Why Go Round-The-World?

| July 13, 2009 | 12 Comments

We must become the change we want to see.

—Mahatma Ghandi.

To someone who equates the idea of travel with that of escape, the prospect of long-term travel implies long-term dissatisfaction. This is implicit in the question, “Why a round-the-world (RTW) trip?”

What’s really being asked here is, “What’s so wrong that a two-week stint at a beachside all-inclusive can’t cure?” or “What are you running from?”

The pervasiveness of consumer culture has sold us the idea that we should ‘buy’ travel in the same manner that we buy refrigerators and automobiles. And that’s no accident, as consumer culture sustains itself on the premise of an unending supply of consumer goods. What kind of society does this create? One that views air-conditioned and pre-packaged travel as a commodity.

It’s clear to those who’ve committed to the idea of long-term travel that we’re not escaping from something, but rather escaping to something. Like Rolf Potts in his book Vagabonding, Kathryn and I view long-term travel not in terms of escape, but in terms of “adventure and passion”. This idea is cultivated by Doug Lansky in his book, First-Time Around The World. Doug writes that “travel is an urge best cultivated from within”. And we agree. Hence, we believe that long-term travel doesn’t imply the concept of escape—quite the opposite, it implies a notion of surrender.

cambodia Why Go Round The World?

Children begging in Phnom Penh. Photo by Ronn Ashore (Creative Commons).

Years ago, while travelling through Southeast Asia, we discovered that we were reinvigorated by travel through countries like Laos and Cambodia—compared with neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, countries which were relatively, in the western sense of the word, ‘underdeveloped’. We arrived at the belief that our joy of travelling through these countries was derived in part because a significant portion of the population had lived, or was now living, through underdevelopment. We were attracted to these areas precisely because the memory of hardship and deprivation was still so fresh. It seemed there was almost an ideological resistance to rampant consumerism—whether real or imagined.

Of course, we’re aware that we could be accused of class tourism. And we’ve struggled with this dilemma ourselves. Ultimately, however, we feel that our travels through developing areas are motivated by more than just curiosity or adventure. Ultimately, we believe that our aforementioned dedication to long-term travel implies that we seek more than a temporary or superficial connection to the values of the areas we visit.

Moreover, we’re aware of the irony and apparent contradiction that’s served up by an opinion piece such as this appearing within the margins of a site we operate—one that’s endowed with ample marketing banners and affiliate badges.  Indeed, we’re aware that the action required to sustain human life is, in part, based on consumerism: everything we need is produced by our efforts. And we do believe in the application of responsible production and consumerism. Lest we forget, this is a travel blog!

Ultimately, we came to the realization that our desire to travel long-term was motivated in part because its ethos aligned more closely with the goals of conservation, social justice and sustainable development that we sought—and are seeking—to apply to our own lives. Travelling long-term allowed us a means to live, to paraphrase Duane Elgin, in a manner that is outwardly simpler yet inwardly richer.

Hence, we believe that long-term travel is a way of surrendering to the unknown and embracing the world on its terms. So the next time you are asked, “Why a RTW trip?”—the best answer to provide is that you’ve given up.


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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (12)

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  1. Jen Laceda says:

    My reason for long-term travel and future plans to RTW is – I’ve gone tired of other people telling me how to live my life. By other people, I mean, “well-meaning” family members / relatives, financial advisors, the government, etc. who tells me that to properly raise a 2.1 family, you’d have to have a house, car, investment accounts, RRSP’s, RESP’s, life insurance, etc. what if we want to spend a whole chunk of money travelling long-term? Most people think it’s indulgent, selfish, and makes no financial sense! While some people would drop $11,000 on 3 thermal Pella windows for their house with white picket fences (oh yeah, I know these people) and think it’s a good investment, I’d rather spend that $11,000 travelling through China and Tibet! Does that make sense?

