When Travel Helps You Appreciate Home

asleep on bus “Maybe that’s the best part of going away for a vacationcoming home again.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle, “Meet the Austins”

I had been dreaming peacefully – well, as peacefully as one can when riding a sweltering overnight bus along winding roads of Ecuador with a TV blasting low-budget murder movies – when I suddenly woke in a panic. My backpack – it was gone.

¿Dónde está mi mochila? I asked the man in the seat behind me, who happened to be awake at 2 a.m. Suspicious.

He shrugged, shaking his head. When I had gone to sleep I had looped it around my ankle so if anyone took it I would wake up. Obviously, my plan had not worked.

The driver must have seen me searching under the seats for it, when he came over and pointed to the rack above my head. Apparently, he had been trying to do me a favor, not knowing how I usually slept with one eye open on these buses guarding my things.

I gave him a wry smile, taking my bag down from the shelf and hugging it. I was exhausted, not just from lack of sleep, but from traveling in general. From having to sleep on uncomfortable buses while hugging my purse, having to make new friends and say goodbye to them three days later, constantly being lost, craving pork chops and meatloaf and not being able to take a hot bubble bath and read a trashy novel. I loved culture shock more than anything, but after awhile it could really make you appreciate home.I stared out the window, envisioning the mountains and lakes transforming into flat highways and fast-food restaurants. I’m usually not the type to get homesick. I’ve never felt particularly lonely or scared, and even when I miss home I never let it ruin my trip. At this moment, however, my mind was wandering to a place where comfort was the norm. It was a place I hadn’t been in three months.

What’s funny was, the things that were exhausting me were also the things I usually craved when traveling. Heading out on a trip without any plans, getting lost in new cities, sampling foods I’d never heard of, trying to communicate with locals and “roughing it” with just a barely-filled backpack – this was the point of traveling. To get away from the comforts of home, pack light and learn about the local way of life.

hiking And, it still was; however, that didn’t mean I wasn’t really starting to appreciate the life I lived at home. Deciding on a late-night snack, I pulled out a small bag of fresh cheese and biscuits. As I attempted to slice the mushy cheese using a pen, my mind flashed to La Roma, a pizza place in walking distance from my house on Long Island. Crispy crust topped with bubbling cheese, chunks of meat and plump vegetables. What I wouldn’t give for a slice.

I tried to will the thought away, feeling guilty. It was as if travel was my boyfriend and I was mentally cheating on him with my lover, home. With home, there was no trying to find undiscovered cafes or underground bars. I was the local, so I already knew them. While I had been traveling through South America trying to find unusual landscapes and historical sites, there was so much of that on Long Island that I took for granted. With home, I had my routine, my Sunday hip hop classes and Friday happy hours with friends. I could walk three blocks to get my favorite Snickers Italian ice, and was always fully stocked with almonds, pretzels and peanut butter, three staples of my diet. With home, it was always comfortable.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty for appreciating home. It doesn’t mean I love travel any less. However, home came first, and has been there all along. No matter how far away I go, or how much I change as a person, it will always there waiting for me as if I never left. And for that, I am grateful.

[Images via Shutterstock, Jessie on a Journey]

Inside The Urban Underground: Exploration Gets Personal

New Yorker Steve Duncan was so desperate to pass his college math class, he crawled through a tunnel to finish it. A computer assignment was due the next day and the software to finish was inside a building closed for the night. In a moment of desperation, Steve came up with a crazy plan: he could sneak inside. Having heard from a classmate about a collection of well-known tunnels connecting the university’s buildings, he resolved to convince the friend to guide him. After escorting Steve to the tunnel entrance, the friend offered vague directions, wished him luck and promptly left. As Steve recalls:

“He took off in the other direction and … here I was absolutely alone – it was terrifying and eye-opening, because every building on campus was connected by these tunnels. I passed the math class, but what always stuck with me was that first moment of being alone in the dark and being absolutely terrified but realizing that if I could face that, I had access to every part of the campus.”

