There are as many reasons to travel as there are mountains to climb and sunsets to admire: to learn, to grow, to become, to breathe fresh air, to see new horizons, to dive into new depths, to hear strange words. But, don’t take my word for it— there are plenty of philosophers and fellow travelers out there that will back me up as to why traveling is good, and just how important meaningful travel is.
Travel writer Paul Theroux claims that “...the wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown.”
Robert Louis Stevenson says, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair of moving."
Activist and novelist Lisa St Aubin de Terán wrote, “...it might be said that a great unstated reason for travel is to find places that exemplify where one has been happiest. Looking for idealized versions of home— indeed, looking for the perfect memory.”
Yet, when all is boiled down to a single drop, we travel to define: ourselves, the world, and life. With each footstep, this definition can change. It is a definition that is open-ended, one that is influenced by every experience and new border crossing. It is a definition without a clear answer, and one that will keep evolving as long as we keep traveling.
It is also the most valuable definition that we will write, as it gives significance to all of our interactions. Even if the meaning itself changes, its importance remains undisputed:
Why travel? We travel to define ourselves.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” There is no motivation to step outside of our comfort zone until we understand that what lies on the other side is worth the risk, and it is in one of the high loops of this wild roller coaster of life, when everything is upside down and rushing past you too fast and you start to feel like a little child, that we truly open our eyes and feel alive.
It is difficult to paint an accurate self-portrait if we are limited by the color palette and dimensions of our canvas. Growing up in a familiar environment, with the same mentalities and events through the years, has a habit of spurning growth. It is not until challenges arise that we evolve, and until we come in with new ideas that our own minds can give birth to fresh thoughts. New countries break apart our mentalities and stereotypes, allowing us to put ourselves back together again how we wish.
Perhaps Paul Theroux says it best: “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.” It is impossible to travel and remain unchanged. We develop, gaining new roots and leaving old thought patterns behind. Coming into with foreign cultures, languages, activities, causes, religions, and landscapes, we find undiscovered interests and begin to view the world differently. We learn patience, we practice good faith, we adapt new skills, and we discover that what we took as “normal” isn’t so normal after all.
St. Aubin de Terán wrote, “I wanted to find myself in a distant place, and new things to care . The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be.” Whether it is a long weekend away to the beach, a summer study abroad program, or an internship on the other side of the world, meaningful travel converts “elsewhere” as a synonym to the opportunity to grow. Priorities change, the new page is always blank, and our person alters alongside the journey.
Why travel? We travel to define the world.
There is a Moorish proverb that states: “He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” It is easy to pretend that we know how other people live and how other countries look, based on news broadcasts, socialized stereotypes, and Aunt Hilda’s crazy stories, but it is not until we tighten our own boot laces and hike out to see the world, that we replace myth with fact.
When we experience a stranger’s hospitality and observe how others treat others and their land, we can start to assign worth to other populations— and to mankind in general. Living the nomadic life and immersing ourselves into experiences, we see enough to make our own generalizations... and then learn that they will forever be broken and never remain the same. Participating in other cultures’ realities gives us a glimpse of the life beyond the travel books and even the most “authentic” tourist activities.
An immigrant himself, Dagobert D. Runes muses that “people travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” This couldn’t be more true. At first, travel might be associated with big monuments and fancy museums, but the longer we spend on the road, the more synonymous “travel” becomes with “living,” and we realize that there are more similarities between us than there are differences.
Before we know it, we are reaching out to the locals, looking for non-touristy neighbourhoods, and longing for meaningful connections. Sitting at a street café during our lunch break while , we observe everyday life, and we see our own neighbours back home in these strangers’ shoes. When we see ourselves reflected in people on the other side of the world, it is a humbling experience that puts life in perspective. Sometimes, we just need to travel a thousand miles to realize what we left behind and what we carry with us.
Why travel? We travel to define life.
Perhaps most importantly, travel gives a new meaning to life; it opens our eyes to the things that matter, takes us by surprise, and leads to the (wonderfully) unexpected— only for us to realize that that is exactly where we need to be. Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel ponders that, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”
It is precisely this wonder for life and the quest to find definition that serves as the greatest motivator to living a fulfilling life, both abroad and at home.
Ultimately, travel presents us with a new mindset for life. Henry Miller writes, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” while historian Mary Ritter Beard says, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of the living.” While enjoying the journey more than celebrating the destination, we grow an appreciation for the process, rather than the mere result. We learn to laugh at our blunders, shed fear of getting lost, cope with failure, let go of things that we do not need, and foster gratitude for the small things in life.
Getting out of our shells to globetrot or spend a semester volunteering with marine animals leaves a footprint on our being that lasts long after passport stamps fade (and almost as long as those turtles that you helped from becoming extinct are going to live). We come back more confident individuals, charismatic storytellers, and humbled souls that know that the journey toward knowledge is one that never ends.
As philosopher Martin Buber states, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
Why traveling is good— and traveling with these programs is BETTER
“There were times when I felt uncertain and hesitant, but these were the moments in which I learned the most myself. I valued every single aspect of my abroad experience, and I could not recommend it more to anyone curious exploring the world and themselves.”
“I learned to step out of my comfort zone and get to know people that I would've originally thought I had nothing in common with. I learned to respect Greek culture and adapt to their way of doing things so that I would not come off as rude. I learned to embrace differences and that language barriers don't mean I can't communicate with someone.”
“I have learned so much myself, the culture, and most importantly, I have developed strong communication and survival skills. This was my first time in China and not knowing the language was terrifying at first for me; however, TEAN made everything so much smoother and I blended right in.”
- Chan Thai, TEAN Shanghai, China
Why travel — why not?!
So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags (or leave them behind) and start making your path there and writing your own story. Whichever way you decide to go, it will be a journey to remember!