How long can a person travel for?
There seems to be an unsaid rule about going backpacking – that it is temporary, that it is just a brief chapter early on in the life of a person. A year seems to be the common maximum life expectancy for a big backpacking trip; the once in a lifetime gap year. It is assumed that you get it over with and then you start your ‘real life’ – a career, a family, a home. Sure it is also accepted that going travelling will be wondrous and exciting, but that it is also just a prelude to this pending real life.
It is widely acknowledged that going travelling can unlock a broadened mind, through a wealth of varied life experiences – or at least certainly give a person the opportunity – so I’m asking, why should a person not have that accepted year of mind-broadening extended for an entire decade or maybe even an entire lifetime? Why not keep having the interesting, bizarre and mind-opening experiences that traversing different countries gift a person?
If someone was to travel continuously for say, ten years, it would be considered pretty unusual and that person would probably be unique in all of his circles of friends back home. What if that person carried on backpacking, forever? What would be said if he never settled down and started that career, and family? Would he be considered weird, an oddity, or not mature enough to start a ‘real life’?
To flip this question on its head: Is the considered norm of living in one place, with the same repeated weeks, year in year out, a good way to live a life?
I tried to avoid phrasing the above question negatively but it still persists to read back with an unhappy dressing drizzled over it. I did think to reword it to seem less gloomy but I realised it doesn’t need to be altered because it’s just the, perhaps painful, truth – if not painful, then unsettling, or even offensive. Most people that this question refers to really do have the same repeated weeks year in, year out; it probably refers to most people you know. Nor am I placing myself outside the scope of this either, as it referred to me before I set off on my trip, and the odds that I will end up back in this considered norm is high. The question is not meant to condescend, but to challenge and query the very idea of these repeated years in the same spot. If it does offend you and make you feel defensive, then you can perhaps rest assured that you are in the comfort of the overwhelming majority of the population and I am just one curious little cat.
I don’t even propose to have definite answers to these questions, after all, any answer would be unique to each individual, but I think it is definitely worth a little of our time to think about the questions themselves.
Just as a small side note for clarification: the definition of ‘travelling’ that I’m using means to travel as a way of life; to go on a backpacking trip where one really sees other ways of life and it includes working if and when necessary. No pre-packaged trips; half of the fun is in finding your own routes and solving what difficulties arise – I think those can be the times that truly define and shape us as people. Some people skip through entire countries in the space of a week or less, which is great if you just want to say you’ve been to fifty countries in one year, but the resulting experience will be very shallow compared with experiencing different cultures up close and personal. When planning a big trip it’s easy to overstretch the itinerary and include too many countries for the allotted timeframe. Unfortunately, this usually comes by sacrificing time in each place, which is a great tragedy; I think the goal is to spend as long as possible in each place that you visit – if you aren’t in risk of overstaying every tourist visa you get, you aren’t staying long enough.
To continue with the question: Firstly, the objections, because there will naturally be many to questions like these. Initial objections will be mostly concerned with the practicalities of travelling for a lengthy amount of time. This isn’t something I want to concentrate on here, but I’ll touch on it slightly. At the top of a lot of people’s protests will be concerns regarding the financing of prolonged travel. And yes, unless you’re infinitely wealthy, going travelling for an extended amount of time will require you to save up and then stop every now and then to refuel on money. A lot people don’t realise that you can work in so many overseas countries without necessarily needing elaborate employment contracts. These resupply stops aren't merely just a stop-gap to save up funds either. They are a major part of the journey as a whole, involving their own exciting adventures, allowing in-depth travel in the countries of employment themselves, as well as countless opportunities to meet new people whilst you live and work. This particular strategy would involve shuffling around financial priorities and/or looking for work visas and job opportunities in other countries; whether it’s a career-type job search or simply putting yourself up for a wide variety of roles. Some job roles lend themselves to travel; a travel writer for example, can move around, country to country, working and exploring. Maybe a travel writer is the stuff of dreams and not readily achievable, okay fair enough – work experience in certain, more common fields, such as general hospitality or au-pairing, can easily gain a person job opportunities the world over. Answers like these do of course go deeper, but not in insight; fundamentally it only involves some research and a person prepared to shake up their life – the rest are small details that can be looked up. I’m writing a separate piece on the practical aspects of saving to travel, and how to continue travelling for a lengthy time – not that I consider myself an expert, but it details the strategy I’ve used and what I’ve learned so far.
