Why travel at all?

“Why do you want to go to yet another country?”  My Granddad asked me two years ago when I told him I wanted to move to Japan. It was not in an accusatory get a stable job here tone, but he was asking out of sheer bewilderment. He didn’t understand my desire to travel in the same way I didn’t understand his desire for an expensive car. He questioned me more, “When will you be satisfied, when will you have had enough experiences to be fulfilled?”

I have often thought back on my Granddad’s question, and wondered what I gain from travelling. Some people are just out there to get the ‘Been there, Done that’ T-shirt, others may just be at a loose end and have a bit of money to blow. For me, travelling can broaden a person’s mind and change them from the inside. Travelling gives you the freedom to be who you want to be and escape any expectations or social pressures to be someone else.


‘It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves… the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person.’ Alain de Botton

Before I left to go travelling for the first time, I was a Christian and a vegetarian. Ten countries and six months later I was neither a Christian, nor a vegetarian. It’s true to say that I wouldn’t have changed such fundamental beliefs, if I had not left the institutions and people who had inspired and strengthened by previous beliefs. It was the freedom to be away from my own culture that gave me the space to rethink my beliefs, and find a set of beliefs that I truly owned, not just had grown up in.

These changes can shock people who knew you as a different person before you left. They greet you as your old self, they have expectations of you as your pre-travelled self, and although you have had months to come to terms with the new You, for them it can be a shock. When I returned to church, my congregation welcomed me back with open arms, but when I explained to them why I wouldn’t be coming regularly, they replied to me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ Perhaps those prayers aren’t going to waste, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Learning through travelling

At 17 years old, I was presented with university prospectuses and told to choose a course. I was bewildered. Because I had no clear aim of what career I wanted to have, I wanted to study the broadest humanities subject I could. A year later I was accepted on a course that covered Archaeology, Biological Anthropology and Social Anthropology in the first year. I learnt about our evolution from apes to Homo sapiens, to how we built civilisations and  the grand scopes of world history. For my second and third year, I specialised in Social Anthropology and this is where my real interest lies. Through this course I learnt about the variations in culture and beliefs throughout the world and what a beautiful and colourful patchwork quilt of peoples and cultures there are.


My degree has given me with a grid as to hang my experience of the world on, and as a curious traveller, I see it as a means of learning about the world. Being able to visit the place where historical events actually took place is a luxury that comes with being able to travel, and so much more memorable than a text book.

A love for living

‘I set out for the desert in order to be made to feel small.’ Alain de Botton

I have never felt smaller than on the Mongolian steppe. Riding on a horse across an untrodden landscape, with nothing but a small bag for my belongings, and no settlements in view; I felt like a grain of sand in a desert, insignificant and fragile to forces bigger than myself.

Those natural forces were closer than I’d imagined, and the weary, ragged horse I was riding reared up, throwing me off backwards. I fell through the air in slow motion, hitting the ground with a tremendous thud. After a couple of seconds I realised that I was still alive, and when I tried to get up, all my limbs were working. Yet my life could’ve been different if I had landed less than a meter to the left, where a sharp-edged boulder lined the mountain pass. I remember thinking that the nearest hospital would’ve taken days to get to. Experiences where there is a ‘what if’ factor attached to it, jolt us back to life and give us a refreshed love for life. They can also give us bruises that last for months.


Taking Journeys in Real Time

‘Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train.’ Alain de Botton

The Japanese bullet train travels at 246km per hour can take you from Tokyo to Osaka in less than two hours, but it saps the pleasure out of travelling. The world goes by in a blur. Compare this to the Trans-Siberian Railway whose trains saunters its way from Moscow to Vladivostok in weekly commutes. In September 2007, I spent seven days on the train from Moscow to Beijing. Those seven days seemed like longer; time seemed to slow down on it.


During those slow days on the train, I’d fill up my plastic mug with hot, sweet coffee and take a seat by the window. Every so often we’d go past a village, where the houses looked small and poorly-built. Bundled-up women were digging patches of land and pulling up cabbages; both the women and the cabbages seemed oblivious to the cold.

When the train pulled into a station, we’d be met by these women who sold us homemade stews in plastic tubs. They must have known we were tired of eating pot noodles or the measly and overpriced restaurant-cart food. I spent seven days watching the world go by; through the Ural mountains, past majestic Lake Baikal and the green open steppes of Siberia, snaking through the eastern edge of the Gobi desert and finally into the tunnelled and terraced mountains of northern China. I can’t remember having any special waves of insight on this train, but as the train slowly chugged across the landscape, I felt the expanse of the world and somehow felt connected with it.

It’s a seven day journey that only takes six hours to cross by plane, but the difference is; the in-flight entertainment is better on the ground.

The balance between living in the moment and making memories

Memories are one of the long-lasting souvenirs of travel; when photographs have been lost, t-shirts worn out and trinkets gone missing. Memories are still there, waiting to be triggered by a smell, sight or passing thought. Yet, there is also an art to living in the presence.

Some people try to capture everything through photographs; they try to possess a moment. Before my recent travels to the Philippines, I bought a camcorder to film my vacation. Although it was my first time using a camcorder, I expected results worthy of a nature documentary; of sunrises across shimmering oceans, of morning mists caressing mountains and of local people naturally going about their daily life. I soon found it wasn’t that easy. I enjoyed recording because I knew I could share them with my family and we could relive our vacation many times over. But I was also aware that I was seeing things through a 3 inch screen, rather than in real life. I decided to film for only seconds and then take it in with my own eyes. It was 1000 times better.


