Last week I gave a short and simple presentation for Atlas on the topic Why do we travel? A talk about the kind of stories that inspire us to continue exploring our environments and its remote cultures. The talk is part of a new series of events that we decided to call Science of Travel.
I started by asking the question of Doug Lansky: why did travelling go from this to this? One answer to this question is that travelling has got a lot easier: not only in the sense that there are more planes and means of transportation available to all; but also in the sense that the experience itself has changed. The spread of global brands like tripadvisor, hostelbookers, hostelsworld, mcdonalds, marriot’s has transformed tourism into a much more accessible, impersonal, standardized experience. Nowadays we can find the very same venues in all the main tourst locations around the world and when we use them we know exactly what to expect from our journey. This, of course, makes the life of travellers much easier.
At the same time, easy tourism defies the original purpose of travelling. Travelling was always a way of loosing ourself, to be disoriented, so that we can understand ourselves better. In fact, travel was always a spiritual experience. It is not by chance that some kind of voyage figures prominently in all the main monoteistic religions: Moses travels to Mount Sinai too get the ten commandments, Jesus travels across the desert to find himselfm, Mohammed’s first encounter with God is in Cave Hira, and even buddah becomes the Buddah when travelling in the wilderness. Religions show us the transformative aspect of travel. When we are disoriented, our thoughts are amplified and we establish a more unique connection with what is around us. So now it should be clearer why travelling with technology and relying on mass tourist destinations and global brands… is not really travelling at all. As Chelsea writes in her 1 year without a cell phone, ‘I didn’t want to have Google Maps at my disposal, pull up answers in the palm of my hand, or browse through the Top 10 Places to See on a screen. I wanted to touch the shoulder of a stranger and ask for help, get local advice, hear stories firsthand. I didn’t want a search bar telling me where to eat‘. By contrast, the millions of people who travel this way are more like consumers walking into supermarkets than travellers experiencing surprising destinations.
How can we have a more authentic travel experience, then? Relying less on technology and going for something hard is a good starting point; but it is not only about being more connected to nature than to the internet, though. It is also about doing something hard, as opposed to something easy. Many people nowadays walk the Camino de Santiago looking for something that is not predictable, and not standard. Hardness gets us moving – and it brought us to the moon: it was JFK who famously said ‘we decided to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard‘. Tough obstacles make for nice stories.
This is why, when I set off for a trip, I go with the objective of writing one short story about one person I will meet. It is not much about the act of writing: it is more about changing my mindset and actively looking for encounters. This is how I learnt to pay more attention. But then, of course, each of us has a different way of looking for and telling their own stories. In Gran Canaria I met a variety of creative persons. Marco, for instance, does it by playing music: his Kamelen Goni is a means of fostering encounters and transmitting his feelings. Abel uses the light to write stories through the photos of his camera. Silvia paints. I write. At the end of the day we all travel for a story.