Is travel self-indulgent?

| December 8, 2009 | 21 Comments
passport Is travel self indulgent?

What is gained in travel that cannot be secured by staying home, reading books, and watching films?

Why travel? Because we have to. Is travel self-indulgent? Absolutely. Well, maybe.

Travel, to paraphrase France Mayes, is a bit of a paradox. It is at once both self-indulgent and self-obliterating.

Although self-indulgence is governed by unrestrained appetite, travel isn’t simply about desire and it’s not entirely motivated by pleasure. Of course, we travel because we find joy and pleasure in it, but we travel because it is transcendent. That is, travel is at once both difficult and pleasurable.

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves” wrote Pico Iyer in his essay Why we Travel ”and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”

What is gained in travel that cannot be secured by staying home, reading books, and watching films? Kathryn and I believe that one of the most important aspects of travelling is a greater understanding of the place one calls home—and the understanding that surfaces in interactions with other people and cultures. This juxtaposition of beliefs and ideals elevates one’s awareness. And it’s this heightened awareness that provides one with greater insight into their place in the world.

Tanya Shaffer (author of Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa) writes:

“I’m so intrigued by other cultures—when I’m traveling away from home I get more insight into my own life and culture as well, just by contrast, and by that alertness of mind that sort of comes to me like a drug when I’m out of the country. I find that the freedom of anonymity tends to propel me into interesting situations.”

Hence, travelers are both outward looking—aware of the country to which they are foreign, their place in the space of crowds, the reactions of local residents—and inward looking, forever seeking that place where they  are able to connect to something bigger than themselves. At any moment, they are one and the other. Travel, indeed, is a bit of a contradiction.

Why do you travel? To get away, to explore, to feel alive? Feel free to let us know in the comment stream below. At the same time, the New York Times has a great set of pictures and stories about why people are motivated to travel.

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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. Check him out on Google+.

Comments (21)

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  1. Victoria says:

    I agree with all the things you’ve said, travel helps you to work out who you are, to understand your home and its people better, to understand the world around you. But ultimately I think it’s self indulgent, which is something I struggle with. The world is not changed for the better by my travelling, usually for the worse cos of flights etc. I realise I can make a difference when I travel by helping charities along the way, but I could just as easily help equally worthy causes at home. I think it can definitely make you a more rounded person, but it’s still about you as an individual, not about the greater good for society on the whole, you can still be a good member of society without travelling. Not that any of this is going to stop our RTW trip!

  2. It is self-indulgent, but no more self-indulgent then splurging on Kobe beef vs. 80% ground chuck or a Mercedes Benz vs a used hatchback from ’83.

    I travel because I love to learn. I think all travelers, whether they know it or not, do it for the same reason. Learn a language, learn about new foods, learn about new people and cultures.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks Brian, and Pico Iyer would agree. In a a speech entitled “A New Kind of Travel for a New Kind of World” (given at the Key West Literary Seminar om January 5, 2006) —

      In some ways, I think travel is about learning how to see, learning how to pay attention. It’s an alarm clock in some ways, and it’s a jumpstart to putting our senses on the setting where they’re universally receptive. I think theoretically we could do that at our homes, and yet somehow, surrounded by familiarity and the routine we know too well, our eyes tend to close and we don’t notice the things that are so wondrous for a visitor. But as soon as we physically start moving we awaken to the beauties around us.

      Check out the full text here.

  3. I personally don’t believe traveling is a self-indulgent process. Not for the people traveling or the people they meet along the way. People generally pay good money and sacrifice a lot to take long trips to foreign lands, which I think should forgive any selfish motives for doing it.

    A great deal of good comes out of it too. The tourism dollars travelers bring into regions is oftentimes irreplaceable, the sense of goodwill generated between cultures is of vital importance to international relations, and any personal growth and intellectual depth brought back to the home country intrinsically betters their own culture.

    What I do believe is self-indulgent is the practice of blogging to your friends back home while traveling. I see it as flaunting your good fortune to be able to take trips in the first place. Of course it’s up to the non-traveling person to choose not to read it.

    Great post, by the way. Made me think. :)

  4. I should clarify that last statement. I think it’s okay for people to blog publicly about their travels. Definitely. But I also think blogs should try to be informative to help other travelers visiting the same places.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the perspective, Nico. I find that the bulk of blogs aren’t meant to be polished communications — they are merely blogs to keep family and friends abreast of one’s travels. I prefer blogs that function — as you suggest — as references or sources of information to help or to inspire other travelers visiting the same places. There’s such a variety — a multiplicity — of blogs out there. And I’m just learning how to find the ‘good’ conversations, ie the ones I like!. Every time I find a high quality blog. I see who they link to; see who links to them, etc.

  5. Gourmantic says:

    To explore, to live, to have a particular experience, to relax to be inspired, my reasons are varied and they’re not the same for each trip I take.

    I think the flaw rests in the question; it’s too generic. Is travel itself self-indulgent? It’s up to the individual. When you work hard to save, plan and hopefully reap the rewards, I don’t see anything self-indulgent in that.

    Touching on a point AirTreks Nico made above, there are people who brag about travel vs those who relate (and sometimes swap) travel stories. It goes down to the individual and what their motives are.

    • Daniel says:

      Something that I neglected to consider was the discipline required to save, plan and execute a trip greater than a few weeks. Thanks for the perspective!

  6. JoAnna says:

    Though I travel for a number of reasons, I wonder if maybe the question of self-indulgence is a little too deep. For the RTW traveler or someone who is 100% focused and set on traveling, yes, the reason for travel is probably on a deeper level. But for the weekender who just likes to get out of town or the family that takes a road trip to visit someone else, can’t travel be just because? Just because it’s nice to getaway and take a vacation? Just because it’s fun and interesting?

  7. michelle g says:

    I travel because I belive I was born with wanderlust. I have a great desire to travel and see the world around me, I don’t want to just be a tourist, standing on the side lines, I want to experience the life of the locals.

  8. I love the thoughts brought up by this. I think travel can be self-indulgent, especially if you are the type of person who just goes to touristy places to enjoy all-inclusive resorts and drink endless amounts of daiquiris on a generic beach. But I think that the people who choose to seek out the real culture, real food, real history, and locals are those who really open up their minds and have the transcendent experience. I think travel can be a great way to find yourself and learn to appreciate other cultures in addition to where you came from. I love travel because it pushes me out of my comfort zone, helps me appreciate home, and helps me feel like a better global citizen.

  9. Nomadic Matt says:

    I travel because I like it…all the ups and downs….it’s why I love to travel…airports, flying, figuring out where to go- amazing.

    I guess I do it b/c it’s for me….i’m just selfish!

  10. flip says:

    when i started traveling, i just wanna see stuff, like places, monuments, mountains, beaches etc…

    but after backpacking for more than 6 months on my own, i realize that there’s more to traveling than going to the usual tourist spots…

    i love it… now the destination is just an excuse to keep on moving (though im stuck here at home for the moment)


  11. Pamie says:

    one can easily travels all over the world through blogs now. ‘the experience’ exponentiate with how ‘personal’ the blog is per se.

  12. marta says:

    we decide to backpack around the world cause we wanted to experience, feel, learn something different from our “standard” 9-5 world, get to know different cultures something we wouldn’t probably be able to do within our short “touristy” trip

  13. Samui Boy says:

    Travel, to me is a way of life. I cannot ever imagine not traveling. Being tied to a mortgage and nine to five routines is such a challenge and restrictive to a successful life full of adventure and education.

  14. Wow! That is beautifully written and so true! I always looked at travel from an outward perspective, never realizing that it did indeed gave me some great revelations about home too

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