What Does Travel Mean to You?

When I was eight years old, I got locked inside a toilet cubicle in a Japanese KFC.

I’d been eating fried chicken with my parents mere minutes before; my fingers were greasy, and the lock on the door was little more than a strip of jutting plastic with an indent so shallow that only a non-greasy thumb could slide it open. The door itself fitted seamlessly to the ceiling and the floor – a flawless example of Japanese design in 1997 – and once I realised I couldn’t get out, I immediately began to panic.

What Does Travel Mean to You?

Happier times in Japan: nonchalantly stuffing my face with sushi.

After what felt like hours, my screams finally attracted the attention of a lone Japanese woman who had wandered into the bathroom. Clearly concerned about the invisible sobbing foreigner who had zero Japanese speaking skills, she headed back out into the restaurant and announced to a crowd of people that:

“A little girl is stuck in the bathroom!”

It took a resourceful employee and a yen coin scraping against the ‘engaged’ panel on the outside of the door to deposit me successfully, albeit snot-stained and weeping, into my waiting mother’s arms.

That moment in KFC is probably the first time I felt truly scared abroad: although my mum and dad were only two doors and few hundred metres away, I knew I was ostensibly alone.

Yet a Japanese stranger helped me, even though she had no idea who I was or what had happened to me – and I’ve never forgotten the gesture.

Facing up to the horrors of the world

The last few weeks have made us acutely aware of what it means to be human, in all our goodness and our badness. Following the most recent onslaught of terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali and Baghdad, there’s been a palpable shift in people’s behaviour, and social media channels are filled with fervent emotional responses of every kind possible.

Life has become horribly frightening, and I’ve felt alternately vulnerable, helpless and numb.

What Does Travel Mean to You?

For the days after the November 13th Paris attacks, I barely left my flat. I kept bursting into tears without warning, and couldn’t help scrolling through Twitter, Facebook and every news channel, overloading myself with horrific details until I felt physically sick.

And then I spoke to my dad, who told me kindly but firmly to switch everything off.

A break from the online world

Getting away from social media allowed my mind to settle down, and I began to think for myself rather than absorbing other people’s opinions.

I thought about the awful objectives those terrorists must have had, making the active choice to spread hatred through fear and pain.

I thought about the inevitable ‘anti-foreigner’ rhetoric that has immediately grown more vehement: the right wing newspapers claiming that the bombers had been refugees; the US presidential candidate who wants a database to track Muslims. All these attitudes supporting an ‘us versus them’ mentality – which, as history has shown us repeatedly, never works out well.

What Does Travel Mean to You?

And then I thought about the process that leads people to have these feelings against others. I simply can’t believe it’s an innate belief or a willing choice to hate somebody you’ve never met: my stubborn and fiercely empathetic self wants it to be as simple as a fear of the unknown, translated into aggression for the lack of something better.

Thinking back, I’ve definitely felt scared around strangers. I’ve been unsure about other religions. I’ve been outraged at a particular culture’s behaviour.

But those memories go hand in hand with never knowing what it’s like to navigate a foreign transit system with only a hostel address scribbled on my hand; to sleep in a dorm room with twenty other people of different nationalities; to conduct entire conversations with only hand gestures because we don’t share a common language; to eat foods I’d never seen before and couldn’t pronounce the names of if I tried.

Those fears and concerns about ‘the unknown’ were unfounded  – and happily enough, they began to be proved wrong once I stepped off a plane and out of my comfort zone.

What travel means to me

That incident in a Japanese bathroom happened nearly twenty years ago, and apart from never being able to eat in KFC again (thanks, permanent mental scarring!), the experience taught me the importance of showing compassion for strangers.

It’s also one of hundreds of lessons I can take away from the situations that have happened during my travels.

What Does Travel Mean to You?

Market conversations in India

In Mysore, India, I actively shed my fear of the ‘tourist-versus-local’ barrier by chatting to the stall holders at the Devraja market. From the man posing with his tomatoes to the quiet girl selling tikka dye who’d been attacked by a vicious husband with a vial of acid; from the children making flower garlands under their dad’s stall and teaching us songs to the man selling perfume oils in tiny glass bottles to the boy who showed me his photo album of the jasmine flower hair pieces he makes each day, telling me how much each one cost, their weight, meanings, purpose and their scents.

I realised that every person I get the chance to meet has a story and a passion.

What Does Travel Mean to You?

Religious understanding in Syria

In the deserts and cities of Syria, I traipsed around Roman ruins with three devout Christian girls from New Zealand, and even as I realised how differently they saw the country by looking through the prism of religion, I also saw how differently we were all treated by the Syrians once we wore scarves over our heads in the searing heat.

