Although this post is tailored specifically to students who are thinking about whether or not they should go travelling, all considerations are applicable—and hopefully valuable—to any circumstance of living in which one may find themselves.
1. A questionable method
“Hello, my friend! What are you doing here?!?”
I’m stumped. Our bleary star is setting over the lush, mountainous landscape, which I’m soon to be traversing throughout the night atop a scooter I rented 5 hours ago in Kathmandu, Nepal. I’ve just pulled off the pothole ridden road in search of dinner, but instead I’m immediately confronted by a local store owner with the same, perpetually unsatisfied question that has come careening into my consciousness many times since my arrival in Asia: What am I doing here?
While stumbling out of a dismount, I reply, “I’m honestly not sure, but are you making food?”
Perhaps 1st year has left you shell shocked, or you’re hitting the halfway-degree wall, or just maybe your time at university is nearing an end and you’re somehow still being disarmed by the seemingly simple query of what you’d like to do in the wake of your studies.
Many students drift toward the idea of leaving the comfortable home life to travel for a multitude of interests: historical, cultural, geographical, biological, and linguistic—among others. However, the most common reason for travel that I’ve heard when communing with fellow backpackers is that they’re searching for some existential answer, reason, or passion to set their future on a course that will lead them and others to a greater state of fulfillment and well-being. This missing depth of meaning in one’s life is by no means rare in the contemporary, secular world, but is hurling yourself into the chaotic streets, crisp mountains, surreal cultural deviations and laid-back beaches of developing worlds really the best method for finding purpose?
2. The internal enquiry—navigating the mind
If a surge of meaning and motivation is what you’re after, then isn’t it a non sequitur to try to fulfill that internal desire by stimulating your external senses with foreign sensations? Does being surrounded by beautiful sights, tastes, and smells even matter if you’re still a neurological mess without a stable direction? How is this not synonymous with simply distracting yourself from your inability to find a deeper purpose in life? I believe that the answer here lies in how your brain undergoes change.
In every moment, your brain is collecting and processing sensory information derived from the external environment—altering the structure of your neurological network. This incessant restructuring, transferring, strengthening, and attenuating of brain cell connections is called neuroplasticity, and it determines how your dreams, desires, skills, motivations, and behaviour change from today to tomorrow to next month and unto your final breaths in this wonderful, conscious realm. From every encouraging encounter with a friend to every abject failure, every stressful deadline to each precious, eye-locked moment in love, your brain is updating its wetware to effectively meet its long-term goals and short-term desires—both of which are also morphing in response to the incoming sensory data. Because of this ever-changing entity that you are, catapulting your brain into a world of foreign unfamiliarity produces a unique contortion of neurological structure, which can result in quite the revelation. Put simply, neurological change—that which produces shifts in values, ideas, and motivation—is the product of external stimuli and internal processing of said stimuli; find new external stimuli, and your internal processing/perception of the world is sure to change with it.
Given this simple fact that brains change in response to their environment, what typical perspective shifts might we be talking about when one plunges into a strange land populated by even stranger people?
Homo Sapiens’ success in becoming the most powerful and dangerous species on the planet is thought to largely be a result of our deeply rooted social nature; our ability to influence each other through complex language and to unionize massive populations under surreal belief systems is unparalleled throughout the animal kingdom. It is therefore no surprise that communication with other humans is an exceptionally potent form of external stimulus. We’ve all had encounters with people that quite unexpectedly changed the course of our life, and travelling is a means of meeting (and sometimes getting stuck with) strange Sapiens who you’d never have met otherwise. In addition to an exposure of more unusual people than you’d come across in a standard day, those who are on the road are typically quite open, if not eager, to discuss big life questions, personal dilemmas, and possible paths for the future. Together, these factors can set the stage nicely for unearthing new ideas and discovering what really matters most to you in life.
“Where are you from, what do you do back home, and why are you here?”
Although travellers commonly express fatigue when referring to this trio of trite questions, I believe that there can be an important take-away from this customary exchange of information. By recapitulating your personal spiel over and over, you are in the business of constantly reinventing yourself in the eyes of strangers. Honing your phrasings with each blank slate encounter, you begin to discover what description of yourself you find to be most attractive, inspiring, dull, tempting to hide, or worth pursuing further. For some, this socially forced, banal self-reflection can be a gateway to greater self-awareness: a mental tool that has been used by countless hominids to leverage life-changing insight.
