Sunday, 8 June 2014

My Travel Bug

Image Credit: 'Wandering' by Hasna Lahmini
Image Credit: 'Wandering' by Hasna Lahmini

In the past couple of weeks since a friend of mine sent me this post about what it is to have the travel bug (in French, 'Le virus du voyage') I've been giving some thought as to why I travel, what I enjoy about it, and what this supposed bug is all about.

To start with, I haven't really considered myself a great traveler until only recently. I'm not sure if it's because I always meet people who have traveled more than I have while travelling, or if I just hadn't really thought about myself in this way - I mean by that I've just been thinking that traveling the way I have is a pretty normal thing to do. Checking my TripAdvisor Facebook app, I've traveled to 27 countries, about 17% of the world. You might know I spent 18 months traveling in Asia and over a year of that time trying out the digital nomad thing. I have also been on a few 1-2 month long trips before. The fact is my family and friends think of me as a great traveler. According to a recent survey, the average Briton has traveled to 7 countries. I'm not British, but I think I can agree I'm not average either, at least when it comes to travel.

So there, I'm a traveler.

There are several aspects of being a traveler I can write about, I'll spread that over a few different posts. I'd like to talk about the urge first, it's one way to talk about how it starts.

Travel bug is an interesting term in itself, taken literally it implies the traveler is not responsible for his wanting to wander, only the victim of a greater force at play, so strong it is compared with a disease or a virus. I don't think there is such a thing as not being entirely responsible for wanting to go travel, however the analogy is pretty good. It feels like a longing, wanting to drop everything and just go, seeing with my own eyes the landscape hiding beyond the horizon even though I intellectually know that the proverbial grass isn't actually any greener over there than it is here.

How did I catch this travel bug then? I'm not sure, but you could say I grew up in the right terrain: my parents left their own countries and traveled to different ones to live and work, I have too as a child, so I have an international background. I remember reading somewhere that children who grow up with an international background and travel are more likely to do the same as adults.

I've always loved reading, from the moment I learned I was reading 2-3 times more than school assignments asked for. I day dream a lot, and over think almost everything. My favourite books are science-fiction, fantasy, and travel journals - stories about exploring imagined worlds or our own. I know these things are related, without necessarily providing a specific reason.

I remember collecting post cards from various places as a teenager, they decorated the walls of my bedroom. I preferred them over posters of any movies or bands I liked. It may have started even earlier, though it makes me think of a story, probably the closest explanation I have right now.

When I was 15 years old, just before turning 16, I went to visit old friends of my parents in Long Island, near Oyster Bay if I remember correctly. They had two kids about my age I hadn't seen since I was 6 years old, before we moved to France. I didn't really have a good time during the trip. I was hanging out with the kids and their friends, it was ok but I don't remember really getting along with them. As a teenager, being part of the group is essential though, and I didn't really have anyone else to hang out with so I made efforts to be friendly.

Then something happened, I can't remember exactly what it was, but probably something barely interesting enough to make it in a daytime TV sitcom scenario. Something along the lines of being made the scapegoat for something that was said to someone and upset the whole group. Drama, shouting, and vague threats ensued, and basically it was made clear to me I was no longer welcome in the gang. Then on top of that I was told off be the father that night for not helping around the house (I was, or at least I thought I was) and had some weird speech about how I should be more sociable (again, I thought I was). He didn't let me call my parents after that when I asked, because it was too expensive.

Needless to say I was seriously upset. I went to my room, cried a while, I missed my friends and family back in France, and suddenly felt very far away from home. Then I thought about it all. I felt alone, and also like I was the only one I could count on to have anything else happen.

I wondered what I could do about it, what I wanted to do about it. I didn't want to be a victim of the situation.

I was only a few days away from the end of the trip, and I hadn't really seen anything of New York City, which was why I wanted to go in the first place. I had spent most of the time in Long Island so far. I looked at the train schedule, made a decision, and made a plan. I would get the hell out of that house and go visit Manhattan, I'd be solid and self-reliant, I didn't need any of those people. I didn't think exactly in those words, but thinking back they describe the way I was being pretty accurately. I spent the last few days of my trip taking an early train to Penn Station, about 90 minutes or so on the train, wander walking all around Manhattan, and taking a train back to Long Island at the end of the day.

I think that's the first time I experienced travelling on my own. It felt and still feels like a curious mix of contemplation, admiration and appreciation of my surroundings, feeling free, yet also melancholic.

These moments tend to be quite magical, and strangely they are also times my mind feels the quietest and most peaceful - particularly hours spent on a train or a bus watching the landscape go by, not thinking about much and thoroughly enjoying it. I always meet lots of great people while I travel though I'm not talking of these moments, I mean the times really spent alone.

It is also the traveler's feeling - at least mine - of being part of the world, seeing it with one's own eyes yet being somewhat separated from the societies and people traveled through, being some kind of sideline observer. It calms me, give me new perspectives, gives me new thoughts and ideas. I think Paul Theroux writes very well about this kind of feeling, I love his travel books. Sort of in this style Happy Isles of Oceania comes to mind.

I think this is what my traveling is about, craving and chasing these feelings and experiences, trying to maintain a balance between satisfying the travel bug without loosing myself to it entirely.

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