I understood what it is to be a woman in a country with wildly different attitudes to my own.

What Does Travel Mean to You?

Acceptance in Bolivia

On a long-haul overnight bus ride in Bolivia, I watched my fellow passengers quietly disembark in the middle of a highway and start dragging their cases towards the city, dozens of kilometres away. A city-wide transport strike had rendered the roads impassable, and there was no other option but to walk.

I learned to temper my internal frustration and my aching feet with a certain amount of patience when I knew this was a one-off experience for me – yet it’s a regular occurrence for so many.

road blockade in Tumbes

Homelessness in Japan

And that month in Japan also opened my eyes to poverty and homelessness for the first time, when my dad took me to a cardboard city at the underpass of a train station.

I was open-mouthed to see all these people living amongst the boxes like it was normal: Dad had passed through this station daily for months and decided his daughter needed to see how different someone else’s life could be, in a country so far away from my own.

Integrating travel experiences into ‘normal’ life

I didn’t realise these moments were forming my outlook and opinions on life when they were happening. Still, now I find myself cherrypicking the origins of each belief I have and tracing it back to an experience; a moment of education and revelation.

I’ve learnt so much from travel. That cultural differences have the power to highlight our similarities. That creativity is crucial. That staying within your niche and comfort zone often isn’t enough; that we have to be ever-present, ever-willing to learn and absorb the lessons that we’re given, learning to recognise them whenever they appear.

Language love

When I hesitantly came back to the internet, I chose to keep the negativity to a minimum, and instead focused on the messages of positivity in the wake of terrorism – and the more responses I see that are positive, thoughtful and loving, the more buoyed up I feel.

Like the Frenchman who told his son that terrorists might have guns, but we have flowers.

Like the Italian Prime Minister who plans to spend a euro on culture for every euro spent on security.

Like the travel bloggers urging their readers to keep travelling if that’s what they love.

I also asked people on my Facebook page what they thought travel meant to them, and loved the flurry of heartfelt responses I received.

Facebook responses to 'What Does Travel Mean to You?"

Love, peace, compassion – and action.

On November 13th 2015 I was in Gibraltar at the territory’s annual Literary Festival – and when I flew back to London a few days later I was undeniably nervous.

The faces around me at the airport all looked vulnerable and open. We were all more nervous than we’d been a week before. A black plastic bag had been left on the airport concourse; when the disembodied tannoy voice announced it, people around me shuffled.

On the plane, a large man with a greasy black beard pulled a huge case from the overhead lockers and rearranged his camera equipment on the empty seat beside me, aware that people were surreptitiously peering at the gear inside. His hands were shaking.

But I also noticed that everyone on the airport was more open to conversation. By talking to each other we were closing down the nerves, calming each other and simultaneously breaking a barrier.

Peace among boys

Love, peace, compassion and action: now, more than ever, we need an absolute ton of these four elements in our lives. It’s not important what specific situation brings this truth home to you. All that matters is that you realise it, and spread positivity as far as you can.

For me, travel has always meant trying to behave with understanding and compassion over judgement and aggression for any and every person I meet, because we’re all the same in the end.

And I plan to never stop believing that.

Choosing to embrace my fears

So although I can’t choose not to feel afraid about the state the world is in now, I do get to choose how I manage that fear.

Right now, I am here. Right now, I am happy and safe and confident. Right now, I have a choice.

I choose to think of Paris as a city where I travelled with the first man I ever loved and made sandwiches from baguettes on the banks of the Seine like a stupidly romantic couple; where I recently spent a weekend with my best friend, eating macarons in the sunshine and pretending to hug graffiti.

I choose to remember the moments and memories from experiences all over the world that make me who I am.

'Love is everything' graffiti in Paris

These moments and memories are what makes travel real and cements its importance in our lives. So now I’d like to ask you a question.

What are the ways in which travel has shaped and changed your perspectives on life? Did something subtly shift for you when you spoke to a shopkeeper in Guatemala? How did you think differently when you tasted a French croissant for the first time?

What does travel mean to you? 

April - Mysore market, India

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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32 Responses to What Does Travel Mean to You?

  1. sofiecouwenbergh November 29, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    A wonderfully written piece, Flora. One that goes beyond what just happened in the last couple of weeks and looks at the total pictures, both when it comes to fears about travel and when it comes to thinking globally instead of locally. Thank you for mentioning my post as well, not simply because of the mention, but because it allowed me to see you’ve written this post and asked this important question.

