What is it that we like about travel? I think people would give a variety of answers. Here are a few that come to mind.
Experiencing different cultures and ways of life
This is what interests me the most. I am constantly curious about how other people live. As we were driving along today, for example, we passed a few trailer parks. I wondered what it was like in those trailers and how people live there and what those people are like.
However, this is the goal of travel that is often hardest to reach. When you travel with a group of friends or family through an unfamiliar country, you usually stay together, and you stay in hotels or campgrounds, where, if you meet anyone at all, it’ll be other outsiders like you.
Some of my best travel experiences had to do with visiting people I knew, and letting them show me around. A local’s view of a place is often different, and often more discerning, than a tourist-oriented view.
Fortunately, on this trip, we’re all staying with local host families. For me it’s not that big of a revelation. After all, I grew up in the US. But for my students it’s fascinating: they’re trying new foods, talking with their hosts, and generally learning a lot about everyday life in the US. And their hosts are being unbelievably generous with their time, showing the students around, taking them shopping, and so on.
Seeing historical monuments, buildings and places
This is something I enjoy in new cities. Perhaps it’s a result of growing up in the US, a relatively young country, but I love looking at old buildings. I love hearing about who lived there, and, particularly, how they lived. I suppose it’s akin to my curiosity about the people who live in trailer parks. And this is why I enjoyed the Tenement Museum in New York so much.
Visiting friends and relatives
This one overlaps with experiencing new cultures. And, to me, it’s the most enjoyable part of traveling. Seeing friends or relatives again for the first time in a long time is always a joy of catching up and making the most of the precious time we spend together. And, an added bonus, they can show me around the local sights at the same time.
Seeing beautiful scenery
This is what my students and I did today. We traveled to Whidbey Island and Deception Pass on the coast of Washington state to see the scenery. Everywhere we turned, there were beautiful views: snow-capped mountains in the far distance, sparkling sea in the middle distance, and brilliant green trees and fields nearer by. Coming from a countryside that is flat as a pancake, Dutch people never seem to get enough of the sight of mountains!
Judging by the people driving by in their cars, the locals are decidedly underwhelmed by the views we were enjoying so much. And, when you think about it, the same would go for us in the Netherlands: we don’t look at our views anymore. Even though it’s so flat, the countryside in our part of the country – Groningen and Friesland provinces – is also beautiful: green fields dotted with livestock, lovely brick-built churches, farmhouses and country estates.
So the point seems not to just be seeing beautiful scenery, but seeing different scenery. It’s the change of scene we’re looking for.
And that seems to be the key point of travel: difference. We want a change. We want to see something new: a different museum than the one at home, a different (and older) building than what we see every day, a different culture than we’re familiar with.
That, of course, makes it all seem very self-indulgent, as if we’re children who need distraction. I suppose we are. We have leisure time in a way that generations before us didn’t, and we need to fill it.
Yet, for me, I don’t just want to fill it; I want to fill it with other people. When I think about some of the best trips I’ve ever taken, the real joy of “experiencing other cultures and ways of life” or “seeing beautiful scenery” or “seeing historical monuments, buildings and places” is the people I’m seeing them with. I think of the wonderful meals I ate with my husband, my daughter and my foster daughter at street markets in China, or how much I enjoyed the Harry Potter sites I visited with my son and nephew and husband, or how quickly we met other people in campgrounds in the US when our four-year-old daughter played with their children.
So that makes it two key points: difference and people. Sharing travel with people I love somehow deepens the experience, and allows me to enjoy the memories with them later.
Why do you travel?