#44: Why do we travel?

The bags were packed and stowed in the back, and we were already on our way to the airport. Stopped at a traffic light during the short drive heading to our first passport-necessary international trip, I heard this question from you from the back row of the minivan:

“Daddy, why are we traveling?”

I was confused. “What do you mean? We have to get on a plane to get to where we’re going.”

“No, I don’t mean why we’re getting on the plane. I mean, why are we going?”

At the time, I didn’t give my answer to your question much of a thought. “Because we like to go to different places and try new things.” It seemed like a basic answer for what I thought was a basic question. It seemed to satisfy you though, since you thoughtfully looked out the window and said no more.

But I’ve been thinking about your question all week. As we traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and back, I watched you trying to sleep in an uncomfortable seat, exploring the Underground and a new city, experiencing the mundane miracle of being on a train under the English channel, basking in the City of Light, and then suffering through almost 9 hours of flying time to get back home – all with a smile on your face. Through it all, I realized that your question was not basic at all, but fundamental.

And that “why” question is one that I had never really asked myself. I never questioned or rationalized my own desire to travel. We’re children and grandchildren of immigrants, so perhaps the wanderlust is partially genetic. Both your grandfathers came to this country to make a better life for themselves, but that desire couldn’t have been strictly pragmatic. They must have experienced some sense of wanting to experience life beyond what they knew. As a second generation immigrant, bridging the divide between two cultures on a daily basis, I probably knew more than most the feeling of being out of place wherever I happened to be. So perhaps the natural discomfort of putting myself into a new situation wasn’t a barrier like it might have been for others.

That doesn’t necessarily explain what the allure of travel is, though. It’s different to different people, to be sure. Some travel to check things off a list, or to enable them to claim that they’ve been to a certain place. They take their pictures of the tourist sites and to go home, notching their belt and then getting their cocktail party story ready.

For me, the value of travel is not just the experience of the place I’m visiting, it’s about what I bring back when I leave. I excise myself out of my daily routine and life and then then place myself into a new and different context. One where I’m asked to grow in ways that I am not called to do on a daily basis. Talk a different language. Eat different foods. Navigate a different culture, different norms. Using spiritual and psychological muscles that have withered from underuse.

And then I take my new self back, and try to fit back into the space I had previously occupied. But I don’t fit into my old life anymore – the person I have become is larger, more evolved. And since I have no choice but to return into my life I had, the consequence is that my life now has to flex and make room to accommodate the new me.

And unlike Archimedes’ infinitely long lever that could move the world, all it takes for that type of change is the cost of a plane ticket.

I’m lucky. My dad showed us from knee high the value of travel. Not in big ostentatious trips necessarily, but in dozens of small ways. We road tripped across the US in the back of a station wagon (even camping – yes, your grandfather voluntarily went camping). He allowed me at a young age to travel through Europe, semi-independently. It was the strength of those experiences that fertilized my love of travel, and part of what I want to pass on to you.

My original answer to your question that night is still, on the face of it, true. Your mama and I want you to see different places and experience what the world has to offer. Part of it is seeing with your own eyes people and places that you read about in books or video. But a larger part of it is to simply sit in a cafe or a restaurant or a park in a different country, simply to see and smell what it’s like there. To make the connection that the basic rhythms and beats of life there are the same as your life here, even if the composition and tempo can be tremendously varied.

But now that we’re back from our trip, I’m discovering a wholly unexpected and serendipitous benefit from traveling with one another. Just as I’ve experienced travel personally transformative, I think we’ve just experienced how travel can – in the same way- transform our family. Exploring something new together, allowing each other to wiggle out of our presumed roles, discovering a strength or quality about each other that we could not see in our normal daily lives. Watching you learn how to navigate a subway system, or discovering your sister can do math in her head in a way that none of us – including herself- knew she could.
Cutting us out of our daily routine and the normal context of relating to each other (mornings/school/work/dinner/bedtimes/activities/lather/rinse/repeat) and putting us collectively in new situations has not only changed us individually but it has changed our relationship with each other. THAT may be the ultimate reason to travel together. By shining a different light on all of us, we find something new to see in one another. And the growth we experience together means that when we return we make our experience of home different. For all of us.