As the travel and vacation season kicks off, a thought or two on the types of travel and its rewards seemed appropriate. So … here goes.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, the New York Times ran a piece about the evolution of luxury vacation travel–and how much those privileged travelers are missing out on, by being shielded from the discomfort of the “everyman’s” travel experience. Tony Perrottet, who wrote the piece, argued that Epictetus, the first-century Stoic philosopher, had himself argued that “a certain degree of physical discomfort was an integral part of a rich experience on the road.”
To which I would respond … it depends upon what kind of experience you are seeking. In my Surviving Uncertainty book, I differentiate between vacation and adventure. (To wit: if you know how everything is going to turn out, it’s a vacation, not an adventure. Conversely, if a vacation goes so badly awry that the outcome is suddenly not so certain, it has ceased to be a vacation and has morphed into an adventure). Likewise, I think there is a difference between a vacationer and a traveler.
Not everyone who travels is a traveler, except according to the most technical of definitions. A traveler–at least in the Lane Wallace worldview dictionary, which, granted, is not quite as well known as Webster’s–is someone who leaves their home/comfort zone to explore and seek out new cultures, experiences, and/or sensations. A traveler wants to know what the souk in Marrakesh smells, looks and feels like, even if one visit is perhaps enough for a lifetime. They are seeking, as Epictetus put it, “a rich experience on the road.”
A vacationer, on the other hand, is looking primarily for a refuge. When I want to expand my understanding of the world, I go to Africa. I sleep in mud huts, go without coffee, sleep, running water, and eat whatever makes the hunger pangs stop. I connect as much as I can with local cultures and people, taking notes the whole time. But important to note is that I do all that because I am seeking a rich experience. I don’t expect it to be fun, necessarily, as much as I expect it to be rewarding. And comfort–as I’ve often said about adventure–is rarely part of the equation.
When I want to recover energy and sanity from a too-stressed life, however … e.g. go on vacation … I go to Hawaii. Or a spa hotel. Or a secluded beach cottage. Not that I don’t want to hike, or scuba dive, or kayak, or do other mildly adventurous things while on those vacations. But the primary goal is relaxation, with some athletic activity thrown in because it’s fun. Which means I actually care about comfort.
The advent of “adventure vacations” may have blurred the line between the two a bit, although the truth is, most organized “adventure vacations” aren’t really much of an adventure, because they’re carefully structured to have known outcomes. Doing it on your own is way more of a true adventure. But it could be that the rich people that Perrottet feels are missing out do not want a real adventure, or even the experience of a traveler. It could be that they simply want to have vacations in exotic locations. Which means they want to be shielded from all the smells, discomforts and quirks that make an Epic traveler’s experience and memories so rich.
One of the perks of having money is that it can insulate you from many of the hassles, scrapes, and discomforts of daily life, and give you space from your fellow human beings. You can live in a large house, on a large lot, in a neighborhood where there aren’t annoyingly trashy neighbors and everyone has a professional gardener to keep their yard looking perfect. You can fly first class and never have to jostle to get your bag stored, or spend 7 hours in close proximity with a seatmate two inches away. You can be driven, instead of riding the subway or bus lines. You can, if you so choose, make your own personal world one that never touches or sees ugliness, smelliness, or decay.
Of course, if you choose that road, there is, in fact, much in life that you will miss. For some of the most memorable moments in life are those that come not from scripted perfection, but from unexpected encounters with everything from other humans to the particular smells and sounds of the souk in Marrakesh. This is precisely why adventure is not just educational, but also rewarding. And why I’m such a big fan of it.
Once again, it comes down to balance. Without any real travel or adventure, a person’s world, even if they stay in 5-star hotels around the globe, can become awfully limited and small. But if every trip is an adventure, it can be exhausting. There is a place, too, for finding a little oasis of comfort and simply retreating from the world and its cares for a while, to feed the soul and senses with all things beautiful.
A college friend of my mother’s once sent her a homemade Valentine’s Day card that said “I wake every morning torn between wanting to change the world and wanting to simply enjoy it. It makes it hard to plan the day.” Amen to that. Here’s hoping that this traveling and vacation season, readers of this blog find time to do both.