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Why We Travel, Beyond "It's Fun"

I never planned for this. If you caught me just five years ago, I was certain I’d end up in New York, writing full time for some magazine, ideally about rock’n'roll. And I was on my way: a few respectable internships, some bylines and part-time gigs in local papers, more than my fair share of backstage passes and a three-time win for my student paper’s “Best Columnist.” I saw my future, and though I didn’t know exactly how to get there, I had faith that I would. But sometimes life has other plans. Or, more correctly, sometimes you’ve got to put your faith in something other than the road map you’ve laid out before yourself. In 2011, I moved across the world to Israel. The decision certainly wasn’t flippant; rather, it was something I ran through my mind or months, a non-stop filmstrip of ‘What If’ scenarios flickering behind my eyes. This girl I loved (And still do! This is a happy story!) was set on moving to Tel Aviv to study; her dream every bit as valid as mine. But was I going to compromise everything I’d worked for? Was I throwing it all away? And then at a certain point, sometime surely in the midst of an unpleasantly cold, Pittsburgh downpour, I said ‘Fuck it.’ Travel was always something I liked, sure, but not something I understood. My trips had been contained — family vacations, 10 days in Israel on Birthright, a service trip in Guatemala and a handful of truly absurd, but domestic, road trips. The notion of open-ended travel, of no return tickets and no plan, was always a lingering urge, but not one I was ready to embrace. I’d told myself I could teach abroad after graduation, and I ended up in a newsroom in Indiana. I’d told myself I could backpack Asia after an internship, but I landed another position. Hell, I once sat at a Subway, sipping a fountain soda across from a close friend enlisted in the US military and excitedly discussing our eventual European adventure that we’d launch as soon as he was once again a civilian. Something, of course, always got in the way. ‘That sure would be amazing, but…’ and so on.

So in 2011, when I decided to move to Israel, it wasn’t a new thought. It was simply the first time I was willing to loosen my grip on the future and let the future push me along. And what’s the girl’s place in all this? Without her, I doubt I would’ve had the courage to cut loose and jump. In fact, I may never have done it at all. Love will make a sane man do crazy things. And for that, naturally, I’m forever grateful. Even still, I kept one hand around the future. We’ll try this out for a year, we said. We’ll probably go to New York after a while in Israel, we said. We’ll see what happens, we said, not grasping the depth of a statement like that. Because to truly ‘see what happens’ requires a level of freedom that most people aren’t comfortable accepting. A year passed. We’d flown to Barcelona together — my first time ever in Europe. Our outlook started to change. Our lifestyle started to change. Being challenged by language barriers, cultural miscommunication, the overall barrage of senses and emotions (and heat, of course) that accompany life in the Middle East; these were all frustrating. But overcoming them revealed a sense of self-confidence that only increased over time. I’m finding my place in this world, I thought. My tiny, microscopic place in this vast, gigantic world. The challenges, and conquering them, were humbling but empowering.

Budapest, Hungary, July 2013 The next year in Israel we were sinking into routine — a sense of comfort as the newness and weirdness slowly dissipated, replaced by a warm joy that we had chosen all this, not simply accepted what we were handed. The feelings associated with moving abroad did eventually normalize, but they never go away completely. We spent time together in England, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Greece, Thailand and all over this tiny country of Israel. You can tack on South Korea and Turkey to my list. Each trip a little different, each completely eye-opening in a unique way. But each trip unified in its ability to reinforce the smallness of our lives in the face of the hugeness, the unknowable, mysterious and altogether wonderful nature of the world we live in. I choose to travel because I want to be the most open, understanding, patient, confident and creative me I can be. And I choose to travel because I want to, when the day comes, be able to instill in my own kids a balance of the importance of stability and security in life, but also the importance of adventure and learning and humbleness. I choose to travel to better myself so I can better the tiny marbles who I’ll raise one day.

