Why do we travel?

Why do we travel?    Pushing our comfort zone

Freedom? Beauty? Looking for the unexpected? To challenge ourselves and our values? To escape our day to day life even for one week? There is not one answer that fits all. People travel for different reasons. Some people want to leave the town where “they are from” and where everyone knows them because in some way, being in a new place where nobody else knows you, makes you freer. It feels good because there is no emotional attachment in that holiday place. No bad things happened there (at least not to yourself).

My favorite reason to go to a new place is the thirst for adventure and to push my comfort zone.  This makes things exciting. It makes you more independent and better at solving other types of problems in your home environment or at work.

The most common example is when you venture to a country where they speak a different language. In touristic cities or central areas of large cities, you will normally get by with English. But when you come out of those touristic areas and go off the beaten track, English is no longer spoken.

When this happens, or even worse, when the alphabet of the country you are visiting is completely different to yours, then you know you are pushing your comfort zone and need to find ways to reverse the feeling that you are not in control. This hit me once in Japan. I was showing an old man the name of the street I wanted to get to. He narrowed his eyes on my map. He seemed confused and deep in thought. I assumed he understood a street called “Marutamachi dori”. I started thinking he was not from the city. Maybe he had just come for the weekend. Strange, after all it sounded very Japanese to me. After the man started scratching his head I read the street name out loud without thinking. “Marutamachi dori”. And he smiled and pointed the right direction for me.  Although it was a Japanese name, he could not read it in my latin alphabet map. His mind converted my sounds into his katakana alphabet and suddenly we understood each other.

On another occasion, the Cyrillic alphabet in Ukraine was the main communication barrier and I was in a city were English was hardly spoken. Then you start to develop some survival instincts you are not aware you have. An example of how I got past this was by showing the taxi driver a picture of the train station where I was heading to. I wrote down on a piece of paper the price in the local currency that I was happy to pay. He wrote a slightly higher figure and I agreed by moving my head up and down. I like understanding the different meanings that gestures can have in other countries, remembering that moving your head up and down (which means yes in many cultures, could mean “no” in others). I was glad that, although the taxi driver and myself spoke different languages and read in different alphabets, we shared the same symbols for numbers!

Another challenge occurs when certain gestures could be a barrier or you may, unknowingly, come across as rude. In some cultures, the use of our fingers to count is fine while in others it might cause you trouble. I ordered two pints of beer in a pub in England. As it was noisy, I signalled with my index and middle finger the way we do in my country for number two. The barman was not impressed. He seemed angry by the fact that I ordered two? Why was he looking at me like that? He realised I was not English and let it go but he was questioning if I was mocking him or insulting him. Not at all, I just want two, I insisted. I later learnt what the issue was….

And this is what travelling is about. A constant challenge of symbols, meanings and habits that sometimes separate us and sometimes bring us closer together. Exposing yourself to these situations over time make you more aware, more open minded and improves your intercultural understanding. It also make you adopt the best habits from different places and disregard those from your own culture that seem to make no much sense to you.

“So much of who we are is where we have been” – William Langewiesche

Written by Victor Delgado