We are living in the golden age of travel. More than one billion people travel abroad every year – more than ever before in the history of human civilisation. While there’s an ever-constant stream of information convincing us that we should travel, where we should travel to and what to do when we get there, the big question remains: why do we all leave our homes in the first place?
On a superficial level, travel is about rest, escape, adventure, relaxation, romance, excitement and enjoyment. Sipping cocktails under a palm tree on a white-sand Zanzibar beach or camping under the stars in Kruger are deeply pleasurable ways to spend our precious leave days. These experiences allow us to change the scenery from the daily routine of work and home. But surely the urge to travel – what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the great affair to move” – lies deeper than that?
Our species has always experienced the urge to move, to explore, to seek out the new. It is rooted deeply in us. Humans evolved in Africa and walked from here to the furthest reaches of the planet. It’s easy to argue that the desire to travel seems to be part of our evolutionary makeup. The great British travel writer Bruce Chatwin likened our primal wanderlust to “an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn.” We are nomadic at heart, and modern travel – whether it’s a long weekend in the mountains or a three-month road trip around southern Africa – is a symptom of this.
In a world that has been mapped out to its most remote and inaccessible corners, where even parts of Antarctica have been captured on Google Street View, we are no longer explorers in the sense that we uncover new physical territory in faraway places. But we still leave home to experience the unknown, to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. There’s a liberating feeling that comes with the uncertainty of travel – especially when it’s challenging – which forces us to confront our boundaries, limitations and identities.
According to the travel writer Pico Iyer, “we travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.” In the same way that we love to watch reality TV, we travel to gain insight into how other people live: to see what people eat for breakfast, to see how they celebrate, to understand how their beliefs and history form from their world views.
French author Marcel Proust said the real voyage of discovery is not about seeing new places but about seeing with new eyes. Travel widens our horizons and gives us perspective on ourselves and others, so that when we return home from our journeys we come back changed. At its very core, travel is a search for meaning, and this is something we shouldn’t forget whenever we’re on a trip. Even when we’re sipping cocktails on that beach lounger.
By Sarah Duff
Published in Juice (Mango’s in-flight magazine), March 2016