Nahalat Binyamin, Tel Aviv, Israel, February 2013 Travel is amazing for the stories, for the memories it gives you. But it’s entirely more worthwhile for the perspective you gain. To witness history, to behold the present and to imagine the future of different nations of people is astounding. How is life in South East Asia different than Western Europe? How do those differences exhibit themselves in the people? Are we all the same, deep down? What makes us all human, when you cut people down to their essence. Through travel, you begin to see the bigger picture. You begin to feel, as Milan Kundera described in a book I read long before traveling, the ‘unbearable lightness of being,’ or the dissonance between the real plights of humanity and the problems you face in your day to day life. You begin to acknowledge the sheer absurdity that the vast, vast majority of people you see while traveling (especially in lesser-developed countries) will never experience the luxury and privilege of travel for pleasure, and it humbles you. You begin to realize that we are all — not to wade too far into hippie mystic territory — specs of dust floating in the air, just bits of life trekking through a massive world. That realization can be scary, but it’s liberating as well. Because once you begin to conceptualize the size and weight of the world, you loosen up your choke hold on your immediate surroundings: your job, your phone bill, your Facebook account, your 8am meeting, your new car, your next first date. To harp on a quote too often cited, Chuck Palahniuk had a point in Fight Club: “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” I’m not saying those things are not important — after all, without a job you don’t have money and without money you can’t travel — but they are not everything. Chances are, if you are not deep in student debt and you are employed, you can plan accordingly to long-term travel. It will involve sacrifices, but you can do it. If you decide not to, that’s on you; the ‘I really wish I could, but…’ line should be ‘Travel sounds fun but I’m not willing to make the changes in my life necessary to do it in a substantial way.’

Monfort Castle, Upper Galilee, Israel, June 2013 Theoretically, now should come the time when I write that everyone should do what Tali and I have chosen to do — most immediately, that we have both quit our jobs and will leave in just over a month to go backpacking in India and Asia. But I won’t do that. I’m not so bold, and I’m also (hopefully?) not that much of an asshole. Because I know that this is not for everyone. First, I fully recognize that not everyone is in a position to save money to travel. Tali and I lived like Buddhist monks this year to save for this trip. We almost altogether gave up eating at restaurants, both learned how to cook better (well, let’s be honest, Tali always knew how to cook and I started not to suck at it) and reigned in our nights out at the bar. We don’t have a TV or a car. I haven’t bought new stuff, be it shoes or clothes or iPhone accessories or whatever, in longer than I can remember. We decided that we would devote our disposable income almost solely to travel. To have disposable income, of course, is a luxury for which I’m thankful, but don’t misinterpret this: neither of us makes much money at all. Like, at all — especially when compared to a US salary. It’s just that we’ve chosen, at this stage in our lives, to live modestly so we can see the world. Let me reiterate that for most people reading this, you too can choose to make these sacrifices in the name of travel and exploration. If you choose not to, fine, but don’t lie to yourself that you ‘can’t.’ Chances are nothing you’re doing can’t be dropped and, to some degree, picked back up. Your world will move on without you, I promise. But I know life can get in the way. Tali and I don’t have kids. Or a mortgage. Or, well, anything that can’t be moved or sold or subletted. Life isn’t always so simple. I get that. We won’t always be this way, and I don’t want to scrap together savings for the rest of my life. We will have a future that involves a house, and bills and all those serious things. But there’s an order to everything, and we’re not there yet. To my friends in Jerusalem with six kids who wish they could come along — I get it, and I’ll send you pictures (and yet, let it be said, there are families who travel, and travel well. We’ve met many. The parents are usually totally, wonderfully crazy). Finally, some people are simply more comfortable viewing themselves as a larger part of a smaller world. And that’s alright! Not everyone wants to get lost in the world’s cultural wilderness. Assuredly, it can shake up who you are, or who you think you are. Is travel good and beneficial and healthy for anyone? Sure. But is everyone read and able to handle that jolt? No.

The Vatican, Rome, Italy, March 2014 But for the people — including so many of my friends, coworkers and family members — who’ve expressed a longing to cut loose and blaze a trail for themselves, I wholeheartedly support you. Breaking out of your shell will, I promise, be the best choice you ever made. Reading Rainbow taught us that books can take us anywhere, but even they aren’t a substitute for the real thing. Tali got back from the United States this afternoon, after spending much of the summer with her family. But now, we begin what will surely be a painfully fast August as we prepare to take off in September. And what’s the plan? We don’t know yet. We’ll land in Delhi, see where life shines a light, and follow it. See you on the other side.

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