Photo courtesy of Martyn Bisset

Of course, I now have video footage of all the beautiful places we saw, but my memories are not limited to what I caught on camera. It is the five-year old girl dancing at a party, the boy sleeping on a Spanish veranda in the middle of the roundabout and the warmth of the water that will stay in my mind.

So is travelling worthwhile?

Travelling costs money, you don’t get a certificate at the end of it and I can see why some people question its worth. But I travel because I have an insatiable curiosity to see what’s out there, and just because I can. Travelling used only to be for explorers, then for the upper classes, but now young people in developed countries have the opportunity to go to a far-flung country at little expense and little difficulty. I’d ask why wouldn’t someone go if they have the time and the money?


Time never stands still

There has been a long lapse in my writing, and can only honestly say it is down to laziness. I never wanted my blog to be a chore, and so like all creative hobbies, I only write when I’m motivated to. Yet to those of you who have missed my blog posts, I apologize to you! When I arrived in Japan last year, I enthusiastically wanted to share all my experiences of living in Japan with my family, friends and other blog readers. This year, it is not that these experiences are not as exciting or my life not as eventful, it is more that I have realized that my time in Japan is a short one, and so I am living it more than reflecting on it.

It was at an Obon Dancing festival in Takefu, that I realised my time in Japan is limited. Because I organised it for ALTs to join, I decided I wasn’t going to dress up in a yukata (a traditional summer kimono), but when a friend said, “But Sophie, this will be your last year”. It suddenly hit me. If I keep to my plan, this would be my last chance to take part in this festival. So I quickly got changed into a yukata and danced traditional routines around my local town. Even though we had to dance the same four dance routines for two long hours, I didn’t regret this decision. Since then, I have felt the pressure of time constantly counting down the months until my life in Japan will be over. If I stick to my two-year plan, I only have nine months left!


Bucket lists

It makes me wonder what it must be like to have a time-limit put on your life. I always find it interesting what terminal-ill patients choose to do. Some people choose to do clichéd ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ like swim with dolphins, see the Aorerea Borealis or go skydiving, a little like cancer-patient Helen Fawkes ‘List for living’. Whilst the majority of people just want to spend time with their loved ones. Anyway, thinking about death can be a bit morbid, but it can also keep things in perspective. I was inspired by Roz Savage a 30-something consultant in London, who one day sat down and wrote the obituary she would most like to have written about her if she died. She realised if she continued on the life path she was on, making a lot of money but on the rat-run of working in London, she would not be the person she wanted to be. So, she quit her job, took up rowing as a serious hobby and rowed single-handedly across not just one ocean, but three. I have no plans to row across any oceans, but I do think about what my priorities are in life, and making money in an office job is not near the top.

If you were told you were going to die soon, what would you do? Walter White’s lasts words to Skyler were, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really . . . I was alive.” Making meth and becoming a super drug-dealer king, probably isn’t on most people’s lists, but Walter’s words, taken out of context, can be thought of as words of wisdom. At least he found something where he felt ‘alive’. Ok, I can’t promote Walter White as a moral person to follow, as Breaking Bad followers know, his morals became distorted to the point of no return. But it was the trigger of being told he only had a few years left that prompted him to do something with his life.

Witnessing others go through life-changing events can really make you think about your own life. Two of my father’s close friends ended up in hospital last year, one from finding out he had a serious form of cancer, the other had a heart problem. It was this realisation that people his age were getting ill which prompted my dad to take early retirement. So for the last three months he has enjoyed going cycling, sailing or walking with his friends, or looking after his elderly parents and his friends who are still sick. And he has every right to enjoy his hard-earned freedom after 33 years as a secondary school teacher. Like the kids write at school, “I’m proud of my father”, because he is living life now, as who knows what might happen in the future.

Being interested in becoming a speech therapist has led me to some interesting books about people recovering from strokes, and regaining their speech, movement and importantly their sense of self. The book “My Year Off” is by British publisher called Robert Crum, and is his account of the year after he had a stroke, he speaks of how it affected him,

 ‘It is, perhaps, not possible to overestimate the significance of a serious stroke in the life of an average person. It is an event that goes to the core of who and what you are, the You-ness of you. First of all, the event happens in your brain which is, without becoming unduly philosophical  the command centre of the self. Your brain is you: your moods, your skills, your character, your intelligence, your emotions, your self-expression, your self. When all that fails, you are left with the question: what was the cause?’

But doctors can’t answer that for sure. Crum came to the conclusion that it had taken place because of ‘a profound internal dissastification with my way of life, my goals and ambition, my achievements such as they were’. This was the only conclusion that Crum accepted as ‘why’ the stroke happened, but he believed it was destined to happen. Blaming catastrophic physical breakdown on our lifestyle choices, is a dangerous opinion to have, and not one I withhold to. Yet I am interested in what happens when a person’s sense of identity is stripped away from them, what do they cling on to?

And bringing this all back to me in Japan, I feel the clock ticking for the time I can spend in this awesome country. This change in me came when the last cohort of Fukui JETs left and their resounding advice to me was to “Enjoy your time here to the full”. It is a truism that “You only appreciate what you have when it is taken away from you.” Friends and memories are probably the best things I’ll go home with from Japan, so I’m investing in making those.

As I accompanied friends to the train station for the last time, and watched them weep with sadness for leaving this beautiful country and their friends here, I made up my mind to spend the next year in Japan experiencing as much as I can and using my time in ways I won’t regret. I could stay a third, fourth or even fifth year on the JET programme, and it is very tempting to do so. This will be the decision I will make in the next couple of months. I’ll keep you posted!