Some of the top reasons people cite for travelling is for “personal growth”, “cultural exploration” and “to find themselves”. But what most people end up doing is sight-seeing the usual tourist attractions, eating out every day, relaxing, getting massages, or filling their days with curated/planned itineraries from tour agencies or TripAdvisor. I confess; I’ve been on these types of “standard” holidays. And other than indulging and escaping, there’s not much soul-searching or personal growth going on (at least not for me). So I decided to go on a different kind of trip.
The Surprising Origins of Travel
Today, travelling has become an indicator of your social status. People size you up when they ask, “Where have you travelled?” And if you say that you haven’t been to many places, they give you a look of pity.
A century ago, only a privileged few had the opportunity to travel. And if travelling was the same as it was then, chances are you would utterly refuse to do it! Wait, what?!? Yes, travelling (originally) was something most people did not want to do. Ever.
Why? Because travelling = hardships. The word “travel” comes from the word “travail”. And for a very long time, the two words were used interchangeably. Travel = travail = [work + hardships].
Travelling was not done for pleasure. It was a laborious and troublesome activity filled with danger and uncertainty. As Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Image,
The traveller was an active man at work…. [But today,] the tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He expects everything to be done to him and for him.”
Indeed, travelling today is sold as a pre-packaged commercial experience. For many, travelling is all about maximising pleasure and excitement, while escaping your everyday responsibilities and problems.
It is like a virtual reality game, where you can experience a foreign land, but it lacks authenticity and falls short of actual immersion. You can still retreat to the comfort and familiarity of your hotel. It is no longer an activity but a commodity.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to temporarily “run away” from your everyday stresses, but don’t expect to “become a different person” or “find yourself” when all you’re doing is staying in 5-star hotels, eating at Michelin restaurants, and mingling with other tourists.
My Trip to Lombok & How it Changed Me
Four years ago, I took a trip to Lombok. I was at a low point in my life, mostly having to do with my brain condition. I was scheduled for a surgery, and felt the need for a “relaxing getaway” prior to the surgery. In all honesty, I wanted to escape. Coincidentally, I had won a lucky draw trip to Lombok.
But I didn’t have the energy or interest to plan anything. And it turned out that not planning made it so that I had to live in the moment; be more aware of my surroundings; be comfortable with uncertainty; and find deeper connections with a place and its people. Having no plans meant I was never looking for something; I was just looking.
Did I go to Gili Island or Mount Rinjani? No (as that would have required some planning). While there, I didn’t see a single waterfall or shopping centre.
So what did I do during my 3-day trip?
I spent time with and talked to the locals. One of them, a guy named Hamid, took us around to the rice and tobacco fields, where the farming community was. He told us some of his extended family still farms there.
When we told him we were from Singapore. He said, “in Singapore, you have BTOs. Here, we have BTNs”. “What is a BTN?,” I asked. “Better Than Nothing,” he said.
He then took us to his BTN, and while it was modest by Singaporean standards, he was beaming with pride. He said it was the nicest home his family ever had.
On another day, we happened to see what appeared to be a group of sea gypsies docked on the beach. The kids were all school-aged but none of them were in school. Instead, they were playing in the sand and water, and chasing each other. If they truly were sea gypsies, their home was their boat (and it looked that way from what we could see, as the adults were sleeping in them). For a moment, I imagined how hard life was for these children, but you could not sense it at all in their laughter.
We went to the local market, which was bustling with activity in the morning. Later, we stopped by a durian vendor at the side of the road, and then bought a durian that had just been freshly harvested. There were others squatted/seated at the roadside eating durian together – mostly young families and couples. There were no seats or tables; not even a rubbish bin. In fact, you had to pay a guy (a bribe?) just to squat/stand there at the side of the road.
It was not the most comfortable place to eat. But when we looked at the couples near us, we could see the joy in their eyes.
On the last day, while just wandering, we passed a sign for a walk-in medical clinic. “Where’s the clinic?,” I wondered while looking around at nothing but a small, dilapidated building. “Oh, this is the clinic!”
I started the trip feeling sorry for myself, but throughout the trip, I felt ever more grateful for the (undeserved) life that I had been given. At every moment, I thought, “This could have been me.” I was surprised at how happy many of the locals were despite living a life that most Singaporeans would consider to be insufferably hard and deprived.
When I think of my best holidays (I’ve only been on a handful), what stands out is this trip to Lombok. Although I didn’t really face any real dangers or hardships, it felt more like what “real” travelling was meant to be. I wandered around and learned a lot about the lives and culture of some of the people there. And I wasn’t there just to get a world-class experience handed to me on a platter.
I understand that, at times, we all just want to escape and enjoy ourselves while others tend to our needs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But these types of holidays probably aren’t going to result in “improving your life” or “becoming a better person,” which are the reasons most people give for wanting to travel.
When I came back, I felt humbled by what I had seen. And that filled me with gratitude for my life, and courage for my upcoming surgery.
I still think about Hamid and his BTN. I still remember the sound of the children’s laughter on the beach. And I try not to forget the joy and simplicity of just being together and enjoying a piece of durian, even if it’s at the side of a road where you have a pay a guy to let you stand there.