The Philosophy of Travel — Or, The One Where I Maybe Lost My Mind
Kira and I have been on the road, bouncing around Central and South America, for over five weeks now. We’ve been away long enough that both of us have had moments of wondering if, maybe, we’re starting to miss home enough to head back sooner than we planned.
I’ve also started to think seriously about the point of travel, and asking myself why we, and a lot more other people than you’d probably think, pack up to spend a few months seeing the world.
I hadn’t seriously thought about the why of what we’re doing until we were on a walking tour of Lima. (Like I’ve written elsewhere, walking tours are awesome — yes they seem touristy, and they are, but they’re also a really great way to learn the basics of a new city, and in most places they’re free.) We met a pair of Swiss girls that had spent the past few years living in Chile. “So,” one of them asked me, “are you on holiday or traveling?”
At first I wondered what that even meant, because up until that moment I pretty much thought the two words were synonyms. And then I started to wonder which one we’re doing.
I think everyone will have different definitions of “vacation” and “travel,” and like me most people probably consider them one and the same. But I also think there’s an important distinction to make, and one that takes a little introspection to understand.
When we left the United States, my goal was to see the world, not under night vision, as I joked on my last day in the Army. I honestly wanted to relax, postpone being an adult for a little while (because, as anyone that used to work with me in my old job knows, there’s a Peter Pan quality about that place that I think you have to experience to understand), and cross a couple things off my bucket list, like hiking the Inca Trail and seeing Machu Picchu, or riding a camel in the Sahara Desert.
I’ve had time to relax, and decompress, and like one of my mentors told me I would, I know I’ll come home a slightly different person than I was when I left. For one, my Spanish isn’t nearly as rusty as it was two months ago. But I’d also like to think I’m living a little more intentionally, thinking about the world a little more analytically, and doing a better job of not getting angry all the time.
I’ve also gained a better understanding of which parts of travel I appreciate the most. As much as I love chilling on a beach and doing nothing, so far my favorite aspect of this trip has been learning new things and meeting new people. To be honest, a couple of those people have been a little bit annoying, like the guy in Arequipa that yelled at me for not wearing a mask while I was eating ice cream on the sidewalk. But that makes the hospitality and friendliness of people like Don Miguel, the host of our cooking class in Lima, all the more memorable.
When our Uber dropped us off, Don Miguel was waiting outside his apartment. The 60 year old, who has three Chinese grandparents but identifies as “one hundred percent Peruvian,” would be teaching us to make ceviche and pisco sours in a class we found on Airbnb.
What we couldn’t anticipate was his incredible hospitality, his engagement with his community, and the depth of his love for food, cooking, music, and, of course, pisco.
Traveling in 2022 means you have to learn how to read facial expressions when they’re hidden by a mask. That’s even more important in Peru, where you’re required to wear a mask everywhere in public, including outdoors. I’ve written about the scowl of our hostel receptionist in Bogotá, but Don Miguel’s face was the opposite — from the moment we met him, the eyes set deep into his lined face were clearly happy to spend time with us.
He led us to the market a few blocks from his home, and when we arrived the vendors greeted him like an old friend. He high-fived and fist bumped and showed us fresh fish brought from the docks that morning. His vendor friends joked with me in Spanish while I was between bites of fruits that I’d never seen before but tasted better than candy.
Back in his apartment, we washed our hands and began to prepare the ceviche. He watched me carefully slicing the mahi-mahi and, when Kira stepped out of the room, he gave me a knowing look. “You cook most of the meals at home,” he said. It was a statement, not a question. When I nodded he winked. “My wife only cooks on my birthday,” he said. But I knew he wouldn’t have it any other way. He was clearly a man who found joy in details and quality, in hosting and preparing meals for his family and friends. In other words, he was a lot like me.
