As my longest solo travel trip, so far, draws to a close, I practise my standard final-night ritual: I’m sitting outside, in Beijing, on my hostel’s balcony, filling a locally-purchased notepad with reflections. I usually treat this a bit like amnesia; something like the diary of the protagonist in Before I go to Sleep, I produce a pep-talk for the self I know I’ll become after a few months of going home. I’ll forget a lot of what happened, or lose connection to it, or feel as though it was an unsustainable dream, and not ‘reality’. Since I won’t fully be able to share everything that’s gone down, over here (see this fab post, ‘why no one cares about your travels‘ about how travel makes you ‘unrelatable’ and you gotta stop boring people with the stories), it’ll slowly get tucked away to the very back of my memory storage, and a few, fairly unrepresentative, photographs will take over as my impression of the trip.
I write things like ‘remember that there’s a whole other world out there’, ‘remember that, even when it doesn’t feel like it, you always have so many options’, and, mostly importantly: ‘this was real‘. It’s partly an exercise of building a mental fortress before the influx of other peoples’ ideologies, inevitably, seep back in. When I return and listen to a thousand comments contrary to what I was sure I’d seen with my own eyes: ‘x country is so dangerous’, ‘solo travel sounds so lonely/boring’, and, of course, there are so many so much better things I should have been doing, rather than gallivanting around on beaches taking selfies (Yeah, I know, people can be a real drag), I’ll lose grip on what I’m sure was so great whilst out here.
There are a lot of myths to bust there and I don’t know where to start. That last comment, though – a regular one – interests me the most: is travel a waste of time and, more importantly, is it shallow?
In many ways, in the past at least, I’ve agreed, or I’ve become embarrassed about my ‘gap yah’ travels – I revisit things like the Full Moon Party I went to in Thailand, and bungee jump I did in Costa Rica, and think: these are just examples of me off around the world having fun, all they really show is carelessness, recklessness and a hefty budget put towards self-indulgence. I’ve often told people, confidently, that I don’t want to be a travel or lifestyle writer/blogger because I think it’d be too shallow: I’m not sure I should dedicate my life to taking bikini pics in aesthetic locations or bullet pointing ’10 things you should see in Rome’… I’m not too sold on how fulfilling that’d be or, more importantly, how ethical. My blog has usually been more a space to express thoughts, musings, emotions, and anecdotes, rather than somewhere I want to brag about my lifestyle or construct a false narrative. What I’ve realised, more lately, though, is that this is only really one type of travel, and one type of travel writing: what I’ve started to refer to as ‘scratch map travel’. By this, I mean that attitude where travel is all about scratching countries off of a map once you’ve been there, or ticking them off of a bucket-list. ‘Collecting countries’ and presented those you’ve visited as a list of achievements.
In loads of ways, there is nothing wrong with this: I love a scratch-map (I have one on my wall and am a particularly big fan of these new watercolour designs) and I think having personal goals and achievements that make you feel good is hugely positive. I also think people are too quick to criticise those just having fun/relaxing (which is allowed, btw) and it’s fine if that’s what travel’s about, for you, sometimes or always! I’ve witnessed a lot of people in hostel dorms get very arrogant about being more ‘authentic’ or ‘proper’ travellers and honestly I just feel embarrassed for them and annoyed on behalf of those they’re judging/belittling. Equally, ethics are a huge problem with a lot of travel and tourism sectors but there are so many ways to overcome this – I’ll write a lengthier post on this, later, but often options like supporting small local businesses and boosting the economy of countries that rely heavily on tourism is more moral (i.m.o) than a lot of ‘voluntourism’ or immersive community projects, and you can use your spending power to do good. A lot of tourist-focused travel shouldn’t be knocked for these reasons.