3. The external enquiry—possible negatives of the traveller’s lifestyle
Another topic you may be ruminating over is whether travelling through developing countries produces a positive or negative impact on the local society and ecosystem. At a quick glance, it seems like all you’d be doing is importing money and a sweat-drenched backpacker’s smile into the region. But what does an influx of tourism really do to an area?
With hundreds of billions of dollars spent globally by tourists each year, governments and private tourism organizations are putting in a lot of energy to attract travellers and their money pouches to their little corner of the Earth. In addition to outlet adapters and hand sanitizer, travellers also tend to carry many expectations regarding what a certain country is like and how its inhabitants behave—now more than ever, guided by the fantastical and often intentionally biased personal social media outlets such as Facebook and Instagram. Quite commonly, the romantic fantasy of seeing local rituals and non-globalized lifestyles is tastelessly capitalized on by tourist agencies and local store owners through the creation of purchasable pseudo-culture. This results in the mass production of local-like tourist clothing, little wooden carvings, strangely forced airport dances, suffering-filled elephant rides, imprisoned cobra charming and down the list we go. For better or worse, the presence of travellers most often transforms the economy from local needs to tourist desires, changing the very culture we came to see.
Once an area of considerable beauty becomes popular enough and small, locally run businesses are no longer able to meet the growing foreigner demands, it is standard for big corporations to sweep in and build large hostels, hotels, resorts, and stores. Many local business owners who have spent much of their life running the family store are then forced to shut down and, if they’re lucky, get a job with the bigger businesses, which successfully siphon the majority of travellers’ capital from the townspeople to the voluptuous bank accounts of outside multi-business owners.
However, this isn’t always how it has to go. Like any service industry, the customer has immense power by voting with their dollar and spreading that awareness to other dollar-voters.
Attenuating the negative impacts of the traveller’s lifestyle really doesn’t require much effort. A bit of minor research into the behavioural impact of certain countries, organizations, and activities—while keeping an eye out for injustice—can go a long way. If these are the types of concerns you hold when contemplating an adventure abroad, I’ve laid out a few considerations below to help kick-start your ethical engine:
This list is far from comprehensive. However, in the absence of a full-fledged moral grappling of the topic, I believe that it serves as a good starting point.
Any style of living—however morally premeditated—is bound to inadvertently impede someone or something’s efforts to improve the status of their well-being (wisely directed life choices only reduce this obstruction, which is why, of course, they still matter immensely). The traveller’s lifestyle is no exception, and some downsides simply have to be accepted and justified by the mound of positives brought into the world through the mingling of different peoples.
As outlined above, breaking the normative cycle of your life through travel can allow you to glimpse the lens that you ordinarily view your life through; you become aware of the water in which you swim by seeing how different the water is in which other people paddle out their lives. Turning this fresh-eyes perspective back onto your home life, you can discover how strange and arbitrarily rhythmic it looks. You find that there are some features you care about dearly, and yet you’ve missed most of the opportunities to take advantage of their availability, or to show your appreciation for them. In contrast, other things that you’ve poured a considerable amount of time and energy into seem to not hold an appropriate amount of significance in your life to justify such efforts. It’s quite simple, really: when removed from your normal environment—socially, ecologically, and with respect to your daily routine—you will notice which aspects you miss and which you feel alleviated from. This is a wonderfully effective way to discover the present state of what truly matters to you, and how you might want to restructure your life upon returning home.
Your biology—the very foundation that your cognition and conscious experience manifest from—was crafted on this planet throughout the last 3.8 billion years. Learning about your birthplace (Earth) and the global fleet of hominid relatives who are living out such a wide variety of lifestyles is, I believe, a beneficial endeavor for not only your own personal development, but also for the betterment of other earthly beings. The norms that you’ve been marinating your life in are almost certainly not of the same flavour that the majority of humans are immersed in. By sharing your stories and listening to those of others, a face-to-face exchange of how one can exist in this world unfolds. This exchange catalyses new ideas and strengthens an understanding of universal humans values, increasing global empathy and a sense of interconnectedness.
And finally, the guarantee of old age is given to no one. I know the feeling of being swirled around the academic vortex and thinking that it would be total madness to take a semester or year out of the circuit, but there will always be something happening in your life that will need to be dropped if you wish to tread upon the traveller’s trail. Given that the role of stationary responsibility typically increases with age, why not take advantage of your ability to travel as early as possible and just maybe return from the colossally complex world with a vision to make yours a little brighter.