By the time we finished eating the ceviche and sipping our pisco sours, we were three and a half hours into a two and a half hour cooking class. Don Miguel checked the clock on his wall and asked if we were in a rush to leave, if we had anything else planned for the afternoon. Luckily our schedule was free.
He led us upstairs to a soundproof studio. His son uses the studio to produce music, but this afternoon Don Miguel broke out traditional instruments used by Afro-Peruvians centuries ago. We drummed on the box-like instruments and laughed at my complete inability to maintain any sort of beat. When we left Don Miguel’s apartment about forty-five minutes later, not only had I learned a lot about Peruvian cuisine, music, and history, I also felt like I’d made a friend. And I was incredibly grateful that Kira and I had chosen to keep our afternoon plans wide open.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for putting up with my self-analysis. And if you’re still enjoying these essays — I hate the word blog, because it makes me think of those dime-a-dozen websites that are usually heavy on affiliate links and light on substance — don’t worry, Kira and I aren’t cutting our travels short, and I plan to keep writing.
I am incredibly grateful — I also don’t like the world blessed, even though I almost think it fits here, because it implies that we didn’t work pretty hard and take a pretty big risk to make this dream a reality — to be able to explore the world at a slow pace. I’m aware that the majority of people reading this probably won’t be able to take a five month break from their responsibilities to live like nomads.
So, what’s the point for you, the reader? First, I hope that our experience helps you approach the world a little more deliberately. I hope by reading this you learn from our mistakes, so that you can make different ones. And I hope that everyone reading these essays realizes that travel is complicated, and that’s a good thing.
If you want to go on holiday, do it. There’s nothing wrong with packing up for a week or ten days and finding a quiet stretch of beach to drink a boatload of mojitos. (If that’s the route you choose, let me encourage you to visit the Blue Apple Beach House.)
But if you want to travel, to truly dig into a place, to learn its culture and its language and its idiosyncrasies, do it. Don’t listen to the guidebooks or the blogs that tell you a city isn’t worth visiting, or publish strict itineraries to cram as much as possible into a few short days. Instead, travel slowly, if you can, and give yourself time to think about what you’re doing and what it means, not only for you but for those around you.
I’ve debated with myself a lot lately about the ethics of travel. It certainly requires what is at times an uncomfortable degree of privilege. I remember cringing when I overheard a fellow American on our food tour in Medellín make an offhand comment about how cheap everything is in Colombia. “Maybe for you,” our guide quickly replied. “But not for us.”
Social media makes travel even more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, I love a photogenic setting and I actually think Instagram and YouTube have been good for bringing awareness to travel destinations that might otherwise be completely unknown. For example, I wonder how many people would visit Arequipa, Peru — widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Latin America — were it not for the gorgeous photos of this city’s architecture you can find on Instagram. I’m also aware that it’s more than a little bit hypocritical of me to talk about the downsides of travel content when I am currently producing travel content. But every time I’ve walked into a perfectly curated coffeeshop or restaurant to purchase what for me is a super affordable meal or Americano, I wonder how many locals have been there, or if the door might as well have a sign reading Gringos Only.
Tulum is another good example of the complicated ethics of travel. To go there is to take a vacation, pure and simple. It’s a destination of exclusive beach clubs, and it’s perfect for Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you count the likely-irreversible damage those beach clubs have caused to the surrounding ecosystem. I wish I’d known about that damage before, because I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go there. But that’s not because I hate beach clubs and aesthetic restaurants, I just think there’s value in knowing the impact of the choices we make. And it shows that I need to do better research next time we plan a beach getaway.
I’m not writing this essay to tell you what to do, and I hope it doesn’t come across as judgmental or preachy. Anyone who knows me personally should be aware that I don’t care how other people live their lives, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. All I’m asking is, next time you travel or go on holiday, you do it consciously, and you think about the impact you’re having on the place you’re exploring, and the impact it’s having on you. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the world is a fragile place, and humans are somewhat fragile creatures. And I hope reading about our travels inspires you to go see what I mean for yourself.