Travel: A Means or an End?

We are excited to announce that we have been selected by G Adventures for their Wanderers in Residence program. In preparation for the official announcement today, we answered a few questions about our journey, including the age-old travel writing and travel blogging query, “Why do you travel?

In doing so, we ticked off a list, gazed at our navels and stumbled onto a stickier query: Is travel merely an instrument to achieve a set of objectives or is travel an aim in itself?

It was my first flight. Eastern Airlines, Scranton Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida. Our plane took off in the pre-dawn as night yielded to morning. I was eight and had just gotten my first pair of wings. I was also terrified — only slightly — that just a few inches separated me from the open air at some obscene altitude of 29,000 feet. But I was thrilled. Life below was small through those funny-shaped windows, the earth bent, and I watched a sunrise in a way I had never watched one before.

Above it all, I was going somewhere, taking a trip. I was traveling.

Literally and figuratively, I felt a lift. I felt it in that airplane. I felt it on the Caspian Sea, on the Annapurna Circuit, and in the Pamirs. I felt it coming to Toronto a few days ago (surprise, we’re in Canada!). I have felt it on so many journeys for business, for pleasure and now for somewhere in between. I land in airports and get on buses and meet people and eat food and climb mountains. I seek to understand places, things, culture and history.

All these journeys and destinations later, it’s that feeling of possibility that comes packaged with taking a trip –- call it a travel high — that I get when I’m on the move.

But why? The feeling that we get when we travel — do we experience it because we are achieving stuff? Or is there something else?

Travel As a Means to an End

Since Mr. Dictionary always helps me understand what I’m writing about, I consult him again to clarify some terms:

  • means: an agency, instrument, or method used to attain an end
  • end: an intention or aim

The argument that travel is a means to an end (or various ends, for that matter) is well stated implicitly and explicitly in just about every travel article, travel blog post or “About Us” page: to learn, to escape, to challenge ourselves, to discover, to seek thrills, to meet new people, to satisfy our curiosity about the world and to do so firsthand.

We can all attest as to the ability of travel to provide a context to do any and all of this at once. Our world provides travel as the ultimate excuse to move through it. In this way, travel is a gateway, an enabler.

Travel As an End in Itself

But let me play devil’s advocate. Take all the answers you’ve ever given to the question “Why do you travel?” Couldn’t you have achieved all the same ends — learning, growing, exploring — perhaps a little closer to home without traveling?

But travel is a funny thing. Merely taking a trip — the movement, the places, the journey, the destination — suspends us in a different frame of mind.

Traveling places us in an intangible emotional context. And that sets it apart. Not unlike cooking, making music, running, doing yoga – and dare I say, having sex – traveling delivers something above and beyond the end product.

Travel as a Means and an End

We travel because it enables us to pursue and achieve all things conceptual and concrete that we speak to on this blog. But as I examine our own behavior and the behavior of others who travel, I have seen something else that transcends the story of travel as an enabler.

Someday, someone will publish a grand unified theory of the way our brains work. And when they lay the folds of our brains bare with the chemistry coursing through them, travel will have its own special place.

Travel enables us to do things. But travel is also the thing itself.

So why do you travel? For you, is travel a means to an end, the end itself, or both?

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Comments

  1. says

    Congratulations on the acceptance by Gap Adventures. Given all your amazing experiences and wonderful posts over the years this is a well earned achievement.

    I love the point of your post and the ideas it stirs up in me. Betsy and I just finished our first month on the road and are certainly beginning to question some of the reasons why we travel and what travel itself means to us. The truth for us is that we could not imagine being able to truly appreciate the lives of others without being here and chatting with them in their homes. No picture or video could ever capture the emotion of sharing a Day of the Dead celebration with Indigenous people or the time spent chatting about the pride someone feels for their country.

    It is certainly true that we could always have opened ourselves up more in our lives back in the US, however I believe that travel is allowing us to appreciate each other and the world around us better than anything I can imagine. Whether this is the means or the end, I am not sure. I can say it is changing our lives on a daily basis and I know I don’t want that to end.

