Over my morning cup of tea, I scroll through my Facebook feed with a mind that’s far more restless than my right thumb. My social feeds are inundated with photos of clinking wine glasses, boarding passes, infinity pools, sweeping valley views, Parisian macaroons, and Go Pro-esque kayak selfies among other updates from my travel blogger friends who are always either enroute or exploring somewhere new.
Dressed down in my PJs, seated on my gray couch, in my cool and comfortable home in what is an outrageously warm city in summer, I consume these updates with a bout of envy, scrolling and scrolling, looking for an update that makes me feel like I’m not wasting life by being here in this moment on my couch.
If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media, surely you know what I’m talking about. You don’t have to admit it if you don’t want to, but I’m going to talk about it.
The validation (that I’m not squandering away precious life moments), usually, does not come.
What I do find are more reasons to believe I’m neither traveling as much as I should be nor writing as much as I should be, a vicious circle of self-doubt that no travel writer wants to find themselves in.
And then, it dawns upon me that I will probably never travel to as many countries as the person with the highest ‘country count’ I know, simply because that’s not something I can do.
I find the idea of non-stop travel to new places extremely exhausting.
There, I’ve said it. I’m a travel blogger and writer who doesn’t always want to be discovering something new because my mind cannot keep up with the need to quickly absorb and appreciate new experiences.
Don’t get me wrong; I love traveling and it’s the very lifeblood of my career and in so many ways of who I am, but the thing I enjoy most about travel is the chance to live like a local in new cities and towns.
Sure, I’ll gawk at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but when you ask me what I loved most about the city, I’ll tell you about this one place in Gracia that makes a delicious omelet sandwich that I went to every other day for breakfast.
I’ll tell you that I love the smell that wafts outs of the basement bakery outside the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.
I’ll tell you that I love stepping out of this one bookshop café just in time to see the colors of the sunset sky in Reykjavik.
I’ll tell you that my favorite memory of Bologna is looking out of my apartment window to see musicians, buskers, students, retirees, and tourists in Piazza Maggiore.
My fondest travel memories don’t involve sights or activities; they’re all about navigating the seemingly insignificant everyday things that make up life in a new place. Like eating at a food hall in Stockholm, shopping at a Soviet-style public market in Georgia, or writing by a river in Slovenia, things that are routine in these countries but couldn’t be more different from my life in Dubai.
To live like a local, I find myself deliberately traveling at a snail’s pace. Give me three weeks in Spain, and I’ll only see four towns along the coast. A month in Vietnam saw me volunteering in the tiny hamlet of Sapa, hungering for a taste of life in the mountain town where several hiking trails begin.
I’d like to believe that there is more to places than Instagram photos and top-ten lists.
While I enjoy both just as much as anyone else, I’m greedy to find something more in new places, something I haven’t read about on social media, something that hasn’t already been grammed or snapped. Hell, even something that cannot be grammed, snapped, or pinned; like the flames in your chest after you’ve sportingly downed a shot of 85% local liquor proudly offered by a Georgian farmer or the ordinary beauty of a solitary hour hiking through an alpine forest.
And so, I like to return to places that I’ve felt a connection to. Again and again.
“But you’ve already been to Italy! Wouldn’t you rather go someplace new?”
“Iceland, again? For a third time?”
I love the thrill of foreign cities, but I also equally love being somewhere that is both familiar and somewhat new.
I spent a month in Italy, finally learning the meaning of the word, “Allora” and how every Italian has a story of their mother’s Sunday cooking, but I’d still go back in a heartbeat to spend another month in Bologna, if only to walk under its porticoes and join the crowds on Piazza Maggiore to people watch.
I’d happily stay in Stockholm for a month again, just to spend endlessly long summer days writing in the park and get on a ferry to watch sunsets in the Stockholm Archipelago.
And don’t even get me started on how thinking of Reykjavik makes my heart ache and want to jump on a plane so I can stand at the edge of the Tjornin pond and watch the geese. It’s not even about the waterfalls and glaciers and mountains and the Northern Lights!
Does not having a bucket list make me a less ambitious traveler?
