Vietnam that seem pretty cool.

Now think of a life where those experiences are being maximized. Don’t think just of the partying or the zip-lining in isolation, but think about if you did that with almost all your time. While the question of “What makes up a satisfying life?” constitutes another post (well, more like an entire lifetime) there are some general guidelines most people agree about. Things like building relationships, achieving mastery in your work, overcoming struggles, and helping other humans. Does dog-sledding check these boxes? What about eating delicious Italian food or exploring Greek islands?

Another way to think about this is if there is a sufficient growth available to what you are trying to maximize. Does travel provide a challenging environment where you can constantly push yourself? Can you grow with others and become better at travel? With extreme and uncharted travel, perhaps. But then it’s less about the travel and more about what you are doing. In the case of touristic travel, I would argue that once you check the first few boxes, any kind of touristic travel is no longer a challenge. Once you have lived out of a suitcase for an extended time, stayed at hostels a few times, and navigated cities in your non-native language, it isn’t hard to do so again.

Obviously for a vacation these bigger life questions don’t need to be considered. But if you make travel your priority, if you create a life of travel, you should have a good reason to do so. Does a life of the experiences listed above lead to a satisfying life, not just sound like a satisfying life?

The Multiplicative Role of Social Media

The last point I want to make is how social media makes all of this worse. Showing other people all of the places you travel is a huge psychological appeal and can be easily confused with why it should be done full-time. A simple example: waking up in Chicago and running by Lake Michigan is a really nice experience. In fact, I do it a few times a week. Waking up in Bali and running on a beach there is also probably a really nice experience (can’t ever say I’ve done it, but I’ve seen pictures). In terms of intrinsic beauty and experience, they have similar value. Why do so many more people fantasize / post about the experience in Bali? Because it’s both different from what they experience day-to-day, and it’s different from what their peers experience day-to-day.

It’s come to the point that travel is a sign of prestige. I wouldn’t have to convince anyone that buying expensive clothes, watches, cars, electronics and dinners is a race to the top that never ends. Especially with the popularity of Instagram, travel is now in this bucket. The only difference is that you can get this prestige, and the positive attention and “jealous!! I want your life!!” comments without having to be wealthy (travel has never been more affordable than it is today). It’s very similar to people who win the lottery and spend their life with fancy houses and cars, yet aren’t any happier. Except in this case, the lottery is a little bit of hard work to save money on flight deals and the fancy cars are locations around the world. Just like people show off things, so too do people show off experiences.

What this prestige does, amplified by social media, is puts a higher value on touristic travel than it actually offers. It temps people to maximize travel in their life. It’s just become quite a bit more financially possible (and socially acceptable) in my generation. So the greater question we need to be asking is not whether travel leads to the good life, but whether outside attention leads to the good life. And many people much smarter than I have already answered that question.

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