by Tom Cole

We travel to wake up. Life is swift and hazy. We are habitual creatures, following mildly comfortable ruts. As Miguel de Unamuno said, “To fall into a habit is to cease to be.” The great religions (not by mere word-flinging is Buddha called The Awakened One), the poets, the philosophers, the guy at the corner store (if he stops to think of about it), tell us that we live most of our lives in a mist. Travel, like the best friend you’ll ever have, gives you a little slap: Wake up! Wake up! Be!

We travel because it’s the highest form of re-creation. That’s a quote from our pal Seamus O’Banion. What on earth did you mean by that, Seamus? “I meant that every time we step out of our life’s routine we have the chance to recreate ourselves anew. To decide who we are, what we like, what we can’t stand, what we crave, what brings us joy, what repels and attracts us. We always have this fundamental chance, but we don’t usually grasp it. The good traveler, as opposed to the traveler who’s just getting carted around, learns that this old personality is marvelously flexible, fantastically adaptable, far more capacious than he or she ever thought. That we always have the power to chose who we are, to re-create ourselves as we see fit.”

We travel because we’re natural-born sensualists. Sure, we’re smack dab in a miraculously rich sensory environment without even leaving home. The local franchise coffee dispensary, if we stop fidgeting long enough to let it flow in, is a teeming universe of sense delights. Problem is, we don’t usually notice through the habit-mist. But we do notice this incredible, unceasing sense-flood when we travel. Sights, sounds, and probably the least honored (because it’s so seemingly vestigial), smell. Sunrise in the Himalaya. The souks of Istanbul. The sound of wild horses galloping across the plains of Patagonia. Dinner in Tuscany. There is no end to it.

We travel, as Chesterton said, not to set foot on foreign land, but to set foot on one’s own country as foreign land. That is, we travel to understand our normal life and land better. To appreciate them more, to mine them for their joy and, yes, their unending exoticism. To look beyond what someone recently called the narcissism of the unspoiled place, which contains within it the dull, life-shunning notion that the very place where we live is spoiled somehow. Proust said it, too: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Travel gives us new eyes. It makes the same old brand new.

We travel because we’re human. One main factor in the upward trend of animal life, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, has been the power of wandering. Most of us, whether we know it or not, whether we do it or not, want to find out what’s behind that homey hill. As Theo Cruz once said, “If humans weren’t travelers, the Olduvai Gorge would be pretty crowded these days.”

We travel because it’s an act of good citizenship, local and global. You know, as a traveler, that when you read a news report about a place you’ve been, that it comes alive in an important way. Your letters to the editor have weight, your opinions are more grounded. Your concerns are more tangible. The life of the sweet little boy who grabbed your index finger and led you around Angkor is no longer an abstraction. And you’re no longer an abstraction to him, or to the wealth of people you meet and with whom you dally and bargain and share train compartments and jeeps and scenery and meals and pictures of your and their kids. You don’t have horns and a forked tail. They aren’t necessarily mad at you just because you have a blue passport. Travel fosters understanding, and we need understanding, now more than ever.

We travel because people everywhere are wonderful. Always? Of course not. God knows we know that. But ask the alert traveler, and she will tell you: As a species, humans are worth the effort of getting to know. We send out trip questionnaires to all our clients — many of you have filled them out — and our experience is this: You rave about the scenery and the food and the accommodations (usually) but you have a special place in your hearts for the people. When we solicited “Moments of Wonder” essays and short memories a while back, the overwhelming majority of your responses had to do with human exchange. The cab driver in Cairo who grandly, quietly refused payment. That student in Kashgar who took you home to meet the folks. The old fellow you played chess with in Tehran. The ladies in a Yemeni mountain village who fed you dates and gossiped about men and painted your feet in the local style. The rough truck driver who cradled you like a baby when you had food poisoning in Shigatse. The forbidding-looking Pathan man in Peshawar (yes, Peshawar) who suddenly smiled and said, “Welcome to my country, dear sir.” Again and again, it’s the human encounters we remember, that are balm to our souls. If travel teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that humans are lovely creatures.

And we travel because, as an old zen koan has it, The whole world is medicine. Medicine freely offered, medicine we need and have a right to. Medicine that cures us of alienation and the bondage of self-obsession. Medicine that helps us become whole and vibrant, and allows us to see the whole and vibrant world.