My addiction to travel has evolved over the years from an insatiable need to consume the world to the careful art of finding serendipitous moments.
I have gone from list-making to spontaneity, from top sightseeing places to those that don’t feature on travel guides. And as I travel more, I have also gone from looking for social validation to trend setting. From asking others for advise to being the source of it.
Today, I avoid the most visited places at all costs. I rarely go to large cities or popular destinations unless it is to experience the underground, oft-overlooked bits and pieces. I hear friends saying they are going to Paris and I cringe; it is a wonderful place but it is not the type of trip I would take, not the adventure I’d like to embark on. For me, travel means something completely different. It involves getting lost and being surprised. I am not searching for a place similar to the one I live in. Like Bernard Shaw said “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad”.
But in recent times I have started to reflect on this incessant need to discover unknown places.
Why do I search for such unique and random journeys? What is it that attracts me? What draws me to the places that most can’t even locate on a map?
What drives me to this unattainable goal of visiting all the difficult to reach, impossible to locate, unknown places?
I can only guess that under this desperate search lies a passionate need to hear stories that have never been told before. As if, by sharing them with me, I could make sure they are not lost in the wave of technological progress that is swiping over the least connected places.
Traveling is my drug and one that has replaced all other hoarding, except for that of boarding passes.
I am in an often excruciatingly painful search for those diminishing-in-number places and people who have yet to be hit by tourism development. This is, indeed, as much a lost cause as it is a selfish wish for maintaining traditions and ways of life that are crushed by development and technology.
I long for arriving where internet and phone coverage has yet to exist, despite I know, in first person, how much development mobile telephony has brought to Africa, after all, I was part of the explosion which brought phones to the Maasai Mara and I have seen how it can dramatically improve the lives of those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to information or education, both powerful human development tools.
But there seems to be a direct correlation between progress and destruction of traditions which saddens me.
I am not naive enough to believe that just because me and other deranged travelers hear those stories they are to be preserved. If anything, we only contribute to bringing more tourism in. The irony does not escape me. But it is the result of being caught in the middle of a battling feeling: can moderate and respectful tourism focused on conservation rather than on numbers, bring the right type of visitors who would help maintain those traditions in a 21st century world? Or will the charm and authenticity of such places fade away as they become more commonly visited?
And more importantly, is it fair to want to preserve ways of life and cultures that prevent people from progress? And, what is progress anyway?
As I return from Djibouti and share the stories of my trip I realize two things. I missed Africa, very much. But what is it about the continent that I missed? I had forgotten the reality of places where tourism is not a business. We were welcomed and treated like guests, the Arabian hospitality showing through. Most importantly, I tremendously missed the randomness of life, the unexpected and impossible-to-plan moments and the chaos and inefficiency of the day-to-day. Something that I sorely lack in my daily life in Singapore.
Secondly, I see how a few of my frequent traveler friends book my same or similar itinerary straightaway. They had never heard of Djibouti before I mentioned I was going, neither did I when I decided to set off. My friends had no idea what was there to see but found my photos and stories extremely interesting. Or perhaps they just wanted to tick off another country from the list. I involuntarily became an advocate for tourism in the country.
Have I indadvertedly started a tsunami? Will many more follow suit?
I told the local guide who showed us around and the Spanish captain of the only diving boat that some of my friends would probably come after me and that, through writing on my blog, others may follow suit, if only because I will demystify the place. They did not believe it for a second. “Tourism in Djibouti?” The Captain spat out. “I don’t believe it”.
The world is a very big place and competition for share of mind in the tourism industry is harsh. Countries like Djibouti, Sudan or Timor Leste have had bad or no reputation and so have historically been overlooked. They are also usually hard to reach with several hurdles to access.
This blog often features such places and others which are not in the common traveler’s wish-list. In the majority of the cases, they will never feature in such lists because, for the average person, traveling is about comfortable, beautiful and easy to reach destinations that are not so different from our own and which provide us a much needed disconnection and relaxation. But among those who, like me, search for genuine interactions with places and people who contrast with what we have back home, they are gems waiting to be discovered.
How long will it take for Myanmar to reach Thailand’s or Cambodia’s level of tourism influx? I visited in 2012 when the country was just opening up and there were no tourists in sight. Today the popular destinations of Bagan or Inle Lake are filled with backpackers and Southeast Asian residents making a short weekend trip. Visa processes are streamlined and efficient. A part of me feels like a slice of authenticity is disappearing with each extra visitor that sets foot on this country of beautiful temples and remote lands. Yet I know that the income this provides to the local communities is undeniable and I wouldn’t want it to stop. I just wish tourism does not destroy the hospitality and genuine openness Burmese showed me back in 2012.
It is perhaps the genuine hospitality of those living where tourism is not a major source of income that draws me over and over to the most remote and least visited places. Or perhaps the magical feeling of witnessing what is only found in adventure books, in tales of lost kingdoms, and which I can take in all by myself. Feeling special, unique, grateful to be the only one there.
In my quest for answers I often wonder if this insanity that I appear to have in the eyes of most people who know me is the result of snobbism, of showing off. It might have been at some point, but I want to believe I am no longer on a crusade to tick off countries for the mere purpose of elongating lists. I plan for experiences, not for countries and I often re-visit the same country to explore different parts of it.
It is an unexplainable need to live as many different lives as I can through my travels. Different people and cultures fascinate me. I stare at those with different skin color, different hair styles, different believes, trying to understand why, how their lives are. I interrogate, with curiosity not judgement, all those who have a set of believes that are different from mine. It is out of sheer naivety, the innocence that only a child can possess but which fills me when I travel. I am fearless too. On the road, I am not afraid, I don’t seek comfort, I look for the authenticity that can only be found where things are still how they used to be. I want to live like them, eat like them, sleep like them, feel like them. And I also want to suffer the burden of those lives less privileged.
It is as if, by experiencing as many ways of life and cultures as I can I was able to create my own amalgamation with the very best. I often find myself relating behaviors from a country to those I have seen in another, comparing cultures, places, food, traditions. I can usually find at least one other place where I have lived through or observed something similar.
Perhaps this unstoppable desire to see the world is just my way of proving that no matter the borders, the imaginary boundaries or the frontiers, we are all human and we all share a common will to live. Or maybe it just gives me the perspective that I need to never forget what truly matters.