  2. says

    If the act of travel is the end goal, I think the point of traveling is lost. Merely moving from one place to another does nothing except give you some bragging rights over your friends. What’s the point of saying you went to X number of countries if the only thing you have to show for it is some nice pictures?

    You have to go with the idea of personal development, whether it be by learning about a new culture/people or with the idea of helping others in wherever you might be. Otherwise, you’re just passing by like some random comet in space, unaffected by the things around you.

    I know that both of you are intensely interested in other cultures and food, so I doubt that you will fall into this trap. But, I think when the mere act of traveling becomes the end goal, then the traveler is missing something.

  3. says

    Hi Dan,

    Great new about being selected for the GAP adventures Wanders in Residence program.

    I travel to “wake myself up.” The problem with our own environments is that we get used to their “found-ness,” it becomes hard to get “lost.” When I travel, all my senses activate. I feel completely alive. Going away gives me opportunities to get lost. I’m not sure I see it as a means to an end as much as an end to a means – an “in the rut” means.

    Good to change the means!

    Thx, Giulietta

  4. says

    As two people who try to lead very examined lives, we ask this question frequently. We don’t want anything we do – including travel, work and even blogging – to ever become about bragging rights, climbing a social ladder or how many followers we have – the kinds of traps that are very easy to fall into.

    For us, travel is about many things, but it mainly allow us to learn more about what our (world citizens) differences are and – more importantly – what unites us. We owe much of our current (NVR) life to those we have met who don’t have the opportunity to travel and explore the world. Travel has made us very aware of just how fortunate we are and lit a fire under us to not squander our opportunities or take our “freedom” for granted.

  5. says

    I think it’s both a means to an end and an end in itself. I love the act of traveling…the movement from place to place…the being on the bus and watching everyone, wondering where they are from and where they are going (even here at home when I’m on the ferry). I agree with Kyle also though and am interested in the culture and people of the places I visit. Learning more about people in other places actually helps me learn more about people in my own places too. Why we travel…tough question!

  6. says

    I can relate well to the traveler’s high you describe. There’s a lift every time I’m on a plane, every time I’m in my dad’s basement rummaging through boxes getting ready for my next trip, even just visiting airline websites gets me jazzed. Thinking of it in these terms, I can see traveling somewhat as an addiction, but rather I like to refer to it as a passion. A passion for exploring a unique culture, connecting with the expressions on different faces, but most of all the immersion into the unknown.
    I’m excited to hear more about your new opportunity!

  7. says

    @Warren: Thanks! It certainly sounds like you are having meaningful experiences. Experiences that make you think, that seem to transcend things. I think that’s what I’m trying to get at in this piece. There are the experiences, but there’s something about how they are delivered through travel that makes them special.

    As for opening yourselves up more in the U.S., you’ll have the chance whenever you return there. That’s the beauty of travel – it leaves an impression that you take with you, even when you “go home.”

    @Andi: Applying my thinking in the piece: Why would your soul die? (I’m one of those pesky people who asks Why so that I can better understand what’s at the root.)

    @Kyle: I agree, travel for travel’s sake borders on the pointless. And the way you’ve captured the picture-toting, country-counting braggart…I like that.

    I suppose I was trying to describe this sort of abstract layer of experience that travel seems to carry with it. It’s in that layer that personal development, impressions, transformations take place in a different way than they would if one was not traveling.

    @Giulietta: Travel as a wake-up call. I like that.

    An end to the means — now there’s something. Travel does seem to be one of life’s special sauces.

    @NVR: Like Kyle, I think we evince the personal development and humanistic side of travel through what we do.

    Travel as a mechanism to remind us that we shouldn’t take our freedom for granted — I like that.

    @Shannon: We’ll write more about this in the next day or two. For now, here’s the first word from GAP:
    http://travelblog.gapadventures.com/2010/11/06/introducing-our-new-partnership-wanderers-in-residence/

    @Gillian: Yes, there’s something about the movement. Obviously, you have to interact at some point, but there’s that abstract something that travel does that makes us feel the way we do when we do it.

    @Matt: Wanderers in Residence Tours — I think it’s in the cards.

