When many people think of traveling, their thoughts often gravitate towards all inclusive trips, usually containing a beach, a buffet, and a week escape from the daily grind. In North America especially, those pre-packaged vacations are generally the only options for people to take, since their vacations are often only a week or two long in duration.
But world travel isn’t just about the places you go; it’s also about the physical and personal journeys that it takes to get there and the growth that often occurs along the way. It involves mishaps, missteps, and a natural learning process that takes someone from humility, to perseverance, to understanding, and beyond. Planes, cars, airports, and busses are important, but they are simply the secondary characters in a larger play – they help advance the plot, but they aren’t the story.
When I went to Argentina earlier this year, I purposefully wanted to go for at least three months. The majority of my trips in the past have all been between seven to ten days long. In that short amount of time you can see the highlights, but rarely the blemishes, and often looking back it’s the experiences that occur when you least expect them that form the most memorable experiences.
My iPad is full of travel books, some about Argentina, others about Ireland, and more recently about Hawaii and New Zealand. Those books often try to answer the what and where questions, that is what are some of the best things to see and do, and where should one go while visiting a place? But I only really have one book on my iPad that tries to answer the often overlooked why question.
That book is called Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and it’s also one of Tim Ferris’ favourite books as well. I’ve read it a few times now, and I get something different out of it each time.
Here is an excerpt from the opening in the book:
Of all the outrageous throwaway lines one hears in movies, there is one that stands out for me. It doesn’t come from a madcap comedy, an esoteric science-fiction flick, or a special-effects-laden action thriller. It comes from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, when the Charlie Sheen character — a promising big shot in the stock market — is telling his girlfriend about his dreams.
“I think if I can make a bundle of cash before I’m thirty and get out of this racket,” he says, “I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China.”
When I first saw this scene on video a few years ago, I nearly fell out of my seat in astonishment. After all, Charlie Sheen or anyone else could work for eight months as a toilet cleaner and have enough money to ride a motorcycle across China. Even if they didn’t yet have their own motorcycle, another couple months of scrubbing toilets would earn them enough to buy one when they got to China.
The thing is, most Americans probably wouldn’t find this movie scene odd. For some reason, we see long-term travel to faraway lands as a recurring dream or an exotic temptation, but not something that applies to the here and now. Instead — out of our insane duty to fear, fashion, and monthly payments on things we don’t really need — we quarantine our travels to short, frenzied bursts. In this way, as we throw our wealth at an abstract notion called “lifestyle,” travel becomes just another accessory — a smooth-edged, encapsulated experience that we purchase the same way we buy clothing and furniture.
Not long ago, I read that nearly a quarter of a million short-term monastery- and convent-based vacations had been booked and sold by tour agents in the year 2000. Spiritual enclaves from Greece to Tibet were turning into hot tourist draws, and travel pundits attributed this “solace boom” to the fact that “busy overachievers are seeking a simpler life.”
What nobody bothered to point out, of course, is that purchasing a package vacation to find a simpler life is kind of like using a mirror to see what you look like when you aren’t looking into the mirror. All that is really sold is the romantic notion of a simpler life, and — just as no amount of turning your head or flicking your eyes will allow you to unselfconsciously see yourself in the looking glass — no combination of one-week or ten-day vacations will truly take you away from the life you lead at home.
Ultimately, this shotgun wedding of time and money has a way of keeping us in a holding pattern. The more we associate experience with cash value, the more we think that money is what we need to live. And the more we associate money with life, the more we convince ourselves that we’re too poor to buy our freedom. With this kind of mind-set, it’s no wonder so many Americans think extended overseas travel is the exclusive realm of students, counterculture dropouts, and the idle rich.
In reality, long-term travel has nothing to do with demographics — age, ideology, income — and everything to do with personal outlook. Long-term travel isn’t about being a college student; it’s about being a student of daily life. Long-term travel isn’t an act of rebellion against society; it’s an act of common sense within society. Long-term travel doesn’t require a massive “bundle of cash”; it requires only that we walk through the world in a more deliberate way.
This deliberate way of walking through the world has always been intrinsic to the time-honored, quietly available travel tradition known as “vagabonding.”
Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life — six weeks, four months, two years — to travel the world on your own terms.
But beyond travel, vagabonding is an outlook on life. Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude — a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.
Vagabonding is not a lifestyle, nor is it a trend. It’s just an uncommon way of looking at life — a value adjustment from which action naturally follows. And, as much as anything, vagabonding is about time — our only real commodity — and how we choose to use it.
If you’re looking for a really great travel book, then I suggest you put down the Frommers and the Lonely Planet guides for a bit and grab a copy of Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. I’ll probably re-read some of it again on my way to Honolulu tomorrow.