How many countries have you been to? Is it appropriate to measure travel by counting the borders we’ve crossed? Why do we feel the need to quantify our travel experiences? Who are we doing it for?
Mine is hanging on the wall over my bed. It was a 21st birthday present, the perfect gift idea from thoughtful flatmates who had become all too used to me packing up and leaving at each and every possible occasion. Then suddenly everyone I knew seemed to acquire one somehow: mini travel-sized versions rolled up in backpacks, laminated versions on coffee tables, framed versions in pride of place on the living room wall, digital versions displayed proudly on Facebook pages. My personal scratch-off travel map was made in London. The dark gold foil coating rubs away to reveal national borders traced in white, with each country and city named in a bold typewriter font, and large colour gradients washing over the continents.
The summer after my 15th birthday, in a desperate attempt to gain some legitimate work experience, I volunteered with the sound crew at a local theatre production. It turned out that our “crew” included just two members: me, and the professional sound recordist the theatre company had hired. Andrew – let’s call him Andrew – was a smiley, portly man verging on 60. Having worked on some of the most famous and widely celebrated nature documentaries ever recorded, his career with the BBC had taken him to over 120 countries, he claimed. He asked me how many I had been to; I wasn’t sure immediately – but that was the day I started to keep count.
Scratch maps are easy to read – but are they accurate?
Nowadays when I get home from the airport, etching out each new national border on my scratch map is a small way of reliving the thrill of the original trip. It’s a great visual representation of our travel experiences and can make for an easy conversation piece when we have guests over. It can also act as a kind of wish list; the countries we still haven’t visited are buried mysteriously under a thin blanket of gold, waiting to be discovered. With the untapped potential of the world depicted so clearly, the explorer instinct inside us takes on a new lease of life. Scratch maps are easy to read – but are they accurate?
What I’d failed to comprehend were all the things he had missed out on as a fleeting traveller.
Andrew’s stories of hearing blue whale songs rushing through his headphones made me realise how much of the world I was missing, and kick-started my intentions to make travel an active part of my life as soon as I possibly could. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the things he had seen – but what I’d failed to comprehend were all the things he had missed out on, as a fleeting traveller obligated to move from place to place for work. His wildlife knowledge and firsthand experience were second to none, but he couldn’t say the same for meeting local people and getting lost in a new culture. The obvious wistfulness in his voice was trying to fill the gap in his travel history, but at the time I was too busy dreaming of passport stamps and airports to understand.
It was only when I began planning my next trip to mainland Europe a few weeks ago that I realised I’d been systematically falling into the very trap that Andrew had tried to warn me about. Do I want to visit Italy? Well, I’ve seen Rome. Better to go somewhere new: as many new countries as I can fit in! Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland … What do you mean I won’t see anything? I’ll see everything! I want to see everything. I may not have been looking at my scratch map, but somewhere in my mind I was ticking off a list and filling out an internet quiz and listing city names in a blog post.
The truth is that there will always be more.
We all have a destination wish list and probably a black list too. Sometimes we base those choices on research and experience, and sometimes we let ourselves be swayed by more fickle, emotional triggers. That’s perfectly natural, and all within the spirit of adventure; we wouldn’t be travellers without that instinct. But we shouldn’t give any destination the red or green light because we feel that travelling is some kind of competition in which we’re lagging behind. To travel is to explore and do and learn, and the truth is that we never will see everything there is to see, or even everything we want to see; there will always be more. With that in mind, isn’t it better to travel with the purest intentions and live fully in the moment rather than allowing that destination to become just one piece of a tiresome jigsaw puzzle – one that, given all the time in the world, we’d never be able to complete anyway?
Most of all, we should remember why we love to travel in the first place: not to upload great photos on Instagram, not to tag amazing locations in Facebook statuses, but to see sights beyond our wildest imaginings, to attempt to understand the lives of others, and to apply those lessons to our own lives. We travel for ourselves, and there will be no better reward in the end than knowing we found true enrichment and fulfilment along the way – even if we did have to sacrifice all of our neat lists and diagrams and scratch maps to get there.