Why do we Travel? Footsteps of our Fathers

Why do we love to travel?  I hereby put forth a hypothesis: travel is a neat, tidy and personalized version of exploration. When I say exploration, I refer to the ancient voyages of discovery that our ancestors engaged in when they first crossed the Pacific, climbed the Himalayas, gawked at Niagara Falls and marveled at the Cape of Good Hope. Each of us, as Homo sapiens, is descended from a long line of mammals whose instinct compelled them to move out, move away and travel afar. This basic human trait literally moved them (and us, now) to explore new lands and see new sights because—as humans—we are hard-wired to stand-up, and start walking.

As such, we explored, populated and tamed this big, blue marble, primarily on foot. According to the most recent studies, we emerged either from Africa or Asia—or both—and began our mega voyages across the Bering Strait…and also up through Europe. Eventually—supposedly being smarter than other animals and eager to see more—we used our superior brains to craft vehicles that moved us faster and more efficiently than our own (woefully-slow) two feet. From horses to horsepower, and biplanes to high-bypass jet engines, we found newer and faster ways to propel us into the unknown.

So, as I see it; travel is a present-day, bite-sized version of exploration: a longing to glimpse unfamiliar horizons, tread on virgin soils and sample exotic foods. But most importantly, we relish in meeting new people. We eat and drink with them as new friends, all of which seems so refreshing to us because it is doing something different.

The Best Laid Plans…

This brings us to one important point. Travel by nature—like exploration—can be unpredictable and often leads to unexpected consequences. Even when on the most carefully planned vacation, we all too often find that our preparation was inadequate, our judgment was unsound and our budgeting was way too optimistic. So many times, we become painfully aware that, as author John Steinbeck once related, we only think we control a voyage—it really controls us.

Having resided in many a tourist resort over the years, I have oft witnessed the frightful experience of someone (ok, sometimes me on my own trips!) being lost, helpless, adrift or basically, in trouble in a foreign land. Eventually, after you see it enough times, you realize that, despite the best preparation, each trip cloaks one or more surprises that lurk silently, waiting for the best time to pounce on us like a jaguar from the deep, dark jungles of our prehistoric past. Be it lost directions, lost keys or lost sanity, or worse yet: lost tickets, lost money or lost passports; no voyage is complete—or even worth recounting—unless something unexpected happens

Alas, this truly is the bittersweet nature (and allure) of travel; we enjoy flirting with the unknown, courting the unfamiliar and even risking life and limb so we can revel in the rush it gives us. We marvel at our ability to dance with disaster and to skate on the razor’s edge of common-sense while throwing all caution to the wind.

The Cause and Solution to all Lifes Problems:

And, let’s not forget that the most powerful variable in determining whether a vacation ends as either a total nightmare or a dream come true is…alcohol. Call it pivo, ouzo, sake or tequila; tourist after tourist, place after place, century after century, (even as you read these words, somewhere in the world) tourists succumb constantly to the siren song of wine, beer and hard liquor on holiday.

For many, the vacation isn’t a vacation unless various forms of booze are available from start till finish. Total usage varies from tourist to tourist.  For many of us, to be on vacation means to follow in the footsteps of Bacchus, the Roman god of ‘blotto’.

So, what are the possible outcomes? Well, if we are unlucky, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of being inebriated on the Ebro, drunk in Podunk, hammered in Hamburg, or just plain silly in Chile. I’m talking about having drunk one too many in a place we’ve never been before. This pushes the performance envelope of our vacation to its limits. Here, the origin of the word “vacation” becomes abundantly clear. Not only do we take a vacation from our city, we vacate our common sense and our tacit obligation to remain peace-loving, respectable diners at the next table. “Oh, come on; wait at least until the DJ starts and dinner is finished!”

Americans Behaving Badly:

All too often, respectable, law-abiding citizens from somewhere else become attention-grabbing, beer-spilling, table-dancing tourists from somewhere else. Raucously celebrating their arrival with dissonant choruses and cacophonous catcalls, they proceed to make total fools of themselves. But, ‘who cares?’ they say: ‘We’re on vacation!!’

Why is it for so many of us, when we set foot in a city where nobody knows us, we enjoy complete license to do whatever we please, because: “no one back home need know and nobody here knows us!” For this reason, “What happens in Vegas…stays in Vegas” has become the battle-cry for vacationers seeking moral justification for the trip’s most embarrassing moments (if folks back home were to find out). But, in reality, we all know that was what made the trip so much fun!

So if someday, if you find yourself exhausted on the plane home after a wild vacation, wondering why you did it at all, remember: you inherit a trait from our nomadic ancestors. We share a penchant for celebrating the discovery of new lands, new landscapes and newly found allies. This is what motivated you to even go to there in the first place. You resolved to see, with your own eyes, that one place on the map where you’ve never a stuck a pin and can’t even pronounce properly (Xcalacoop, Mexico?).

In preparation for the trip, you dreamt of smelling the smells, seeing the sights, walking the streets and tasting the food. And when you arrived, you felt the cool, fresh winds of wonder tug on your rosy cheeks and pull the corners of your mouth into a broad smile. And then, you shut your eyes slowly, in total delight. You reveled in the fact that you left the stale, familiar confines of home in exchange for somewhere so completely and happily different, even if it was just for a day, a week a month or a few years.

September 30, 2010

2 thoughts on “Why do we Travel? Footsteps of our Fathers

  1. Ah yes….I’m just here for the beer! Or other fermented drink. Fermented drinks beverages the cornerstone of health for our ancestors, when water was not plentiful. Remember that Johnny Appleseed traveled around planting all those trees for…cider! (according to Michael Pollan). Travel is in our blood. But oddly, so is staying in one place. We have conflicting desires: Stay here and grow some roots or move around until we find something better. Also, I think you’re right that there’s a little thrill to traveling, never sure what will happen and having to rely on strangers to help us on our way.

Comments are closed.