Why Do We Travel? A Philosophical Look at One of Mankind’s Most Basic Impulses

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Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why people (and perhaps even yourself) have such a great desire to travel?

In today’s rapidly evolving, modernized world it’s easy to be blinded by the endless minutiae of the travel world and forget about the bigger picture – why you’re traveling in the first place.

Questions such as “Where can I find cheap flights?”, “What’s the best app for booking accommodation?” and “Where can I find last-minute deals?” cloud the mind and can prevent you from asking the bigger questions (such as “Why am I even traveling?”).

Many have pondered the idea of travel, and have wondered what it is that compels so many of us to leave home and travel to other (often distant) places. Bruce Chatwin (a great travel writer) once described nomadism (i.e. traveling) essentially as a long-established impulse deeply rooted in our species that is unlikely to change.

It seems that as our world has evolved and we have become increasingly prosperous, this remains true as we are “far from being a sedentary species.”

Traveling by Hot Air Balloon

Ilan Stavans, professor of Literature at Amherst College, has produced one of the most thought-provoking articles on travel in a long time (which can be found here), and addresses this very subject.

Stavans is clearly a well-versed, articulate man who makes many notable points in his article.

Stavans puts forward the idea that many modern tourists perhaps lack the willingness and the humility to properly lose themselves as they travel, which he argues is a prerequisite for “genuine travel.”

Stavans has many thoughts on modern tourism (and how it no-longer offers a ‘challenge’): “We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur … whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.”

“Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.”

“There’s no seeking required, and no real challenge, because the emotional voyage is preprogrammed. The world has become a frighteningly small place.”

Sadly, as Stavans puts it, “we might never understand travel as our ancestors did”. Why is this? “Our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified.”

Stavans then notes how “our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves,” and how traveling should be: “We set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.”

To read the full article for yourself, click here.

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