In the article Your Obsession With Travel Sure Feels Classist To Me, Ravishly writer Catherine DM Clover exposes the chip on her shoulder about the lack of travel she’s done in her life. She reveals that as a child “And what did you do over summer vacation?” was a cause of deep insecurity, as she had no thrilling Disney or Grand Canyon trip to share like many of her peers did. And now as a 30 year-old, that insecurity remains as she has still never left the country and has no interesting travel tales to offer at parties. She defends her lack of travel with her lack of funds, and seems to roll her eyes at the laundry list of benefits people claim travel brings: it’s enriching, educational, etc.
She rightly claims that traveling great distances purely for the fun of it is a privilege, inaccessible for the world’s poor. But what she fails to recognize is that as an educated American, she herself is likely part of the world’s privileged, and her choice not to travel is a matter of priorities. I suspect this is the root of her insecurity about it.
I will not presume to know this particular writer’s circumstances. There are many, many reasons to not place travel at the top of a priority list, none of which are my business. (Health issues, prioritizing education, family, or simply a preference for other closer-to-home interests, etc., etc.) I won’t go any further in addressing Ms. Clover’s deal.
However, what I will say is that you can be relatively poor and prioritize travel. Travel is not necessarily just for the upper/middle class of the Western world. And while one can be lucky to be born in a country with free public education, political and economic stability, and easy access to international visas, one is not “lucky” to travel in the same sense as winning the lottery. It simply mattered enough to them to prioritize it.
As a child, by and large my summer vacations were even less riveting than Ms. Clover’s (I didn’t have a cabin up north). Yet I had a very happy and idyllic childhood that included a total of three family trips: Yellowstone when I was four (only vaguely remember), Disney World when I was seven (HOLY SHIT DISNEY WORLD IS AWESOME WHEN YOU’RE SEVEN!), and a camping trip up north when I was 15. However, at some point around middle school, I decided as a grown-up my life would be rich with overseas adventure. The travel priority was made.
I made my first international trips in high school, one partially fund-raised with a sports team and one entirely self-funded. I don’t think my $5/hour flower shop job is what Ms. Clover envisions paying for the trips she feels excluded from. Both were to Mexico. The highlights of both were the cab rides from the airport to the accommodation – an iguana sunning itself on a rooftop, roosters crowing in dusty yards, so, this is Mexico. I was hooked.
In college, I followed the trend of many of my semi-adventurous-yet-culturally-curious peers, and studied two semesters in France, spending school holidays wandering from one European city to the next with a Eurail pass. I got my first international boyfriend. My first second language (and only real one, truth be told). Yes, it took some sacrifice (and privilege) as my student visa didn’t allow me to legally work. However, it was thanks to many, many waited tables and student loans that those semesters happened. By 21 I learned:
- I can travel alone
- I can make new friends easily
- I can learn a language
- I can get by okay with a few phrases and a positive attitude
- Fishes can live out of water
- There are many different ways of living from the way my culture lives, and many different ways of looking at the world. At the very least all are valid, and some just might be preferable for me.
After I graduated, I finally felt free to pursue my real travel fantasies. I spent a year in New Zealand, a year in Japan, a couple months in Mexico, two years in Vietnam, 10 months in Colombia. I eventually found my permanent home in Hawaii. No one ever funded anything but me. The jobs I worked were overseas – waiting tables and teaching and not very high paid. With each move, I did the best I could with the resources I had to explore my temporary home and neighboring countries, befriending locals and visiting their families, taking language lessons, participating in and observing daily life. I walked the beaten path and strayed from it, from Angkor Wat to remote Pacific Islands, paid local taxes and landlords, attended weddings, ate like the locals, and drank with expats. The moves weren’t vacations – they were moves, no different than taking a job in a neighboring city. Sometimes I arrived in a new spot with a nest egg saved from my previous home. Sometimes the nest egg was alarmingly small.
I drew pictures to communicate. I got stranded without lodging. I hopped with a sprained ankle to a hospital. I fended off a mugger. I ate strange things. I fell in love. I joined random celebrations. I made random friends. I had random conversations. I collected the word for booger in many random languages. Eventually I met my husband, a fellow traveler. We stopped traveling for awhile in favor of a new kind of adventure: home and family. But we both expect that our pause is not forever.
We are not unusual. People all over the world prioritize travel. We may be privileged relative to much of the world, but most of us aren’t privileged in the way painted in the article. We take giant ecstatic leaps with a few hundred bucks and a hitchhiking thumb. We sell everything and cross countries with children piled in camper vans. We make our living on the road. We make the tough choice to put off families or careers. We miss important weddings and funerals and if we’re fortunate, forge connections that let us into important life events in our new homes. Maybe we’re reckless or naive. But we get a big beautiful kick out of the world and we’re absolutely sure that we won’t have enough time to fully quench our thirst for it.
Using the word “benefit” when discussing travel seems small to me, as if traveling is akin to drinking green tea. Traveling, when done right, fundamentally changes you. Are there less noble motives behind travel? Absolutely, there can be. In expat communities it doesn’t take long to find a lot of escape and hedonism, substance abuse and illicit sexual behavior, messy cross-cultural love affairs resulting in abandoned children, collecting experiences to impress at parties like you’d collect designer handbags. Don’t even get me started on voluntourism. But travel also stretches minds wide open. It makes you realize that your culture and your country are one of a great many. It shocks you, teaches you, amazes you, strengthens you, and ideally humbles you. Travel takes you back to the wonder of childhood.
As a final thought, if you have the desire for all the benefits of travel, but truly don’t have the means, it is just as much about courage as it is about money. You can step out of your comfort zone in your own community – hike a new trail, attend a cultural event, befriend a visitor or an immigrant and ask them their story, try a new cuisine. You don’t necessarily have to leave home to gain the same kind of adventures, lessons, and experiences as you would flying far away. Anyone can have a traveler’s heart, no matter their class.