    For me, travel is about finding myself through the interaction with others, but also through being alone and facing myself. And sometimes, it’s simply about having fun.

    • Flora December 4, 2015 at 7:43 pm #

      Thanks so much for this, Sofie 🙂 Your piece really resonated with me, too: while there’s clearly a lot of fear around right now, I think it’s more important than ever to connect with each other and be a support system!

  2. Amy (Two Drifters) November 29, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    This is a beautiful post, Flora, and I agree with Sofie above that it encompasses the whole picture, and not just the most recent events which have heightened many people’s fears.

    I love all the snippets of experiences you’ve had with locals. I think that is a huge part of why I travel, and discovering that people live differently and yet, just as happily in other places, is an amazing revelation, which I definitely had my first time abroad. I’ve also had so many wonderful times connecting with fellow travelers. The shared bond of seeing the world brings you together in a sense of camaraderie, and that is something I just love: the uniting nature of travel.

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:09 am #

      Thank you Amy! I completely agree – travel is all about unity for me, too, and seeing the commonalities that we all share 🙂

  3. Maura November 29, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    I really enjoyed your post today. I have been thinking a lot about that question lately. “What does travel mean to me?” Being 61 years old now, my answers to that question have changed over the years. In my twenties, I was interested in fulfilling a wish to see my favorite country, England, with my new husband, and every year after that, travel was about creating a list of must see destinations and then crossing the countries off as we traveled. And not much thought went into those lists.

    When children arrived, my reasons for travel changed dramatically. I wanted to show my children a world they were not familiar with: camping in the Smokey Mountains, visiting Williamsburg in Virginia, going to civil wars sites and talking in depth with them about war, and our history as a country.

    When we moved to Seattle in the 1990’s, my children were older and could understand more about our world, and the diversity of its people, I took them to Gay parades, had them join me at a political rally and volunteer at a homeless shelter. Even though we were in our own town not far from home, those experiences held the same elements of travel: being in an unfamiliar place and seeing things and having new experiences that challenged them both intellectually and emotionally.

    Later, travel became an escape for my husband and me to get away from our busy lives and the stress of family. And even later, travel became an escape for me from a challenging marriage and it is the first time I started to travel alone. I gravitated toward the coasts, both East and West. Beaches have always been a sanctuary for me, a place I can be at peace and walk for miles at the edge of the sea, and the best place for figuring all the things that need figuring out in my life.

    Now, I am divorced and permanently traveling solo. I find nowadays that travel for me is about exploring areas that I love, (deep vs wide travel.) I like to challenge myself more in my travels: no cruise ship vacations for me. I prefer long hikes in new countries, driving a car in England (quite a challenge), maybe piloting a boat is down the line. My best travel experiences lately have been about connecting with people, I find it easy to start a conversation with strangers when I am alone and at my age, people seem happy to talk to me. I and I have had great, memorable conversations and have even made friends on the road.

    That is a long answer to a simple question, but travel and what it means to me is constantly changing and will continue to change as I get older and continue to travel. I would not have it any other way!

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Maura. I can only imagine how much having children can shape how you experience travel, particularly as it becomes a method of showing them how they can view the world. It sounds like they’ve had a fantastic upbringing, thanks to their mum 🙂

  4. LC November 29, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Your Dad is so right – I think the best thing anyone could have done in the wake of Paris was to switch off their computers, step back from their desks, stop and look – REALLY take a big look at the world around us all.

    Terrible events have occurred across the globe since man took its first step into being. We just hear about them now with a speed that is somewhat frightening. You’re right – for every act of evil in the world, you will find a kindness if you look hard enough for it. Laws of physics and all that jazz!

    Unfortunately, you don’t so much realise this until you start to get out and see the world. That’s what travel does for me, at least.

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      Looking for kindness to cancel out the evil is absolutely vital in my opinion, LC – thanks for wording it so succinctly!

  5. Jim November 29, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

    Very well written and a wonderful reply and commentary to things we can not understand or necessarily appreciate.either within our own worlds or within other peoples’ realities and perspectives.

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      Thanks so much Jim, I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

  6. Barb November 29, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    This is one of the most wonderful posts I’ve ever read, and I agree with each and every statment of yours. I also needed to switch off everything for a while after Paris, to calm down and see everything as a whole again. Thank you for writing so honestly and deeply about this topic, and sharing it with us!

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

      Ohh thank you for such kind words, Barb! I really hope part of the legacy from these recent atrocities is a firmer resolve to unite as a community of loving people and keep hold of something positive..