True practical reasons may exist of course. There may be genuine restrictions on a person making immediate changes to their life, but most restrictions will not be absolute or eternal, and they can be surmounted, if a person really wants to. If you have a reason, challenge yourself to overcome that hurdle within a certain period of time, don’t let it win without a fight. You can change your attitude and make plans now, even if you can’t implement them now. I’ve found that many people make objections simply because it’s easier to make objections – to stay in relative comfort – than to take action, even just as a thought experiment. So the big question: Why should we risk changing what’s comfortable?
If you were born in any ‘first world’ nation in relative comfort, you may have no idea just how lucky you are; through no commendable action on your part you have drawn a lottery ticket in life. You have probably avoided famine, torture and countless other cruelties of life that were given to another person, just like you, but born in a different location, equally through total inaction on their part. You had no choice in the location of your birth, or your nationality – home has become just what you’re now used to, so I counter the big question with another question: Why should you stay where you were born? A favourite quote illuminates my point; “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” As a worst case scenario, even if you travel the world and nowhere truly astounds you and you return home to live out your days, at least it will give you an unprecedented amount of perspective on how great ‘home’ really is. At the very least, you will look back at your own life and fully cherish your lottery ticket. That could be the worst case scenario; I’ll get on to what better scenarios could result from travelling later.
So can any objections worry my travelling forever proposition? Many individuals will, and have, made a good go at travelling forever, but let’s say this is not possible for everyone. Starting a family and being able to provide for your family is obviously a major life priority for most people and it will impede travelling at some point. There would be ways to compromise the two – a career that entailed frequent travel, or maybe even having your family involved in the travel. Each and every avenue will be detailed and unique, but let us say it does stop the average person from travelling endlessly; does it also defeat travelling for, say, five or ten years?
Our species has had vastly different priorities over its history; from hunting and fighting to survive, to needing to work endless hours to afford just enough to eat, to where a lot of us can be now – the fortunate tip of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Our winning lottery tickets mean that basic requirements for survival are met and we are able to concentrate on new, luxurious things like personal growth; on education, on fulfilling our creative aspirations. People should take advantage of the fact that we don’t need to work every minute of our lives just to eat and clothe ourselves like a lot of people still need to do in poorer countries. You may think you have it hard because you don’t live a life of luxury when compared to famous celebrities, but trust me, you are a celebrity when compared to people living in the third world. I think people should reflect and realise this and grasp life by the scruff of the neck.
I want to excite, motivate, and offend if needed, because I have seen a tiny glimpse of the benefits travelling can provide. And I have also seen what happens when people settle in a lifestyle even they admit is not what they want. Whilst I think travelling could benefit everyone, I don’t mean to aggressively persuade those who simply have zero interest in travel; my reason for writing this has been born out of talking to those who really want to travel, but ultimately fail to do so. Many people write to me and ask questions on how I travel, and say they wish they could do the same. Many of these people are young and have little more than a phone contract tying them down, and therefore many of these people are in a position where a few simple changes could enable them to travel, but too often some invisible force still holds them back. I've tried to think what fundamentally keeps so many people prisoner. With this, I think I've pinpointed two very natural human traits that crop up and hinder us over and over.
The first is that we too easily become comfortable in a situation – lifestyle in this context – and then fear leaving this comfort, even when we say we want to. It’s not hard to settle into a dull easy comfort, and to forget to put ourselves up for new challenges and experiences. Remember back to a time when there were seemingly infinite changes and new experiences. Remember being a child; think back to the wondrous ignorance of every day things, and revel in it. Don’t fear the unknown. Imagine going to a new country where you are ignorant of the way of life….and learn again.