Duncan had educational goals in mind when he entered the underground tunnels that night, but his experience kick-started an interest in an activity he continues to practice to this day: urban exploration.

Urban explorers seek to investigate the centuries of infrastructure created (and sometimes abandoned) by modern civilization: disused factories, historic bridges and unknown tunnels entered using legal, and sometimes illegal, means. The reason they do it is not as easily defined. Urban explorers come from a range of backgrounds, ranging from urban planners to historians to preservationists to architecture lovers, photographers and just plain old thrill-seekers all of whom are often lumped together under the banner of this general term. Just in New York alone, there’s the founders of the website Atlas Obscura, Nick Carr from Scouting New York and Kevin Walsh from Forgotten New York, along with countless others living around the world. These individuals, taken together, are less a community than a loose network of individuals united by a common love: re-discovering and investigating the forgotten and sometimes misunderstood detritus of modern day urban civilization

Yet the popularity of urban exploration confronts an interesting dilemma facing many 21st Century travelers: now that so much of what we seek to “discover” has been Google mapped, investigated and written about ad nauseum, how is our relationship with the concept of exploration evolving? And what does it tell us about the future of travel?

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Steve Duncan – Urban Historian, Explorer and Geographer
It’s been over a decade since that math class first brought Steve Duncan underground, but he’s continued to evolve his approach to urban exploration from his home base of New York City. Styling himself as an “urban geographer” and historian, Duncan continues to direct his energies towards understanding the unseen layers of infrastructure that constitute our urban environment – namely the sewers, bridges and subway tunnels of the Big Apple.

In more recent years, Duncan has gained increasing attention for his adventures, including a week-long expedition through the sewers under NYC with Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge and a short documentary made by filmmaker Andrew Wonder that follows him as he visits New York’s off-limits subway stations and climbs to the top of the Queensboro Bridge.

But Duncan’s urban adventures aren’t undertaken merely for thrills – they’re a means to an intriguing end. In fact, Duncan cares less about being the first to rediscover forgotten places than taking a fresh look at the urban environments we inhabit. Despite the fact more than 50% of our world’s population now lives in cities, Duncan notes, much of today’s travel media continues to focus on outward-looking explorations of far-flung places perceived to be “exotic” – for instance, the wild jungles of Borneo or the ancient temples of Jordan. Steve believes his own adventures constitute an equally exotic form of adventure – a new inward-focused method of exploration.

As he notes, “I’m not interested in going to places nobody’s been before, [but rather] I’m interested in how we shape places.” This life-long history lover views exploration not as a means for public recognition but rather as a way to better understand his personal passion for the ever-changing nature of cities. Whether or not he can “claim the place” as his is irrelevant – he’s more interested in understanding. As he tells it, “All exploration to some extent is personal. It doesn’t matter if someone’s been there before. If it’s new to you, it’s still exploration.”

Taken together, Duncan’s adventures constitutes a kind of inward-driven “time travel” – a concept in which the worlds of history, the growth and decay of cities and adventure travel merge together to define a new opportunity all of us as travelers can take to re-examine the everyday world around us as a source of curiosity.

Dylan Thuras – Cartographer of Curiosities

Not all stories of urban exploration involve spending weeks in tunnels under New York City. For Dylan Thuras, co-founder of website Atlas Obscura, a mind-altering childhood trip to House on the Rock in Wisconsin defined his early travel memories. The strange house is part museum and part hall of curiosities, filled with bizarre collections of artwork, carousel rides and giant biological specimens. As Dylan recalls, “the fact that this could be tucked away in the woods in sleepy Wisconsin made me feel like there were these magical worlds all over the place … if I just knew how to look, I would start to find these fantastical places everywhere”

Ever since that moment, Thuras and his co-founder Joshua Foer of Atlas Obscura have dedicated their website to altering travelers’ perspectives of the places worth visiting on their itineraries. To date they’ve built a worldwide, user-driven database highlighting more sites on all seven continents. As an example of the sites Atlas uncovers, Thuras mentions two sites in Florence, Italy – whereas the Uffizi Gallery is probably on most travelers’ radar, Dylan and Joshua also want to help you discover La Specola, the museum of wax anatomical models that contains a specimen of astronomer Galileo’s middle finger.