  7. Helene November 30, 2015 at 5:05 am #

    Great post Flora! I’ve never meet you & we are about 20odd years apart but I feel a kindred spirit in you. You said exactly what I’m thinking with your: “That cultural differences have the power to highlight our similarities.” So true! Thanks also for mentioning my FB answer to your question.
    Happy travels! Helene P.S. The postcard you so kindly sent me from Lima is still on my mirror!

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

      Ahh I’m so glad you’ve still got the postcard, Helene 😀 And I certainly hope there’s a kindred spirit element with every person who’s passionate about travel, learning about the world and exacting some sort of social change for the better 🙂

  8. Savio Wong November 30, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Hi Flora,
    Thanks for the post. It’s natural to feel despair when there is so much to be tragedy around us. However, there is also much goodness and it’s important not to forget about that.
    I travel as much as I can. At the end of each trip, just before I returned home, I usually post a short reflection on FB as a way to mark the end of another journey. The following is from earlier this summer. And coincidentally, I was returning home [Toronto] from Paris.
    Happy travels and keep writing!

    Waiting for flight #4 to go home. As usual, I found myself early at the gate, another bonus of not having checked luggage.
    In recent years, at the end of each trip, it has become a ritual for me to re-read Pico Iyer’s excellent treatise on why we travel. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here: http://picoiyerjourneys.com/index.php/2000/03/why-we-travel/
    For me, every step that I take when I travel brings me simultaneously further and closer to home. It takes me further because of the discomfort of the unknowns and the ‘strangeness’ of the others. It brings me closer because, ultimately, travel is about self-discovery. To live a disrupted life, even temporarily, is good for the soul. I continue to marvel and appreciate the privilege that I am able to travel: to sample the different cuisines, to witness history, to learn from the others, and to carry whatever I could absorb with me when I’m home.
    In my experience, my fear of having a bad trip is more than overcomes by the kindness of the strangers. Case in point, I was at an automatic gate at the Louvre Metro Station late afternoon yesterday. None of my three metro tickets would work. A young man who stood patiently behind me, waiting to get through the gate himself, offered to help me with the tickets. He tried all three and none worked. He spoke rapidly to me in French and waving and pointing upstairs. With my perplexed look, he decided to walk me back a flight of stairs to a ticket counter. As usual, there was one agent per station and a couple people were being served ahead of us already. The young man waited with me for almost five minutes until it was our turn. He explained to the agent what had occurred and I was able to swap the three tickets. Apparently, putting the tickets next to my phone had demagnetized them. I said my merci and shook his hand before he disappeared into the crowd. That’s the kind of story I want to carry with me.

    • Candice December 2, 2015 at 12:00 am #

      I so love that your father thought to show you the realities of life for the less fortunate, rather than sheltering you from it. I can’t think of a better education in compassion.

      I’m also on edge in Berlin, and it’s hard to shake, and it’s unfair. At a reading last week my eyes kept darting around the event space, wondering if perhaps evil was lurking somewhere. But we keep pushing on, right?

      • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

        That’s the only thing we really can do, I guess, Candice – I’m still on edge in central London but it can’t be the ruling force in how I behave or else I’ll never leave my flat. Vigilance, confidence, and trusting your gut. Hopefully that’ll get us through <3

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

      This is such a lovely story, Savio – thanks for sharing it here 🙂 There’s no doubt that some of my most favourite travelling moments have been the unexpected kindness of strangers. And I love that Pico Ayer essay too!

      • Savio Wong December 20, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

        Hi Flora, I was looking for a photo that I posted on FB awhile back and came across something I wrote about ‘Why I Travel’. I can’t believe I forgot about it when I replied to your post.
        It is a long post but I thought you may enjoy reading it.
        Happy travels.

