As someone who has been living out of their suitcase for eight years, there have been periodic flashes of “What in the world am I doing here?” and “Does this even matter?”
Usually these bouts of doubt occur on an empty stomach, in the back of a crowded bus, six hours into a journey that is just starting to cross a steep mountain range; or when lying in a damp hostel bed for the second week straight with food poisoning; or upon getting off a screechy train at midnight in a town that is dark, closed, and without a name.
While these are all doubts that are easily remedied with a warm meal, an antibiotic (or eight), or kind advice from a stranger, the larger question lingers: Does meaningful travel even matter? Is there a point to all this roaming? Or am I just going in circles?
The answer is an unequivocal YES, MEANINGFUL TRAVEL MATTERS.
At times, I get tired of lugging around my home on my shoulders. In such cases, I point to a random town on the world map and say, “That’s it; this is my new home, and I will live here forever and ever.” I arrive at dawn, sign a sublease, get a couple of part or full-time jobs, buy flower pots, and stock up my kitchen pantry.
But, in the end, it just turns out to be some sort of stationary travel: my feet may stop, but it’s impossible to turn off the traveling mind. I soak up the local culture, while also joining all of the travel and expat groups in town. Inevitably, a few months in, successfully “assimilated in the culture” and with a more full wallet, my soul feels full, happy, and wiser. And then it is ready for the next adventure again… so I put up a housing ad, have a yard sale, and dust off the ol’ backpack.
This is because meaningful travel becomes a lifestyle. That’s not saying that we are all doomed (blessed?) to be homeless nomads forever, but it’s difficult to lead a “normal life” after witnessing all of the effects that meaningful travel has had on us. But, what makes this lifetime of meaningful travel matter?
How travel changes your perspective
1. It inspires curiosity.
I went on one of those “See a Million Italian Cities in Ten Days” in high school, but came back with not much more than a sunburn, a suitcase full of limoncello, and fake Venetian masks. It wasn’t until I invited myself to an ecotourism homestay in Umbria that I began to understand and appreciate the complex culture (and pasta shapes) of Italy. From that point, I learned all of the Italian kitchen terms (which gradually upgraded to opera lyrics and the passive subjunctive tense), cheese names, grape varieties, and soil varieties from Sicily to Aosta.
Finding a meaningful volunteer or adventure abroad opportunity places us in contact with activities and people that can fuel our current interests, or inspire an entirely new one. Traveling expands our horizon to include rhythms, languages, social causes, histories, and sports we didn’t even know existed.
2. It forces us to grow up.
Meaningful travel— especially off-the-grid or solo, is a crash course in responsibility and humanity. Exposure to new cultures and tasks exponentially boosts our maturity, which creates well-balanced global citizens with a good sense of direction (literally or figuratively; take your pick), real life credentials, and a deeper understanding for the world around us.
Whether it is during a semester abroad in Zimbabwe or a nursing internship in India, we step out of our comfort zones and are required to pack our own lunch, read bus schedules in foreign languages, and haggle for our produce at the local market. We come in contact with daily situations that change our perception of how things work, which is great motivation to change how we function ourselves.
3. It redefines “home.”
Traveling slowly, becoming part of new communities, and seeing how other people live in all corners of the world helps us define what “home” is – and isn’t – to us. When we get homesick (inevitably), it makes us appreciate people or aspects of daily life we left behind or took for granted, and it opens our eyes to what holds houses together.
Most of the time, it’s not the terracotta bricks or bamboo walls that make us feel at home. Rather, it is the sense of comfort that comes from certain people, familiar foods, favorite songs, or shared traditions. “Home” becomes a comforting cloak we begin to carry around with us, rather than something concrete that ties us down or something we need to look for.
4. It shatters stereotypes.
I confess that when I went to a language school in Mexico, I was a little bit surprised to find out that Mexico isn’t just desert, cacti, tacky sombreros, and spicy food (although there is a fair share of all of the above). This is a narrow preconception, but it’s even worse when I mention that I grew up in Texas, just across the border. I should have known better, huh?
Within 24 hours, Mexico became my favourite country— and it still stands high on the list. This is to say that we don’t know people and places, even if they are in our own backyard, until we go there with an open mind. We cannot understand cultures until we experience them, taste them, talk to them, learn from them. And, along the same thread, meaningful travel breaks others’ conceptions of us (the traveler) and the country we are serving as ambassadors for. Breaking down stereotypes and boundaries, one positive interaction at a time. This is the most literal example of how travel changes your perspective.
5. It leaves a thumbprint.
Meaningful travel isn’t tourism en masse. Instead of marching among endless herds through the Colosseum, down the Champs d'Elysee, or up the Empire State Building, meaningful travel leads us to create our own path down unexplored territory – oftentimes, this is barefoot, muddy, and full of tangles. And most of the time, this leaves us in peaceful clearings or at the edge of an oasis.
We come in contact with people, places, and situations not accustomed to tourism. These interactions are, as a consequence, more significant and intimate. Names are matched to faces, stories are told, and new trails are blazed. Thumbprints are left upon new territories (but, not literally), upon others’ memories, and upon our hearts.
6. It slows down time.
There is a common fear of running out of time, of not seeing everything, of not doing enough. And while there are always a million things to do and places to be at the same time, traveling at the pace of our heartbeat roots us in the here and now.
It’s not about being on time for the next activity on the packed group tour itinerary; it’s about being on our own time, in the right place. There is no reason to rush the sunset, wait to eat until we are hungry, or worry about making the connecting flight next week. It’s about breathing in and focusing on what is in front of us.
7. It helps sort out our priorities.
This is the big one, the truest example of how travel changes your perspective. Meaningful travel makes us realize what we do – or don’t – need in life. If we miss individuals, climates, diets, or bureaucratic procedures, we add more value to them by trying to incorporate them in our long-term goals. If we can go weeks without even thinking about checking our work schedule, the latest football scores, or talking to Christopher from government class, chances are, they do not require an allotted space in our hearts.
Seeing how the world lives inspires us to re-evaluate what we actually require to be happy and ‘successful.’
More often than not, what we need is a lot less, and a lot more simple than imagined. Life becomes more about experiences and connections, rather than money and job titles and the latest car models. Memories take over physical things and quality tends to dominate over quantity.
Of course meaningful travel matters!
There’s no end to how travel changes your perspective. The lessons we learn on the road are carried inside of us forever as guidelines that influence daily interactions and thoughts. Journeys become nonlinear, rather than marked vacation days on the calendar. Meaningful travel inspires tolerance, expands our vocabulary, teaches us to spread our wings, and embeds a mentality of simultaneous satisfaction and a desire for more. We become happy with the little things in life and appreciate everything around us, yet we crave to learn and see more.
This is why travel is such an addicting lifestyle; it is constant change and growth. Not only does meaningful travel matter because of the difference we individually make in the world, but it is invaluable for the changes it makes upon our own individual perspective and being.
This is why I never even consider getting rid of my red travel backpack when I “settle down”— and I know that I’m not the only one.