Do You Travel for Discovery or Escape?

Do you travel to discover, or to escape?

Take a moment an think about it. Really think.

Many people hit the road with a fire lit under their pants to, “Get the heck out of here,” for one reason or another. Perhaps you’ve just finished the long marathon of schooling and you just want OUT. Perhaps you’ve had enough of the rat race and you just have to GO. Perhaps you’re fleeing family drama; that’s enough to make anyone want to RUN. Perhaps you’re feeling trapped – ten or twenty years into your status quo – and you are consumed with a need to BREAK OUT.

Ready to re-discover yourself?<br />
Ready to re-discover yourself?

Or maybe it’s deeper. Perhaps what you’re trying to escape is yourself. Maybe the place you’re feeling trapped is within your own head and heart. Perhaps you feel iron bands around your soul and with all your might you’re struggling to escape something no one else can see.

You can’t keep running from stuff as a lifestyle, as a way to travel, or as your primary “why” for travel. You can start there, if you must, but you’re going to learn some things along the way.

Traveling to escape is not a new idea. In fact, I think it’s probably as old as humanity itself. There are myths and tales of folks who took to their two feet and escaped to see the world. Sometimes they came back heroes. Sometimes they died trying. Sometimes they simply never came back.

discovery travel

I think it’s okay to take off traveling to escape. Sometimes, you really, truly, need to just cut the anchor line on something that’s seriously weighing you down and float free for a while. I get that. But you can’t live there. You can’t keep running from stuff as a lifestyle, as a way to travel, or as your primary “why” for travel. You can start there, if you must, but you’re going to learn some things along the way.

The first thing you’re going to learn is that who you are goes with you. There’s no escaping that. When you find you’re not the travel companion to yourself that you thought you’d be, you’re going to learn something else: The real reason you want to travel is to discover.

At first, it feels like we travel to discover the world: new cultures, new places, new people, new languages, history, geography, adventure. We set out on a grand voyage of discovery. It is one of the great miracles of existence, to me, that the world is brand new in every generation. It exists, individually, only as we experience it, and it is always waiting there for us to open the door. I love that. It’s that sense of discovery that drives my travel now: knowing that there is more just over the next hill.

The world unfolds, not before our eyes, but inside us, and we awaken to it as we awaken to ourselves. It’s like magic.

But after a while – a few weeks, a few months, a few years – we settle in to the routine of discovery, and we find that what we’re really traveling is not the world at all, but hidden path of our lives, the interior of our own souls. What we’re discovering is not a place, or a people group, or some exotic, narcotic, experience. It’s ourselves. Who we are begins to emerge. The world unfolds, not before our eyes, but inside us, and we awaken to it as we awaken to ourselves. It’s like magic.

I’ve been thinking about this dichotomy of escape vs. discovery. I’m not convinced that there is a way to resolve the two, and even if there was, I’m not sure I’d want to.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to consider the conflict, so instead of rambling on and on, I thought you might enjoy considering what some other travelers have written on the subject:

On Escape:

Paragliding Mountain Flight @ Mt. Woodside

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.”

― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

“Paradise was always over there, a day’s sail away. But it’s a funny thing, escapism. You can go far and wide and you can keep moving on and on through places and years, but you never escape your own life. I, finally, knew where my life belonged. Home.”

― J. Maarten Troost, Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu

On Discovery:

Connect with who we are

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed pope-mobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.” Click to tweet this quote from @Bourdain

― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

“There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic: this was usually Valentina’s first impulse. Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.”

― Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry

“Travel brings wisdom only to the wise. It renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever.”

― Joe Abercrombie, Last Argument of Kings

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”

― Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” Click to tweet this quote from @PicoIyer

Pico Iyer

“Yeah, that’s my experience. Humbling to the point where you have major regrets about some of the stupid things you said, some of the things you thought were right. You keep going to these countries, and it’s like, you forgot the lesson from the last time. Because the first person you encounter kind of bitch-slaps you upside the head in the most wonderful, innocent way and you realize, God, I’m still an asshole. And this guy, by doing nothing except being broke and so incredibly polite—it takes you aback, you realize, I’m still not there yet. I still have like eight miles to go before I can even get into the parking lot of humility. I have to keep going back. It’s like going back to a chiropractor to get a readjustment. That’s me in Africa, that’s me in Southeast Asia. You come back humbled and you bring that into your life. It’s made me much more tolerant of other peoples—and I’m not saying I used to be a misogynist, or I used to be a racist, that was never my problem. But I can be extremely headstrong, impatient, rude. Like, “Hurry up, man. What’s your problem? Get out of my way.” That sentiment comes easy to me. Going to these countries, you realize none of that is necessary, none of it’s cool, it’s nothing Abraham Lincoln would do, and so why are you doing it? Those are the lessons I’ve learned.”

Henry Rollins

Do you travel for escape, discovery, or something else entirely? Share your thoughts below.

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manifesto - value discovery over escape

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  • Karin-Marijke Vis said at 2014-02-26T16:10:42+0000: Thanks for sharing this piece. You got right to the point. I left because I wanted to get out of the rat race; selling everything and leaving was the easiest option. I fell in love with traveling as soon as I hit the road in 2003 and has been my lifestyle since. And it's like you say: You take yourself with you. In travel you can't escape yourself. You learn things, adapt, change, but you remain in essence who you've always been. I am okay with that because I wasn't escaping me, but my way of life. I feel fortunate to have found a way of life that fits me.