International tourism reached new heights in 2015. According to the World Tourism Organization, it grew by 4.4% to reach a total of 1,184 million arrivals, marking the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth. The projection for 2016 is an increase of 4%, with Asia Pacific as the leading region. Most of us love to travel, regardless if it’s on a weekend trip, on a short vacation or on a long exploration journey. If we are asked why, the common answers are:
- To break off from our routine
- To discover new places and cultures
Human beings have been nomads for much longer than sedentary, as agriculture originated ‘only’ some 12,000 years ago. Our brain loves exploring nearly as much as satisfying our basic physical needs; traveling is as primitive as hunting. While we have been able to channel our hunting instinct through sports (most popular sports are based on some sort of aiming activity), our nomadic instinct can only be satisfied two ways: going physically somewhere or through our imagination.
Our brain is a sucker for novelty. Anything new (or not so new but stimulating such a loud noise or a bright light) gets its full attention immediately. This wonderful characteristic of our brain has a powerful disadvantage: its tendency to lose its focus from what is doing when the new stimulus is powerful enough. Our modern life full of open offices, mobile devices we look at constantly and lack of silence is contributing to make one of our brain’s most powerful abilities one of the worst.
While traveling, though, this situation reverses and we don’t mind losing our focus constantly. On the contrary, as most things we encounter truly are new (particularly when in countries of very different culture from ours), our mind’s main activity becomes jumping freely from one stimulus to another. Exotic nature, cities of strange architecture, people of different races, new food’s smells and tastes… our brain gets endlessly caught in the constant flow of novelty it encounters at each step.
I believe some of the stress people living in big modern cities suffer is triggered by our lack of attention (Buddhists call it the monkey mind, always jumping from one branch to another). Many are unable to efficiently complete daily tasks, and some have difficulties to fully enjoy leisure activities like a stroll in the park. Even interesting conversations have become rare these days, as many can’t follow a topic without getting distracted by their phone, a passerby or a new thought. Traveling liberates us from this stress by actually making this lack of focus pleasurable. There’s no tension attached to the process of discovering new landscapes, cities, food or people because there is no other expectation attached to it; there’s nothing else to do but to absorb each new experience. If you would like to multiply this effect, travel solo.
I love quotes because they are able to get powerful messages across with just few words. I’m using some of my favorites travel quotes to illustrate the reasons why we travel (or if you don’t, why you should):
1- To Learn through Experience
I love books as much as talking to people with interesting lives; you can learn a lot from both. But nothing beats what you learn through your own experience. In a world with so many entertaining options, some might forget to live their lives. Traveling allows us to learn first hand about the world and ourselves.
2- To Change our Life Scenery
I love Seneca’s quote. There have been three instances in my life where a change of place had a huge impact on my psychology and my attitude towards life. The first was when I moved from Spain to London in 1996. I left behind a catholic and latin country to live in a protestant and Anglo-Saxon one, swapping the collective and contempt Spanish attitude for a more independent and ambitious one. The second happened eight years later when I swapped London for New York City, when I gave up on the subdue British character for a more energetic and direct way of working and living. The third one occurred when I quit my job and my New York life to backpack through Asia for eighteen months, when I left behind the corporate competitive world in pursuit of a more independent life. How would have my life been had I stayed in Spain (or in London later on)? I’m sure I would not have achieved my dream of becoming a writer and a photographer had I not made those drastic moves.
3- To Better Understand the World
When I read or hear people’s views against immigrants, muslims, or homosexuals, I’d love to know where they have traveled to. Most people in the world are good people and have the same basic needs each of us has. Unfortunately, it is also true that cultural and social conditions can turn any human being into a terrifying monster. We just need to change those dreadful conditions some are born in (violence, intolerance, lack of freedom…) to make this world a better one. I’ve found that those who travel often are generally more tolerant and compassionate than average.
4- To Thrash our Ego
This one is a classic but also one of the best outcomes of traveling, particularly to remote undeveloped countries. I think each of us is nothing but a bunch of atoms put together by nature. If any of us were to die tomorrow, the world would continue relentless. And that’s exactly what will happen on the day we die. Meeting people who live in a hut in Laos or in the Indian streets will make you value what you are and have, as well as comprehend how insignificant each of us is (which doesn’t mean we can have a big impact on people around us; I mean we are not indispensable).
5- To Better Understand Ourselves
Our understanding of ourselves, our mental tendencies (worries, fears, cravings…) will become clearer the longer we travel. I think long-term solo traveling is one of the best ways to truly know yourself. In an ideal world, each of us would be able to travel the world for a few months, maybe a year. It would be a great investment in our future.
I don’t know how much that would cost, but the benefits for all would be immense. It’d be awesome if a wealthy country would finance its young citizens’ world traveling, either as part of their general education or under a cooperation program aimed at obtaining some specific results. As the world becomes more globalized, one way of fighting against bigotry, prejudice and those populist politicians wishing to close our borders would be by increasing international exchanges of young people all over the world.