The Destination Is Everything, The Destination Is Nothing

Have you ever set off for a destination not really caring whether you actually arrive?

The other morning, we hopped on rented single speed bikes (they looked like racing bikes, but rode like penny farthings) and headed off into the tea plantation hills of eastern Bangladesh. Our destination: Madhabpur Lake, 25 kilometers outside of our base of Srimongal.

We thought the lake would be nice, but figured the bicycle journey there and back would offer some interesting experiences and a new perspective on the people who lived in the villages and amongst the tea plantations.

Young Tea Picker Outside Srimongal, Bangladesh
Picking Tea Outside of Srimongal, Bangladesh

As often happens, getting to the lake was far more interesting than the lake itself. And this got me to thinking: What was the purpose of the lake – the destination — in the first place?

The Destination Is Everything?

When I travel, one of my primary goals is to interact with ordinary people from different walks of life so that I may get a glimpse of their lives and better understand their perspective.

So how does having a destination — but one that you aren’t terribly attached to – for a day’s journey accomplish this?

1. A destination provides you an excuse to interact.

When approaching complete strangers, it sometimes helps to have a purpose to get the conversation started. Having a destination provides an easy context in which to interact with just about anyone.

School Kids on Lunch Break - Outside Srimongal, Bangladesh
Girls from a Village Outside Srimongal, Bangladesh

The beauty of asking directions to a destination is that you don’t need to speak the local language to engage. Often, just pronouncing the name of the place and doing charades is enough. People will point you in the right direction, but you may also end up with an invitation for tea or to see someone’s house, or a smile and a shared moment.

2. Having a destination gives others a chance to interact with you…and a context in which they can help.

In general, people around the world love to help. When you’re a foreigner looking lost, knowing your destination (but not necessarily how to get there) gives locals a chance to help.

And when you’re in a country without signs, this means stopping in almost every village to be sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Herding Geese? Outside Srimongal, Bangladesh
Directions in a Village Outside Srimongal, Bangladesh

The upside: sometimes you learn of short cuts through villages, which in turn unearth more interesting experiences.

The downside: sometimes a person’s eagerness to help outstrips his directional ability (even in one’s own village!) and he makes you even more lost than when the conversation began.

It’s all part of the adventure, isn’t it?

3. Destination propels you when you need it.

While having a destination gives you an excuse to stop and interact, it can also help move you along when you feel the need to politely wind things up. Even the best of interactions can sometimes reach limitations due to language and culture. In this case, a destination (and the need to reach it in reasonable time) can offer a polite avenue to exit.

4. Destination detachment allows the freedom to detour and abandon.

When the destination is secondary to the journey, you are free to experiment. Perhaps you are invited into someone’s house and you’d like to spend the day in that village, or maybe someone suggests another destination altogether.

Bicycling Through Lawachara National Park - Bangladesh
Riding through the woods near Srimongal.

Destination Is Nothing? The Lake vs. The Journey

It was no contest. The lake was nice enough – water lilies, footpaths and all, but the other experiences ruled the day:

Stopping at a roadside village market yields an invitation to a local home for tea and biscuits. This natural village visit (i.e., not part of a tour) provided us additional perspective and context regarding family life in rural Bangladesh. (Note: If you are planning to travel through Bangladesh, brush up on your cricket teams and player knowledge – it’s a great way to connect with kids.)

Audrey and Mother of the House - Outside Srimongal, Bangladesh
The mother of the family where we stopped for tea took a liking to me.

Each inquiry for directions sent us down another village road shortcut past rice fields, water buffalo, ever more villages and fantastically curious kids.

On our return, we dropped by one last village for information about an eco-cottage. Instead of information, we received an invitation to a big riverside birthday bash complete with sari-bedecked women, birthday cake, live music and “pass the microphone” where we all had to sing (Dan saved me by singing for the two of us). The eco-cottage will be there, but how often do you get to crash a Bangladeshi birthday party?

Crashing This Kid's 4th Birthday Party - Srimongal, Bangladesh
Birthday part outside of Srimongal.

Therein lies the hidden beauty of straying from your destination.

The Destination-Journey Balance

So next time you set off for your destination, let it guide you to your next interaction and adventure. But also realize that whether or not you actually make it there may not matter.

It’s the people you meet and the experiences you have that do.

———

Do you usually travel with a destination in mind? Do you always arrive?

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Comments

  1. says

    It is the journey that is important! How awesome is it that you got invited to a birthday party! What a fabulous bike ride :)

  2. says

    You know, I’d never really thought about destinations like this. Definitely gives new perspective to the saying, ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ : )

  3. says

    Nice post! I like to have “mini-destinations” during my journey – to remind myself not to get to hung up on the actual destination.

  4. says

    “It’s the people you meet and the experiences you have that do.”

    Totally on point! It really is about the people.

    I also usually bee-line it straight to staff whenever I find myself at any fancy place/event, because how the ground level staff act, talk, and the energy they emit can tell me so much about a place.

  5. says

    I love this. I have often thought that my best travel experiences were ones that went drastically wrong, or ones where I didn’t have much of a plan in the first place. And they always involve the people I randomly meet along the way. Now I travel with my family and try to plan every detail to a tee. I think I’m going to stop now for my summer vacation while I still have a little flexibility, and just go with it! Thanks.

  6. says

    @Amy: Although we were sore and exhausted by the end of the day, the bike ride was so worth it. Such a great day. And, the birthday party just topped it off!

