“Why do you travel?” I asked brightly at 7 am the first day of our safari.
My travel buddies stared back sleepily and my partner groaned. I had asked a question to a group of travelers who weren’t ready for anything verbal at that hour. But they managed to answer briefly, “Why wouldn’t I?” and “To see the world?” Their questioning tone suggested someone (me?) had the right answer.
Generally we travel for a few reasons.
During the days of our journey across northern Tanzania, my five travel colleagues (who ranged in age from 21-67, male and female, European, American, and African, and of various economic levels) elaborated on their answers:
1. “To see something different.”
The five in my unofficial focus group were not content to sit still; they had already traveled a good number of miles. Their journeys had included: other safaris; across Africa — from its eastern to western shore; survival camping in Montana and Mount Kilimanjaro; visits to the far-flung countries of Viet Nam, Suriname, and Bhutan.
2. “To appreciate what I have at home.”
Four of the five had traveled to Tanzania to volunteer. They had immersed themselves in the educational system, much of which lay in impoverished neighborhoods. Each lived in an environment economically different than the one they experienced in Tanzania, and yet each had learned valuable lessons from their hosts — examples that showed them true worth did not lie in objects or cash.
3. “To refresh, improve, or challenge myself.”
Travel allowed for new options and new perspectives. They had for their first time: been a racial minority, ate a meal with her fingers in the local way, rode on the back of motorcycle taxi, took a bucket bath, or prepared a dinner, from killing the chicken to cooking it. Travel to new locations (near or far) offered the opportunity to see something new, to attempt the different, and to change-up the routine.
Everyone has a personal reason for travel.
I felt pretty comfortable with the breadth of those answers. However, I met a young man whose work located him either in Port Angeles, Washington, or Tanzania. Betweens those times and locations, he found places to roam by foot or boat and experience new parts of the world. He offered another reason to travel:
“Travel allows for a shared humanity. It helps us find a place in the world — either to understand our own selves better or to understand how we can contribute to larger world issues. Travel is integral to understanding our purpose and ourself in this dynamic world.”
True. Travel allows us to look at a larger perspective. I recently had the opportunity to spend a month with women who came from all parts of the Middle East. Prior, I had no understanding of the differences in their nationalities or ethnicities or how their religion often linked them. To me, the Middle East had been one undifferentiated blob. After that time, I found Muslims no longer scary or indecipherable — quite the contrary. Cooking, walking the beach, driving together daily allowed me to understand we shared values of family, friendship, and peace. Those experiences gave me an appreciation of both the individual and the group.
Travel helps with perspective; but having grappled with this question over and over, I had yet to fully answer the question of why I travel.
I travel because …
On our safari, we stopped to watch a family of hyenas. Binoculars and cameras worked to bring closer the image of these parents and their cubs. One hyena left the others and ambled along with that sloped-back, characteristically slow walk. It was only after he’d crossed twenty feet of the space between his family and us that we realized he intended to come to our vehicle. Animals on the Serengeti Plain have grown up with these dusty safari vehicles hovering nearby. They (and their occupants) have posed no threat to the animals who learned to view the transported human visitors as a large moving non-predator. However, we tourists have not lived with wild creatures in our living rooms. So when the hyena (a carnivore with the ability to take down a wildebeest) headed our way, we paid attention.
He tacked back and forth across the grassy space and arrived at our van. He smelled it, looked up at the clicks and whirls of the photo equipment we each held as if to ward off danger, and then snooped around the rear bumper of the van. As he came along the right side of the transport, one of our fellow travelers poked her head and camera out the window. The new visual startled him for a moment. Then, sensing no danger, he looked up at her, at our guide, at me. The hyena’s brown eyes were dark, soft, unprovoked. Finally, satisfied, he lumbered down the dirt road on which we had come.
Inside the safari vehicle, we let out a collective sigh. Each of us had held our breaths watching and, in some ways, fearing. And then we took stock of our emotions and let them loose, “Oh my God!” “Did you see …?” “I couldn’t believe…..” I searched to find my own feelings. Amazement. The hyena’s lack of fear and curiosity toward us dumbfounded me. I was in awe of a creature that lived on the other side of the world.
In that moment, I knew the answer to my question about why I traveled: to be amazed. Everyday of the safari an opportunity presented itself to experience amazement again — the size of the Serengeti, the sheer number of zebras, the way nature had provided camouflage for an ostrich, a bird that averaged eight feet in height and lived in an environment which provided nothing to hide behind.
To find the amazement.
Once I anticipated amazement; I watched for it everywhere, everyday. I told myself, “Don’t let it get by without noticing. Look a little harder — it’s there.”
Throughout Tanzania, the amazement continued — the white sand beaches of Zanzibar, the number and variety of sea creatures I saw while snorkeling, the differences in the tide on those island beaches we walked. And my amazement persisted through the banal. I detailed the 44 hours it took to travel from Zanizibar to Chicago; while sitting at the airport behind a row of Catholic nuns and a row of conservative Muslim women, I noted that a nun’s habit looked remarkably similar to a burka; and upon arriving in the little Wisconsin village I called home, I recognized delightedly it had become a diverse tourist destination with over fifty percent of its visitors non-native speakers of English.
So logic would dictate the question: if I’m able to find amazement in my own neighborhood, why do I need to travel to the other nicks and crannies of the Earth to be amazed?
Perhaps that answer lay in the second question I had asked my sleepy-eyed group on the first day of our safari: “Why do you think others don’t travel?” Their responses had been solid but also brief: “I don’t really get those guys.” “How can you not?” “They don’t have the itch; I do.” My colleagues had drawn a line in the sand. There were those who traveled and those who didn’t.
And I, simply and amazingly enough, fell into the first group. I travel.
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Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist, story-teller, and author of “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2017: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.