As Dylan points out, if an attraction isn’t listed on the top ten list in a guidebook “… it is easy to slip into anonymity, obscurity and disappear. I want to give people a sense that there is so much more than those ten things and that they might find that they have a better time if they venture into new territory.”

The style of exploration advocated by Thuras seeks to shift the context of the worlds we already know. That’s a far cry from the conception many travelers have in their heads of an idealized explorer discovering uncharted lands. Says Thuras: “This isn’t [exploration] in the Victorian sense of climbing the tallest mountain, or finding the source of a river … but in the sense that every one of us can find new and astonishing things if we look for them … it doesn’t always have to be about far-flung adventures.”

Urban Exploration – What’s Next?

Duncan and Thuras may appear to occupy different ends of the urban exploration spectrum, but their motivation stems from a distinct similarity. After years of endless exploring, categorizing and searching, both have arrived at the realization that our mundane daily worlds can be unknown places of curiosity and wonder. The challenge of getting there then, isn’t in the physical act of getting there. Explorers like Duncan do face large risks of injury in their wanderings, but it’s not on the scale of Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook or Edmund Hilary.

The difference in these explorers’ adventures thus seems to be a mental reframing of what we conceive of as exploration. Their perception of what is worthy of our consideration and interest as travelers is gradually shifting from the physical towards the mental. In the relentless search for finding the most far-flung undiscovered locations on earth, all of us as travelers have neglected to look right in front of our faces at the places we inhabit everyday as worthy of discovery. Unlike Steve Duncan the journey might not require a crawl through a sewer to appreciate, but ultimately it can be just as rewarding.

Is Long-Term Traveling Selfish?

landscape“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living,” – Miriam Beard

Is long-term travel selfish? It’s a dilemma many backpackers and full-time nomads struggle with. You miss birthdays and weddings, you get to skip sitting behind an office desk eight hours a day, you make your family and friends worry and spend each day fulfilling your own desires to explore the world.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of selfish is “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” While I would say that partially correlates to the long-term traveler, I’m not sure it’s a completely accurate depiction.How Travel Is Selfish

There are many selfish aspects to long-term travel. Travel is about oneself, and what we want to get out of an experience. Our days are dictated by sites of interest, as we commit to exploring unique landscapes and having rare experiences. It’s purely for the benefit of oneself. However, isn’t it necessary to be selfish in life, to get what we want, even if the method is unconventional?

ghana How Travel Is Not Selfish

The part of the definition of “selfish” that doesn’t sit well with me is where it states that the person is acting “without regard for others.” Traveling is inspiring, and many long-term travelers try to make a positive impact where they go. Whether it’s helping a community, imparting knowledge, buying a handmade scarf at a market or playing a game with a child, travelers can make a positive impact. Even something as small as teaching a local about life in your home city or doing a language exchange can help educate someone in another place.

Of course, different people have different travel philosophies, meaning there may be some genuinely selfish travelers out there. However, if they’re enjoying what they’re doing and not causing harm, are they really acting “without regard for others?”

What we learn we can then pass on to others. By traveling we automatically help the local economy in the place we are visiting. One argument many people have for long-term travel being selfish is that the traveler doesn’t help their home economy; however, I don’t think many non-travelers are staying home solely to make purchases to help their economy. The cheeseburger you bought for lunch, those new shoes and that gold watch were more likely purchased to fulfill a self-centered desire than anything else.

horseMany Things In Life Are Selfish

Everybody has the ability to make their own decisions. If someone chooses to travel long term, they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re doing something wrong. It may be unconventional, but is that really a bad thing? Moreover, aren’t most of things people do out of passion “selfish”? If you go to the gym, do yoga, get a dog, buy a shirt, or go to work, aren’t these all motivated by a selfish desire? In my opinion, you need to be a bit selfish in order to feel fulfilled.