    @Naomi: In some respects, the destination is what gives purpose to the journey. Destination and journey can compliment each other so well.

    @Roy: Also a great idea for “mini-destinations” along the way. We tend to use food stops for many of these :)

    @Lola: It always comes back to the people, doesn’t it? :) Great idea to spend time with the staff at fancy places to get perspective from top to bottom.

    @Cat: I definitely can understand wanting a bit more precision when traveling with family. But, like your idea of freeing things up a bit for your summer vacation. I’d be curious to hear what adventures it brings to your family!

  7. says

    My experiences in India reflect this article so well! Many, so many of the interactions I’ve had were central, while the destination hovered on the periphery.

    I think destination sets a framework, while serendipity and human quirks fill up that framework. Nothing gets me more pumped than finding out something I didn’t know or having an assumption shattered.

    Another solid piece that elevates how we tackle travel. :)

  8. says

    What a great journey you had. It’s truly amazing how hospitable people around the world are – and crashing a party (by being invited of course) can always be fun. Never pass up an opportunity to sing at those “pass the mics” though =) It’s never about the quality of singing.

  9. says

    Very well-written article that explains one of the best parts of traveling.

    And you are so right about locals wanting to be so helpful that they will tell you they know how to direct you to the destination even when they don’t!

  10. says

    I’m loving reading about Bangladesh! Great stuff guys!!

    I agree that, for me, it’s the journey that makes the trip. I spend two weeks in Italy and hardly remember the trip… I think because I was being ushered around on Busabout. I didn’t have to think about my point-to-point travel and had zero interesting stories to tell. I just sat on the bus, zoned out and waited until I got to the next destination. Boring!

    Hop on a bicycle and things get even more interesting… !

  11. says

    @Nomadic Chick: Your experiences in India definitely resonate with me. Sometimes I feel bad because local people will get very excited because we visited such and such site in their country. And while the site was nice, it was all the adventures and interactions leading up to it that meant the most to me. Hard sometimes for people to understand.

    And like you, I love having assumptions turned upside down. Has been happening quite a lot recently :)

    @Rachel: We’re repeatedly surprised by the genuine hospitality of ordinary people around the world – rather humbling. And even though I knew singing in situations like this is not so much about the quality of the voice, I still got nervous with 40 people all staring at me waiting expectedly. That’s the great thing about traveling with a spouse, you can share the mike :)

    @Stephanie: We sometimes joke that locals are the worst people to ask regarding directions because they so want to help you that they won’t admit if they don’t know where a place is located. Makes for some interesting adventures though!

    @Kirsty: Glad you are enjoying our Bangladesh posts – you’re one of the few people we know who has actually been here! Walking and biking are the best way to get close to people and action, although public transport usually provides an adventure or two as well.

    Have to admit I kind of laughed at the thought of you on a Busabout in Italy :)

  12. says

    Your post made us laugh quite a bit, especially the part about asking for directions and not ending up where you thought you were going…This can definitely add much adventure to a trip and the memories will be, literally, everlasting, and fun. Neat how you ended up being invited to a party. We had a similar experience during a vacation, looking for a destination we never reached and being invited to share a family meal with strangers with whom we established a friendship that lasted years. You are right: the spontaneous encounters are priceless and worth every second. Really liked your introspection on this post…

  13. says

    This is a beautiful reflection on the traveler’s way and it is accompanied by delightful comments that further corroborate the claim that the journey itself yields a thousand destinations. It is interesting how we plan our trips in advance, thinking of a particular destination perhaps and yet we already know that the one who plans the trip is not the one who arrives at the lake, grotto, or cottage.

    Your words have put a smile on this face.

    Fair travels and fine friends,

    Om shanti.

  14. says

    Wonderful article! I never really thought about how having a destination can bring upon so many other experiences, especially when it comes to interacting with the local community. I also think taking a bike or a walk, instead of a car or a train, to a destination makes a big difference – I’d say you’re much more likely to interact with strangers and be open to new unplanned experiences while on foot or bike. It was great to read about your experiences, I hope when I travel around South America I can meet locals who like me enough to invite me for tea or even a birthday party! :)

  15. says

    @Tim: Bangladesh is one of those countries where locals really want to help you, but often don’t know what you’re asking directions for – if we ask five people for directions, we’ll usually get 10 answers :) While this can get frustrating when we need something specific like a bus station, it adds to the fun on a trip like this where we know in the end we’ll make it to where we need to go.

    Lovely story of being invited to a meal with strangers and finishing as close friends.

    @Matt: Thanks for your kind comment. This reminds me of a connected quote from Eisenhower: “The plan is nothing. Planning is everything.” With an open mind, your journey can lead you to a very different place than you first expected…and that is more than OK and what’s meant to be.

    @Hana: I completely agree that walking or biking is really the best way to be open to interacting and engaging with people. When you ride by in a car or bus, you have that barrier between you and the people. The closer you are to the street and homes, the more you’ll be meeting people and the higher the chances are that you will be invited for tea or a birthday party. Enjoy your travels in South America!

  16. says

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you have to say here. Destination gives us something to do, rather than aimless wandering, which sometimes doesn’t yield much. But, it’s best to take the paths that may not get you to your destination, but may lead to much more interesting things!

  17. says

    @Kyle: Many of your stories about Yangon remind me of this. It’s the beautiful irony of when you have a destination, but keep yourself open to options…that are often more interesting than the temple or statue you were headed to see in the first place.

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