    @Bessie: That’s what I’m talking about, that lift. I avoided the addiction metaphor — as in, to things like drugs or alcohol — because the “travel high” seemed closer to what I’ve experienced in engaging in certain activities (in contrast to those you might get from a substance.) Different level of engagement.

    Regarding our new opportunity, stay tuned.

  8. says

    I travel because it’s fun. Because I love my backyard but also because I’m pretty sure I’ll love someone else’s too. I think there are lots of deep and meaningful reasons to travel, but I also think it’s okay to travel just because. Because it’s new and because it’s familiar. Because, why not?

  9. says

    Seriously, if I’m being completely honest with myself (and I suspect this is true of many more people than we’d like to admit), I travel compulsively just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

  10. says

    Thought about this some more and came up with three things:

    1. Learning by doing: We can read all the books in the world about a place, hours of newsreels, or see countless pictures. But going there gives us a deeply experiential level of knowledge, almost a travelers’ gnosis, if you will — knowledge you’ll likely never forget. It’s like when somebody gives you directions to their home or describes their living room, and your eyes glaze over and all you see is their lips moving and sound coming out, and you say, “I’m a visual person. Please draw me a picture.”

    2. Addiction to unpredictability: I had an enjoyable moment the other day when I was searching Dakar for the train to Bamako (like the snow leopard, I never found it), and it was pretty damn awful –- confusing, dirty, chaotic –- yet I said to myself, “Wow, I really, really like this.” Geek alert: The adventure of discovery, even of mundane things like train timetables, reminded me of a real-life version of playing computer text adventures (Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide) when I was a kid. When I wrote a post about it, I found the neatest way to convey this feeling was actually turn it into a fake transcript of one of these games (e.g. “go left,” “look at station,” “ask man about train”). The point is when you’re in a strange place, the simplest task becomes a thrilling adventures, because you never know how it’s going to turn out. You just know that somehow, it WILL turn out — something will happen.

    3. Seeing for myself: Hooking into what I wrote earlier about “not missing anything,” I travel for the same reason I became a journalist: Because I don’t always trust what I read or see on the news. I’d prefer to go to the source and see for myself.

  11. says

    @JoAnna: Someone breaking with the pack…it’s OK to travel just because. For me, no. Or, maybe you can travel just because…you know you’ll end up in a pretty cool backyard.

    @Scott: You are a travel junkie, sir.

    @yatra: I don’t expect to be traveling when I’m dead. I’ll be resting.

    @Scott: I definitely agree with learning by doing. We almost included the “travel is better than reading travel books” thing in this piece, but decided better to cut it back. As I kid, I used to contend that you could learn all you needed to know from books. Having traveled, I realize that was rather green and naive of me.

    Discovery of the mundane is key. But the real deal is that the mundane really isn’t. Train timetables, among other points of comparison, tell us loads about the culture, including how it organizes itself. Not to mention, it’s just cool to see a grid of all the places where you can go. Nerds and geeks know how to go deep. Travel as Zork.

    I get the “not missing anything” thing and we pride ourselves on digging in, being observant (Audrey better than I, in truth), but I always feel that there’s something I’ve left on the table — even in the tiniest village.

    By the way, when I first read your comment, I was thinking “Now why is Scott looking for snow leopards in Dakar?”

  12. says

    Travel for me is an internal journey as much as external, a means to learn more about the world and afect my consciousness with new experiences. The act of travelling can make as much of an impact on ourselves as the destinatinos we travel to, but I like to think that the destinations we choose are the most vital in giving us the experiences that enrich our lives – the place, the nature, the people.

  13. says

    @Mike: Agreed, but the question I was trying to get at here — independent of the destination — was whether there was something almost intangible about travel that makes it so satisfying to many of us. And actually, many might argue that it’s not about the destination, but how you choose to engage it that really makes a difference to your travel experience.

  14. says

    @Scott: That’s funny. Audrey is now looking for snow leopards here in Bangkok. Man, this is the strangest life I’ve ever known.

    @Kimberly: Traveling has taken me away more than I can imagine.

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