Is Being Selfish Always A Bad Thing?

But, why does this need to be a bad thing? Our passions are what help us grow. Why do you think travel is such a great resume booster? It gives you life skills and knowledge, and makes you more of a citizen of the world. As a well-rounded individual, you can then make a positive impact on society.

On a recent bus ride in Bolivia, I sat next to a man who had uprooted his two boys, one 14 and one 9, to volunteer around the world. At first I couldn’t believe he would take them out of school and away from their friends at such a young age; however, when the nine-year-old boy began to speak, I was amazed at how smart he was. He knew how to read braille from working with the blind, spoke of the habits of monkeys living in the wild, knew a lot about health and nutrition and spoke of working with the mentally challenged in a mature and sensitive manner. His dream was to travel the world and experiment with natural remedies to come up with cures for diseases. What a selfless goal to come out of someone’s “selfish” act.

Do you think long-term travel is selfish?

What’s Your Travel Philosophy?

globe “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

What’s your travel philosophy? It’s a question that many seasoned travelers get asked. Your travel philosophy encompasses your beliefs on travel and the process of leaving home. It is like your mission statement for your trips. There are many to choose from, and depending on your travel style and what you want to get out of your trips, yours could be worlds away from the next person’s. Having a travel philosophy is not something you need to have, but more something you intrinsically have without even trying.

Most people travel without much thinking. Not that a certain amount of planning doesn’t go into the trip – booking a flight, researching hotels and looking at reviews; however, many people don’t stop to think about why they are actually traveling.When I travel, I’m usually carrying nothing more than a 20-pound backpack and a pair of sunglasses. I enjoy traveling solo to international destinations and places that give me a bit of culture shock. To me, traveling is about being taken out of your comfort zone and growing from the experience. However, if you asked my best friend what travel meant to her, she would be more likely to answer relaxing on a beach with close friends and a strong daiquiri. Additionally, I know other people who travel to learn about history, fashion, food, and medicine or to volunteer, escape, have an adventure, for inspiration, to become healed, to relax or to become closer with their partner. None of these ways of looking at travel is right or wrong, just different.

That’s one thing that’s so great about travel. Aside from doing illegal activities or being completely inconsiderate, there really is no wrong way to travel. It’s all about what you want to get out of the experience. For example, when living with a host family in Ghana, Africa, my favorite part was seeing the locals cook dinner and also attending events like church or a wedding. Of course, I visited the famous sites in the country like the slave castles, cultural centers and national parks; however, it was learning about everyday life that really made me feel like I was in Ghana.

So the big question is, why do you travel? It sounds like such a simple question, although figuring it out is not so easy.

On many past posts about my travels, I’ve gotten a lot of comments from people who just can’t relate to what I’m saying. I’ve also gotten many comments from people who think a lot like I do. There’s nothing wrong with either, as each person’s experience differs from another. This is another reason you shouldn’t listen to everything other travelers say, as their experiences are in line with their goals. For example, before going to Gimmelwald, an extremely small mountain town in Switzerland, I was asked by another backpacker, “Why would you go there? There’s nothing to do.” Thankfully I ignored her question, and followed my gut, as the destination is now one of my favorite cities in the world. While some people may find a place that doesn’t have nightclubs, restaurants and shops “boring,” I found it delightful. I went for picturesque hikes, purchased eggs, cheese and sausage from Erica, the town’s “egg and cheese lady” and bonded with new friends over red wine and games of Jenga. It opened my eyes up to a simpler way of life.

That’s why I travel. I’m not saying I had a revelation that I should leave my home city of New York and move to a small town in the mountains; however, I did discover a new way of life. For me, it’s about learning new things, exploring new landscapes and becoming more and more a citizen of the world.