    • Daniel says:

      Jen, that makes perfect sense. And I agree with you. It used to be that living unconventionally used to be a bold statement against ‘conformists’—think hippies, etc. But now I’m beginning to think that slowly, as unconventional living is considered by more and more, it insinuates something deeper. A sea change, if you will. It’ll get to the point that it will be difficult for ‘conventional’ people to simply pass off alternative lifestyles as ‘just being weird’ or trying to seek attention. I think that although the change might seem glacial, it is coming!

  2. John Bardos says:

    Another great post!

    I think most people are beginning to understand the value of long-term travel. Certainly, there has been an explosion of interest in escaping the rat race in the last decade.

    The problem is that most people don’t have your values of conservation and sustainable development.

    For many world travel is about getting stoned at full moon parties, drinking cheap beer every night and partying with new people all the time.

    It is disappointing to see the rapid commercialization around the world as countries cater to the increasing numbers of travelers.

    I wish your philosophy of travel was the norm and not the exception.

    • Daniel says:

      Hi John, really appreciate your commenting. Your post has got me thinking (and hoping) that there conservation, development and capitalism can co-exist and be sustainable, as it appears that it might be the only way forward. I imagine that it will be incumbent upon us as travelers and world citizens to ensure that it does. Wow, I just sounded very naive and idealistic, but I honestly think it’s the only way forward. Perhaps we are in trouble? Oh, and while I agree with you that too many areas, ie Anjuna Beach and Koh Phangan are unsustainably overrun with beer-swilling backpackers, I do like to get my party on. In a responsible manner, of course.

  3. Jason says:

    It seems that more and more people are seeking outdoor adventure, travel to more obscure places and most importantly memorable experiences that bring us joy. Traveling around the world, of course, is one of the more extreme choices. Aracely and I are choosing to travel the world to experience the unknown, which is other cultures, landscapes, languages and communities. If we don’t expose ourselves to varying environments and situations I believe we contribute less intelligently in developing a better community.

    • Daniel says:

      Agreed, Jason. Your motivations are similar to Kathryn and me—travel is an education, no doubt. It just happens to be the most engaging and thought-provoking way of gaining one, in my opinion.

  4. chris says:

    Another great post. Your patience for writing a good article is inspiring and you touched on one of the most important aspects of being a guest in another country. Your reference to “class tourism” is essentially the question of whether in our curiosity we are actually orientalizing another culture. I constantly struggle with this issue when traveling and hope that by being aware of the dilemma itself, I am more able to interrogate not only my surroundings by my own impact on them. After all, as travelers we are not merely observers, but active participants in the lives of the people and cultures we come into contact with.

    • Daniel says:

      I see where you’re coming from when you write, “as travelers we are not merely observers, but active participants”. I think that gets to the crux of the argument I was trying to articulate above. The fact that we are aware of the dilemma itself is encouraging; at least we’re engaging the notion instead of ignoring it or hoping it would go away. Thanks for the very insightful comment; I feel another blog post coming on — and thanks for your kind words, too. That kind of feedback means a lot to us.

  5. Erin says:

    I have always wanted to travel but I have never been motivated enough to just go and do it. Reading blogs like yours helps though, it is great to get this kind of insight into other poeoples reasons for going and into their experiences.

    Cheers Erin

  6. Amanda says:

    As a self confessed vagabond I think my motivation lies in my continued disassociation from the values of developed society. The search for meaning in my own life encourages me to travel to the sites which might just have escaped the spectre of globalisation, just looking for the chance to see the past before it disappears. I guess the catch 22 is that globalisation not only increases the speed with with these cultures disappear but also increases the speed & ease with which we can travel to see them. The freedom we are granted as backpackers ultimately entails the freedom to change the very places we travel to see, as our own travel impacts upon the unchanged and authentic cultures we travel to see.

  7. Kazzie says:

    I started planning to go round the world when I was 15, I’m now 48 and I still haven’t managed it! Now I realise it won’t happen, at least in the way I originally imagined it. My health while not exactly bad isn’t like it used to be and I don’t think I’d be able to cope with long term travel to off-beat places. Should have done while I could.

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