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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Traveling

There's no way I could start this blog without mentioning traveling. Traveling has always been a great source of happiness for me, and it started early: by the time I was 8, I had already spent a year in Sénégal (Western Africa), and visited a few countries in Europe.

The first question that comes to mind is: why is traveling a source of happiness? What happens when people travel, that makes them happy?

If, like I said earlier, happiness does not originate from being in a specific place, at a specific time, with a specific person, and with a specific number (of dollars - of possessions- of secret admirers - you take your pick)... then what, about traveling, helps "activate" happiness?

Before we go any further, I have to observe that I actually know people for whom traveling does NOT seem to be a source of happiness. I am not talking about the friend who travels for work, does not choose the destination, and never has enough time to even get out of the conference center to visit the city she's in. I'm talking about those people who travel by choice, during their vacation, on a regular basis. They spend a significant amount of money and time on traveling. They do it over and over again. They always seem excited about their upcoming trip. Yet when they come back, they never fail to look and sound disappointed (and I never fail to be incredulous at the extent of their disappointment).

I guess that's evidence for the fact that happiness comes from within: otherwise, how could you explain that someone would mostly have negative things to say about a shopping spree in Paris, or an exotic cruise in the Pacific Islands? Next time, I should tell them to just stay home and hand me the plane tickets! I would gladly sacrifice myself for the sake of their well-being!

But back to serious. What part of traveling ignites happiness in us? Here are some answers:

Freedom:

When I travel, I feel free. Maybe it's because I don't have a house to look after during that time. Maybe it's because I don't have to cook meals. Maybe it's because I don't have to work (although I sometimes do, and it has not been detrimental to my traveling pleasure in any way). Maybe it's because I do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. But the main reason for that exhilarating feeling of freedom, I think, is the fact that I travel light. Whenever I travel it reminds me that we don't need much possessions to be perfectly content. There is something elating about carrying everything you own and need in one single bag. Wearing the same clothes over and over again (yes, I do wash them at some point!) doesn't seem to have any negative impact on the way I feel. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Discovery:

When I travel, my 5 senses are constantly surprised by new sensations. I see buildings and parks and landscapes I have never seen before. I hear different sounds, voices, accents, languages, music. I smell different smells. I taste different tastes. I touch different textures. For some reason, I thrive on that kind of festival of novelty. I guess that's how babies feel when they apprehend the world for the first time: everything is a source of marveling: the grasshopper bouncing about, the softness of a blanket, one's own tasty toes. Yes, that's how I feel when I travel: I marvel just like a baby would (although I don't usually enjoy putting my feet in my mouth).

I am aware that traveling is time consuming, and not cheap. Sometimes, traveling is just not an option. And clearly, we are not gonna wait for a trip oversees to be happy. Good news: by reproducing the conditions of freedom and discovery, I think we can yield happy feelings inside. It is probably not a coincidence that one of the happiest times of my life was when I was studying for my Master's: I lived in a tiny 1 room apartment, and for the first year I did not own a TV, nor a microwave, nor a couch (the bed doubled as a sitting place). I had an ascetic grocery budget. Yet I was immensely satisfied with my life. It might sound counter-intuitive, but I truly believe the simplicity and the frugality of my existence led to a sense of freedom. And then there were all the discoveries that came from studying a subject that fascinated me, with passionate professors and other grad students. Libraries are free, and let me tell you I took huge advantage of it. Yes, I was eating a lot of tomato sandwiches, but I did so while reading Camus, Sartre, and an embarrassment of French classics. Pure delight.


Pieter Janssens Elinga, from the Alte Pinokotek, Munich

What about you? Do you like to travel? Why? And what is your idea of freedom and discovery?

Note: for those readers who would - wisely - remark the contradiction between endorsing frugality and dreaming of shopping sprees, please keep in mind that a simple life does not exclude the right to enjoy luxury from time to time. But we'll come back to that.

1 comment:

  1. I know people such as the ones you describe in your fourth paragraph, and I am not sure that their disappointment is strictly related to traveling. They are most likely forever disappointed with their lives and those of their neighbours, relatives, co-workers, etc.

    A talent for happiness, or the lack thereof, is something you carry with you wherever you go.

    If you travel, change jobs or move because you are trying to evade or flee something that originates from yourself, you will take that "something" with you wherever you go.

    If you travel not to discover, learn or find beauty in difference, contrast and change, but to "show-off that you can", you may be very disappointed if your fancy trip or cruise does not impress that many people.

    Love your blog.

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