I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, my travel philosophy has changed. When I was younger, even in my teenage years, I was obsessed with amusement parks. Every trip my family planned revolved around what roller coaster looked the scariest and which theme park had the newest rides. As I got older, I started to enjoy cruises and all-inclusive resorts, because I found them relaxing and a way to let loose and have fun without having to worry about money. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Sydney that I began to view travel as more of a growing experience. When in Australia, I barely ever sat still, but instead used every free moment to explore the country, interact with locals and learn new things. That is the trip that really cemented my backpacker style of trying to travel close to the ground and immerse myself in local cultures.

What’s your travel philosophy?

[flickr image via jbachman01]

Is Traveling Without A Passport Really Traveling?

passportThis is a debate I encounter all the time, whether on the road or at home talking to friends. Technically, if you drive to the store to buy milk or go for a jog around the block you’re “traveling,” but what about the perception most people have of what travel really is?

After asking many people about this topic, it seems as though the answer often depends on what kind of travel experience the person has. It’s almost as if international travel makes people a bit jaded. For example, I recently went hiking with a guy from France who hadn’t really done much travel around Europe. However, he had been all over the United States, Canada, South America and Asia.

“Why don’t you go to Germany or Switzerland for a few days?” I asked, amazed that he’d never seen these countries that were so close to France. “Train travel in Europe is so convenient.”

“That’s not really traveling,” he responded. “I don’t even need a passport for those.”

While it may sound odd, this way of thinking is pretty common. When I spent six months studying abroad in Sydney, Australia, I spent every weekend and break frantically flying around the country, trying to “travel” as much as I possibly could in the time I had. Meanwhile, my roommate, a native Aussie, had never even been to Melbourne or Cairns.

“I can go there anytime,” she responded. “If I’m going to really travel, I’m going to go to Europe or South America.”While it always surprises me to hear people act so nonchalant about their home countries – places that I’ve traveled to and think are amazing – I have to admit I often fall into the same category. When people ask me when I started traveling, I usually respond, “When I was 20 and went to Australia.” My parents, who planned vacations and road trips every summer across the U.S. and Canada when I was growing up, probably wouldn’t like this answer. I’m not sure why, but flying to Maine to eat lobster and ride the Banana Boat or driving up the east coast to visit various theme parks just doesn’t feel like “real” traveling to me.

Not everyone feels this way. I have many friends who get excited about going to the Jersey Shore or to Washington, D.C. They request a week off work and spend hundreds of dollars shopping for new clothes, the perfect camera and colorful luggage. Additionally, I know people who tell me about how their jobs allow them to travel to places like Chicago and Boston. It isn’t that these places aren’t exciting, it’s more that they don’t provide the necessary amount of culture shock I need to really feel like I’m away from home.

Moreover, when posing the question on Twitter, most people said they believed traveling without a passport to be real traveling. However, many also agreed there was a distinct difference between domestic and international travel, probably due to contrasts in language and culture.

passportIronically, if you asked me if traveling without a passport was still traveling, my gut reaction would be to respond, “yes, of course.” However, I can’t deny that when friends tell me they are visiting family in Denver or spending the weekend in Atlantic City, I don’t think of this as “really” traveling, but simply “going away for a few days.”

I think for many people, traveling to a truly foreign place allows for the feeling that they’ve really left home. There are new foods to try, a new language to learn, a different way of dress, customs and ideas we find odd but want to learn more about, and unfamiliar landscapes to explore. To many, it’s a richer experience. However, you have to wonder if this is only because, when abroad, travelers tend to be more active in their pursuit to learn. When out of the country, most people will pepper taxi drivers and hotel owners with questions about food, dress, history and norms, while in their home country they’d probably just ask for some restaurant recommendations.

The truth is, even when traveling to a different city in your home country you’ll be experiencing a different culture. For instance, I have a friend who lives 20 minutes from me, and half the time I can’t understand what she’s saying, as her town seems to have developed their own language. If I drive an hour further, I’ll see girls who dress completely different than me, and have a completely different attitude in general. If you open yourself up to unique encounters, ask questions and try to discover something new about a place, even your own backyard can offer a worthwhile travel experience.

Do you think traveling without a passport is still travel?

[flickr photo via Sean MacEntee & tiffini]