For me, however, ‘scratch map’ mentality also comes with a few problems. Firstly, I can’t help but feel that there’s an uncomfortable colonial narrative underpinning this – whenever, on travel-centric social media, I see the frequently-circulated quote: ‘collect countries, not things’, I cringe, a bit, at its interpretations. I don’t know if I’m reading too much into it, and I resonate with the sentiment, if taken lightly, but I just don’t feel like travel should be about ‘collecting’ – I don’t think it should be about ownership: this is very slippery ethical, cultural, territory.
Even just personally, though, I wonder if this attitude takes the point out of travelling. Going somewhere in order to have been there is not exactly a live-in-the-moment mentality, and isn’t the romantic narrative of travelling all about just that? You know, abandoning everything and ‘getting away’, ‘escaping’, or having an ‘adventure’. It seems that, typically, adopting ‘scratch map mentality’ usually aligns with ticking off all the top tourist sights, too, so that you can officially say you’ve been there (did you go to China if you didn’t see the Great Wall? It’s contested). Whilst I don’t like people knocking those who enjoy these activities (me, included – the strawberry farm in Pai is a great day out), I can sympathise with those who equally feel annoyed when criticised for having not hit a bunch of famous sites or been to a high number of countries.
Even more so, I wonder how accurate any of these measures can even be. If asked how much I’ve travelled, I opt for the typical traveller unit of no. of countries, but this, obviously, has flaws. I was in New York for three days and can add the USA, now, to my country-count… but a well-travelled USA-exclusive backpacker would be, seemingly, on equal footing, which makes no sense. How in-depth was that travel and does it matter if you’ve not been to many more countries? I think it’s very easy to get fixated on scratching off as many countries as possible rather than having a genuine live-in experience of those you visit, regardless of which you actually preferred. Some of my best travel experiences have been revisiting the same country for a second, third, or fourth time (unrequited love for France, anyone?), and checking out some of the lesser-known towns at a nice ambling pace.
My suspicions are that, mostly, this fits into a lot of our other – at least Western – mentalities. I wonder if this is simply because those who can afford to travel are probably from more elitist circles, but it feels like just another personal worth measurement based on numbers and statistics and diagrams that aren’t all that representative. I remember, on my gap year, realising that I’d taken a year out of study because I was sick of being stamped with As or Bs or 2:1s, and wanted to just live like a real, unlabelled, qualitatively-measured, human for a bit, but had actually put myself into a similar trap: wanting to make my year ‘worth it’ with as impressive a claim as possible: insert country list and catalogue of famous sight selfies. I was finding myself stressed out by competitive fellow travellers who’d brag about how many more places they’d been to and how relatively untouched my scratch map was.
A new feature of my last-night pep-talk is now always a paragraph abashing scratch map mentality. I try to remind myself that my life is not a diagram, that I am not a number on a sheet of paper, that my existence is not a neat 2D timeline or series of number-labelled boxes, and that my travels have not been colour-coded scratches on a map: that’s not how life works and that is not how experiences happen – they are just fleeting impressions we live, feel, learn from, and ultimately remember.
Is it fair to still say that travel is an achievement? I personally think yes, regardless of how in-depth or off-the-beaten-track you were. Recently a colleague described my gap year as ‘wandering around in flip-flops for sixth months’ and I corrected her because actually someone stole one of my flip flops on a bus in my first week in Vietnam so it was ‘flip flop’, but more importantly travels do take some skills and effort! I’d quite like to watch any critics self-sufficiently plan and organise an entire trip, throw their comfort zone out the window, and push through some genuinely terrifying moments with bravery and calmness. Although I think it’s time I reassessed my claim to country number, and stopped focusing on checking famous sights off a list, I can, however hard it is to quantify, hold onto what I’ve learnt from experiences, both wonderful and rough. Every type of travel requires skill, resilience, and bravery of kinds and these are the true achievements, not the collection of countries we scratched off of a map.
I’m keeping my scratch map up for now (mostly because it’s very pretty), but I’m not thinking of it as wholly representative of past travels, or motivating for future trips.