Why we travel
THE steps were so steep, my neck hurt just from looking up. The Swedish guy who had passed me earlier was climbing up on all fours, his skinny arms reaching out, looking very much like Spiderman from where I stood.
“It’s just a bunch of steps,” someone from my group remarked. “Really,” he added for extra effect.
I was on the Great Wall of China, attempting to hike for 10km from Jinshanling to Simatai, about three hours’ drive from Beijing.
The combination of slippery ice, an old wall and a bad back was not a good one.
Ten kilometres isn’t difficult on flat land but if you’re hiking up and down a steep wall in winter and you’ve already fallen a couple of times, you begin to wish that you had just stayed at home.
I completed the hike but throughout the entire walk, I kept asking myself the same thing over and over: “Tell me again why you’re doing this.”
It started out as a weary statement but as I went on, it became a taunt, a challenge for me to come up with a real answer. No one travelled this far to slip and fall on ice.
Fast forward seven years to 2012 and I found myself waiting in line at the Cambodian-Thai border. Compared to all the other overland crossings I had done, going into Thailand was the most difficult.
I’d already been queuing for five hours and missed my train to Bangkok, which meant that I had to look for a bus later.
Behind me were some Australians. It was an extremely hot day and I could hear them getting angry and asking each other whose brilliant idea was this, mate, and how, for cryin’ out loud, they should have just flown from Siem Reap to Bangkok.
My own thoughts weren’t too far away and yet I knew that that experience wouldn’t be enough to put me off travelling.
If travelling puts us in such great discomfort, why do we keep doing it? Travel costs money, is often frustrating, risky and dangerous, and gives us food poisoning. So why do we still do it?
Zarah, a friend of mine, returned from Indonesia just a few days ago. The whole trip went well except for one incident that she won’t forget — her bus was involved in an accident and was badly damaged as a result.
Despite what happened, she’s already getting ready for another trip next week, this time to India. Life has to go on, she said.
“If something terrible was meant to happen to me during the accident, it would have. But it didn’t and until then, I’m going to keep on doing what makes me happy, which is travelling.”
I agree with her; travelling makes me happy too, as it does a lot of people, but there’s more to it than that.
As human beings, it is in our nature to want to know more. That was what the first explorers were — curious. Travellers like Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Xuanzang would not have left the comfort of their homes if they hadn’t been curious as to what lay beyond the sea or over the mountains.
We would have no maps or histories of the ancient world without these explorers.
And although there’s not much left of the world which hasn’t been explored, we’re still a curious lot to this day. We want to know what foreign lands look like and how other people live.
We travel thousands of kilometres to see the sun rise over a crumbling temple, laugh and joke over cups of tea with complete strangers and climb the world’s highest mountain just because it happens to be there.
That, I think, is why people still travel and will go on doing so no matter how heavy the bags and how arduous the journey.
We want to be able to tell ourselves, “I have been there and I have seen it, and now I know”.
Originally published in the New Sunday Times.
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