The second trait, which is intrinsically linked to the first, is that we so easily become desensitised to amazing things and we lose our sense of wonder; things that should amaze us, and maybe did once but no longer do. Examples for this are overwhelmingly apparent on a scale too big to cover; from not realising our own winning lottery tickets, to not appreciating the beauty of nature and natural selection, to even not fully appreciating your partner whom you once couldn’t fault, and all in between. Again, remember back to a time when most things amazed you; as a child everything is remarkable, children are full of curiosity and excitedly question everything, their life is full of awe and new experiences. We have a tendency to lose this as we become older, and it happens over and over as soon as we become accustomed to something – even travelling itself. I’ve found it beneficial to practise my own ‘Thanksgiving’ once a month (just stating a few simple things that I’m thankful for over a toast of drinks) to actively remind myself of my fortunate situation. We may always have to actively remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have, but the very nature of travelling does a lot to help keep these traits at bay, because barely anything stays familiar, and thus we don’t fall as easily into the lazy mind-set of taking things for granted and lose our sense of wonder.
There are so many benefits to travelling that I couldn’t list them all here. A lot are personal, and for the individual, but there are many benefits that can affect a much wider circle too. When the news channel shows the suffering of people in a far off country, it is easy not to pay attention. We perhaps aren’t to blame either as it seems to be our psychology; studies have shown that every one of us has an innate prejudice toward ‘out-groups’. This isn’t to say that we can’t overcome this, obviously, but that we have a tendency to care for those close to us, or those most similar to us. We may have never heard of this country on the news, and the people on the screen look so different to us – it’s hard to relate to their intangible situation. More subjectively, it’s noticeable that a population of a country will care more about the unfortunate death of one child in their own country, than of the death of thousands of children in an obscure sounding middle-eastern or African country. If, however, you have been to that far-off country and met the locals and experienced their way of life – their struggles, their hardships, their laughs and games and tears, you may find yourself emotionally and morally connected to your fellow man, indifferent to location and culture. You will relate to them, and you may even want to help.
Imagine if we, the lucky ‘First World’ all experience this feeling of indifference to location and culture – what help may we, the relatively overfed and overpaid, be glad to give?
To come to some kind of loose answer to my original question of how long a person can travel: I think that the ‘gap year’ could and should become at least the ‘gap five’. The ‘gap twenties’ – meaning that people go travelling for their entire twenties – could be achievable for a lot of people if they want it; certainly the upcoming generations, if not the current. You can get your university degree before, or after. Retirement age will be increased several more times before the younger generations are in that age-bracket, so there will be plenty of time to work hard on that career. I think we have enough potential time to travel extensively, attain a career, and a family if all three are wanted. Some people may think that doing a large continuous period of travel like this will take something away from taking trips later in life – to leave the entire world ‘ticked off’. I think the opposite is true; as soon as you start travelling, the 'to go' list only grows, and rarely lessens. Travelling garners even more passion for travel and it also gives a person a long list of places they'd love to return to in later life. This answer may be a little narrow because I’ve mostly alluded to younger people, but it can be tailored to any age: make your forties or fifties include the ‘gap five’ or be the ‘gap fifties’; plan in your forties for your gap fifties – you get the idea; I’m not trying to create and brand a new phrase here, but I’m trying to create what I think is an updated and better unsaid rule about travelling.
You really do only live once, and don’t take the gamble on thinking otherwise. You are continuously just a potential doctor’s visit away from being forced to realise your own mortality; don’t stall and pretend you’ll live forever, face the fact of your inevitable and eventual death and take advantage of this realisation. Try to second guess your deathbed regrets and change your life accordingly. And when you meet your future deathbed self, see if your current reasons for inaction are good enough for them. Get as much varied life experience as you can, in whatever way appeals to you – my own personal recommendation to do this is, obviously, to travel and see as much of the world as possible.