        If you discover my Twitter profile, you would read: I have two passions in life — travel and books.
        The reason I take every chance I get to travel is because the world is the classroom. It affords me the opportunity to learn about the Others — their culture, their history and their people. Earlier today, while stepping out of the post office at the Largo de Camões in Lisbon, I chanced upon a dozen young children in school uniforms, standing more or less in a line against the wall outside of the posh Bairro Alto Hotel. They were bookended by two adults who were scanning around like tiger mothers protecting their cubs. I think they were on an outing and waiting for their ride. They, the children, were having a whale of a time: a few of them were shuffling around as if they were playing linear musical chairs; a couple of boys were sniggering over what appeared to be an inside joke; two girls were holding hands and chattering about; and a few other girls were belting out a tune.
        “This is it”, I thought to myself. Children, regardless of race, intelligence, or appearance, know the secret of life. Ironically, they just don’t know they possess IT themselves. Often, it’s through children that I re-discover that the Others are no different from Us. The ability of people to enjoy their carefree lives is not a function of their wealth or citizenship. I have also observed that other people, regardless of their social status, just like us, have their career aspirations and personal dreams. And just like us, they carry their daily responsibilities and burdens and they want better lives for their families and themselves.
        Through my travels, nothing pleases me more than to encounter and appreciate the beauty of bookstores or libraries. They are the scriptoria for writing and depositories of learning. They remind me that what differentiates us from other species is our desire for knowledge, our curiosity for the unknown, and our quest for meaning. It has been said that, with good education, it only takes one generation for a disadvantaged person to unshackle the chains. And for a good education, books play a critical role.
        For all the marvelous sites and cities that I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years, this trip to Portugal, although a short jaunt by my standard, is glorious because, on two different occasions, it felt like I was standing on hallowed grounds. In Porto, at the venerable Livraria Lello & Irmao Bookshop, I was mesmerized by the spiral stairway, the floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the ornate decorations and the colorful stained glass window. Of course, there were books everywhere: shiny new books, drab used books, colorful coffee-table books, impressive-looking academic textbooks, beautiful bound first-edition books and expensive antique books. The entrance to the bookshop is built to look like a castle, as it should, because once you step across the threshold, you are indeed entering ‘sacred’ ground. This is exactly what a perfect bookshop ought to be.
        A day later, I found myself standing in utter stillness in the Main Room at the Biblioteca Joanina at the University of Coimbra, the oldest university in Portugal. I did not move a muscle because I wanted to — breathe slowly, observe purposefully — inhale it all. This library was finished in 1728 and contains 60,000 books, most of which were written in Latin. The official description of the building states that the library was “built as a parallelepiped in height to overcome the elevation difference.” This was the first time that I saw one of my favorite mathematical words used in a sentence.
        Before entering the library, I was greeted by the gigantic door topped by an ornate arch and framed by two sets of Ionic columns. The door was constructed with teak wood and kept shut as much as possible to keep the humidity out. Thick walls were used to ensure an acceptable internal temperature between 18-20C. Once I entered, I was awestruck by the specially built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The material of choice was oakwood because they are extremely dense, making it difficult for bugs to penetrate. Atop all the shelves are gilded decorations. On the wall at the end of a long hallway sits a portrait of King Joao V, who glances down casually into this magnificent room. Once again, I felt I was entering a sacred space.
        For me, the very moments that I chanced upon the school children at the Largo de Camões, that I crossed into the castle that is Livraria Lello & Irmao Bookshop, and that I stood motionless in Biblioteca Joanina were really epiphanies. These were the moments that I was reminded, once again, of the wonders of travel.
        March, 2015
        Lisbon, Portugal

        • Flora December 23, 2015 at 11:28 am #

          “…what differentiates us from other species is our desire for knowledge, our curiosity for the unknown, and our quest for meaning” — wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing more of your stories, Savio 🙂

  9. Leigh December 3, 2015 at 2:43 am #

    What a great post! I love your attitude toward travel, and life in general. It sounds like you have wise parents who encouraged you to explore. Travel for me sometimes is just an escape from my every day life, other times is a way to challenge my idea of what life is like, to see how other people live. But I feel like I’m just getting started…

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

      My mum and dad were definitely instrumental in anchoring my love of travel :p Glad to hear you’ve got the same attitude towards it, Leigh!

  10. kandctraveltheworld December 13, 2015 at 3:56 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Flora. It was truly beautiful to read.

    • Flora December 23, 2015 at 11:22 am #

      Thank you so much for reading! 🙂

  11. Amanda December 13, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    Such beautiful words – and powerful, too. It’s made me think about some of those little moments in my own life, too. Like the Slovenian stranger who helped me hoist a backpack up into the luggage rack on a train, or the Peruvian woman I got to know on a cruise ship in Alaska, or the rural villages I’ve wandered through in countries like Romania and Cambodia. All these experiences – and many others besides – have opened my eyes not only to different ways of life or thinking, but have also made me aware of how I fit it to the wider world.

    When it comes down to it, the only way to fight hate and terror is for people like you and me to share the ways in which the world can be (and is) good through the experiences we’ve had.

    • Flora December 23, 2015 at 11:25 am #

      All such beautiful little moments, and when you put them all together they’re what encompasses travel! All the positivity we’ve experienced surely trumps the hate 🙂

  12. Elisa Zen January 20, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

    BEAUTIFUL post! You truly inspire the wanderlust in all of us <3

    • Flora February 22, 2016 at 8:05 pm #

      Thank you Elisa!! <3


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