What is travelling?
I was recently watching an episode of The Office (UK version, to clarify) in which David Brent and Gareth have the following exchange:
Gareth: When was the last time you went travelling?
Brent: Oh I’ve travelled boy… I’ve travelled…
Gareth: Where have you been travelling?
Brent: … Hull.
Gareth: That’s hardly travelling!
Brent: Well how did I get there then? Did it come to me? Oh, here comes Hull down the motorway in a car!
This made me think: what do we mean when we talk about travelling?
I will freely admit, I am the first to grind my teeth when I see a post on Facebook along the lines of, “Off to Benidorm with my girls for Stacey’s hen-do #travelling!!!” But then, why shouldn’t it be?
I think there are several things at play when we talk about what is or isn’t travelling, but the more I think about each, the more malleable – and small minded – they seem.
To put this into some kind of context: the oft-used Google definition of the verb “travelling” is to “make a journey, typically of some length”. I think most people would broadly agree that it is perhaps the length or duration that helps to distinguish travelling from, say, a weekend city break. People go “travelling” when they are going away for a couple of months or more. But if you were about to embark on a six-month luxury cruise would you still claim to be “going travelling”?
Perhaps perceived budget or money spent is another factor. We usually think of travellers as those who are roughing it, hulking massive backpacks from one hostel to the next. (Indeed, the backpack factor seems such an important part of the experience, that when my boyfriend and I took – shock horror! – wheeled suitcases on our six-month jaunt around Australia, we felt like another species. I also felt smug, as I had a bag on wheels that I didn’t have to carry, but this is another story for another day). However, if you have the money to, for example, spend a month in South America hopping from one posh hotel to another, are you still travelling?
This is where perhaps it becomes more interesting. I think when people *really* start to decide who is and isn’t travelling, it comes down to some kind of perception about the “richness” of the experience, or how much you are “engaging” with the culture, which in itself is an almost impossible thing to measure. To some extent, I agree with this. I was talking to a colleague a while back who told me how much she loved Cuba, and how she visited every year. I was immediately intrigued and started asking all sorts of questions about Havana, the people, the cars – only for her to laugh and say, “oh, we just go straight from the airport to the hotel and stay there for two weeks. We don’t bother to go anywhere else”. So… why bother going to Cuba?
The downside to this – this assumption that you’ve only travelled once you’ve camped out with the hill tribes or drank with the locals in that bar with no name – is that certain types of travelling are seen to be more superior than others. Those who have truly travelled can look down their noses at the wannabes, the “#travellers” who merely went there on a package holiday once, or hopped off the cruise liner to have a quick look around.
But where does this end? I spent just under a week in Bangkok last year, whereas some have easily spent months. I spent months in Australia, whereas some have spent years (visa permitting, of course). Having a layover or transiting through an airport definitely does not count, but beyond that who can say for definite what does? And – most importantly – who are we to try and say it?
Travelling is relative. For me, one of my yardsticks tends to be whether the country I’m going to has a different alphabet to my own. (I feel like there is more of a challenge – and perhaps this element of a perceived challenge is another marker of “travelling” that we could use). But then, I sometimes feel just as much a foreigner when I visit places in my own country, like London. Maybe it should be considered as anywhere which, to that individual, feels strange, adventurous, unfamiliar or overwhelmingly new. I’m not sure what this does for Brent’s argument about Hull, but it perhaps makes us think about travelling, and who travels, in a more inclusive and less demeaning way.