I’ve been traveling, though not permanently, since 2012 and have only visited 20 countries since. That’s just four countries a year, on an average, far lower than you’d expect from someone whose career depends on travel.
This year will find me going back to two countries I’ve already been to; Spain and Italy are both countries I loved traveling through but didn’t see enough of. I also hope to return to Vietnam some day, and specifically to the mountain town of Sapa. And I know I’ll be back in Georgia’s Svaneti region again, because once wasn’t enough.
When I first started traveling in my early 20s I wasn’t sure what kind of traveler I’d be. Would I do 30 countries before I was 30? Would I excitedly be counting passport stamps? Would I zip through nine cities in ten days? Would I have a ‘best infinity pools’ or ‘top restaurants’ or ‘scenic hiking trails’ type bucket list? Would I ever have any measurable travel goals?
As it turns out, my travel decisions so far indicate that I’m opposed to the idea of quantifying my travels, in the fear that this might belittle the value of those experiences. I can’t be bothered with country counts and bucket lists and checklists. I don’t like to meticulously plan my travels months in advance and I’ll sure as hell never book my accommodations more than a few days in advance because how else will there be room for spontaneity?
I’ll see what I’ll see, and I’ll eat where I’ll eat, and I’ll do what I’ll do. And sometimes I won’t do some must-do’s, sometimes the food won’t be great, and sometimes I’ll miss a sight or two.
But that’s okay.
Because that won’t affect the quality of interactions I’ll have with the people I meet, it won’t affect the awe or shock or surprise I’ll feel when I’ll learn something new about how people live in far-flung places, and it sure as hell won’t make my travels any less valuable to me.
I’ll go back for the experiences that I really enjoyed and I’ll live them again and again (like glacier hiking in Iceland or chatting with the friendly locals in Europe’s highest inhabited village in Georgia) because who says that only chasing after the new and unfamiliar is a worthy enough travel goal?
If you think about it, the tone of the millennial traveler’s conversations isn’t very different from the conventional one. While it was, “I have a car/house bigger than yours,” today it’s something like, “I’ve done more countries than you.” The commodity might be different but the competitiveness, sadly, is still the same.
And, that, to me isn’t what travel is about.
So next time somebody tells you they love to travel, think before you ask that one question, you know, the one that you always ask and the one you’re always asked: “So how many countries have you traveled to?”
Does that really tell you anything about why someone would love traveling or what it does for them? That number, alone, whether it’s three or 30 does nothing to tell you about what is the most amazing part of being or traveling through Peru or Morocco or Finland or Tibet or South Korea.
Does it really count if you’re transiting through or if you’ve just spent a night at the airport (me in Prague)?
And let’s be honest, when you ask that question, are you really just waiting for them to finish answering so you can jump in with your answer, that’s hopefully a higher number?
Try instead, “What do you love most about traveling?” The last time somebody asked me this question, over a phone call from miles away, I knew they really wanted to know why I loved travel- they weren’t just talking to talk, they were talking to listen.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with counting countries, if that is what makes you happy and helps you keep track of how far you’ve come. But don’t let someone else’s higher count be a cause for travel envy and don’t think it’s the definitive indicator of how well traveled somebody is. You’d be shocked to know the number of people who’ve traveled around the world and come back with a mindset that’s just as narrow or prejudiced as when they’d never left their homes.
How can travel have the chance to truly be life-changing if you’re just on a mission rushing from one place/experience/activity/restaurant to another?
And why shouldn’t you go back to Italy again and again if you crave for the goodness of Italian cooking and medieval Tuscan towns?
So, what if you derive secret satisfaction from the thought that the servers at the corner café (now a daily stop) in a new city know your name?
Travel, of all things, is not a race.
Life, too, is not a race, but it can be hard to remember that when our social feeds, invariably, push us to compete; whether it’s fitness and running, veganism, minimalism, or whatever other new –ism is popular on Instagram. Count or not, who cares? The magnitude of experiences travel offers can’t even begin to be contained in the vanity of a single number.
Over to you: What do you think of keeping up with country counts? Would you go back to a place you really loved over going someplace new?