The flyaways

Today we are flying further, faster, to more countries than ever before. Georgina Lavers asks what desires are fuelling this wanderlust

Contiki is a mid-range travel agency that specialises in marketing holidays to the 18-to-35s. Encapsulating the swathes of options – the all-inclusive five nights in Kavos, the elephant trekking in Sri Lanka, – is the firm’s central tenet: the neat hashtag #noregrets.

The motto is succinct yet ingenious. Travelling has been thought of as a way to broaden man’s mind for hundreds of years: André Gide’s uneasy intensity in his writing was inspired by his wanderings in Tunis; Gauguin painted his most vivid landscapes in Martinique; an American scientist called Freeman Dyson even created the theory behind quantum electrodynamics (in its simplest terms, how light and matter interact) on a creaky old Greyhound bus, lurching its way to Kansas.

More recently, 65 (21 male, 44 female) psychology students from Indiana University helped to prove that distance inspires creativity. The students, who were split into two groups, completed a test that challenged them to name as many different modes of transport as they could, with one caveat: the first group was told the test was developed in their hometown of Indiana, while the other was told it was developed 9,000 kilometres away, in Greece.

The first group gave fairly rote answers, such as the car, bicycle or metro. But the group who believed the test originated from Greece came up with the most unusual and creative ideas, such as a Segway, on horseback, even a spaceship.

This study, and numerous variants of it, aptly demonstrate how spatial distance has a positive impact on creativity. From this, it doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination for one to wonder what creative genius might remain locked, what long-lost love might never be found, what connections might never  be made, if you don’t book that holiday? That hashtag starts to look quite clever.

Shane Dallas
Shane Dallas in the Koh-e-Baba mountain range in Afghanistan

Clearly, there must be some distinction made between the Gauguins and the Contikis of this world. A man walking the Nile is a different creature to the one on a sunbed in Goa or closing a business deal in Dubai, and this can be seen in the first travellers. The Silk Road was a celebration of trade, not of exploration. Contrarily, Darwin was apathetic about any profit to be made from his trip to the Galapagos: his travel was sparked by a desire to examine the unique life forms that sprung up on an island untouched by man.

“Travellers versus tourists” is how Shane Dallas sums it up to me, when we speak over a line struggling to find a connection from a London office to a cabin in Nairobi, where he had been for the past couple of days. Dallas is an amiable ex-government worker from Australia, who, about 800 days ago, decided to give up the rat race in favour of seeing the world. Styling himself as the “Travel Camel”, the 50-year-old has been eking out a living on the road ever since, giving lectures along the way on the topic of responsible tourism.

Though kind towards the tourists among us, who consider two weeks in Iceland an adventure, it is clear that Dallas considers himself on a different path. He talks of itchy feet and of wanderlust, moving every few days to find the newest scene, the least-worn route. Yet he also talked happily of his base in Dubai, a place where he had put down roots, with friends and a home to go to. I wondered at what point, if at all, his constant travel would start to feel like self-flagellation.   

In an essay for Salon, Pico Iyer writes: “Few of us ever forget the connection between ‘travel’ and ‘travail’, and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship, both my own, which I want to feel, and others’.” Iyer’s philosophy, of travel as pain, is completely at odds with most of the mainstream marketing for holidays. But it is this idea that is beginning to spring up as a counterpoint to the idea of travel as luxurious or restorative.

Carrao river in Southern Venezuela
Tourist boats going up Carrao river in Southern Venezuela

Cheryl Strayed is a recent example of this phenomenon. After the dissolution of her marriage, she found herself drawn to the Pacific Crest Trail, a 4,286km-long hiking path that traverses the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Mexico to Canada. In her novel Wild, which describes the journey and was made into a Hollywood movie, she depicts her walk as deeply monotonous and physically painful, winding through endless forest and scrubland. Yet this harshness served to act as a kind of cleansing ritual, whereby her sins were atoned for by the extreme conditions she forced herself to endure.

In an essay for New York magazine, Kathryn Schulz compares Strayed to Dante, and her story to a contemporary redemption narrative: “The course is not from sin to salvation but from trauma to transformation: I was abject, dysfunctional and emotionally shattered, but now I see.”

In Paul Theroux’s case, the American-born writer similarly experiences a punishing environment, but heads into the urban rather than the rural, towards the chaos of humans. His travels spanned Ulster in Northern Ireland at a time of sectarian terror, Vietnam before Saigon fell and East Germany during Soviet occupation. His reasoning for why travellers such as him head to these areas during a time of unrest is that they see themselves as witnesses to history in real-time.

If the traveller manages to arrive back home unscathed from “the bungling and bellicosity that constitute the back and forth of history”, he says, their reward is the pleasure of boasting: “I was there… invariably this experience – shocking though it may seem at the time – is an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the life-altering trophies of the road.”

Not all trips abroad are so enlightening, and nor should they be. A US survey found that 10 per cent of adult internet-using Americans consider themselves part of the frequent business travellers cohort – seemingly not a large amount, but significant when you consider that 10 per cent of the American population is about 30 million people. Another 2014 survey from Expedia, which surveyed 8,500 people across five continents, found that professionals between the ages of 18 and 30 average five business trips a year.

Dubai has made itself the most useful hub for business travel: a third of the world’s population is within a four-hour flight of the emirate, and the international airport has made sure to capitalise on this, topping Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport and offering a staggering number of flight options: 145 airlines, flying to more than 260 destinations, across six continents.

As air travel has been increasingly democratised, the number of us who fly has increased. However, our motivations remain unchanged.

“When my parents were born, it was unthinkable to awaken one day in Dubai and go to sleep that night in a medieval village outside Kathmandu,” says Iyer.

“But I’m not sure that humans ever really change, it’s just the surfaces that do. Yes, the management consultants you see in business class on an Emirates flight are orbiting the globe semi-permanently at the speed of light, and the largest Holiday Inn in the world is being built in Mecca, but the interaction with the foreign remains as intense, as bewildering, as mixed in its motives as ever before."

"Maybe the one thing that has really changed in my lifetime is, when I was born, at the dawn of the jet age, there was a great lure and glamour to the notion of fast international travel; now some of us do so much of it, losing a sense of where or when or even who we are, that the greatest luxury of all can be staying in one place and sitting still.”

The internet age is upon us – you can see how a herdsman in Mongolia lives just by going to Google Earth, or talk to your business partners in Africa via a video-conferencing system. So why do we keep on travelling?

For some, it is a love affair, for others an act of faith. We may be escaping the banality of a routine or running from a turbulent homeland. Some are going to forget themselves, others to find them-selves. There is no common denominator. All we can be sure of is that mankind, bound by some unknowable desire, will continue to put one foot in front of the other. #noregrets