It’s a few years ago now but my 25th birthday was a milestone, as it is for most people. It’s the quarter century and I had plans to spend it on top of the world. The morning of my birthday I woke up in a stone refuge not too far from the summit of Jebel Toubkal, in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. This is the desert and it was freezing cold. At 3000m the air is frigid at first light. I climbed out of my sleeping bag and put on my hiking boots, all the while smiling to myself giddily.
A few days earlier I had arrived in Marrakech with a vague plan to hike in the Atlas Mountains. A chance encounter with a guy in my hotel sparked my interest in following a route which led to the summit of the highest mountain in North Africa, Toubkal. He told me where I could buy a map and I did so, at an extortionate price, and I set off. That was my entire plan. Follow the route and climb the mountain.
The 4-day hike took me through valleys and villages like none I had seen before. It’s a barren part of the world but extremely beautiful. Goat herders would offer me Mint Tea wherever I went. This sickly sweet concoction is enjoyed by everyone in Morocco and the smell of mint still brings me back to Morocco, even after many years.
The Simple Joy of Travel
The night before my birthday I stopped at the refuge, a simple place for pilgrims and hikers, ate a big meal and bedded down for the night. The following day I was alone, one of the first people on the trail, climbing the last 1000m up to the summit of Jebel Toubkal. I was so excited that I couldn’t stop looking around, taking in the smells and absorbing the light as it began to peek through the mountains around the valley. Eventually, I got lost and ended up way off track in a slightly dangerous scree slope. Moving very slowly so as to not end up in a huge landslide and a fast track to the bottom, I made my way back to the trail where I met some other hikers who had observed my off-road antics. I wanted to have this experience to myself so I moved on as fast as I could to avoid other hikers. The pace suited me and I could still marvel at what a beautiful part of the world I was in.
Moving very slowly so as to not end up in a huge landslide and a fast track to the bottom, I made my way back to the trail where I met some other hikers who had observed my off-road antics. I moved off quickly, wanting to reach the summit ahead of the groups. The pace suited me and I could still marvel at what a beautiful part of the world I was in.
When I finally reached the summit I must have been smiling widely. Some other hikers were already there and smiled back. The sun was just above eye level and the view was glorious. I felt elated and remembering it was my birthday I feel the need to tell the other hikers. They were Spanish and my Spanish skills were non-existent at the time. So I mimed ‘It’s my Birthday’ as best as I could. They laughed in sympathy. I decided I would learn Spanish right there, and I did a few years later.
I also decided that my life would be about experiences and I’ve continued that quest. I had reached the highest point in North Africa, at a milestone point in my life, and was just happy to be alive. That feeling has come back to me over and over again and I am grateful for the joy of travel.
Non-Bucket List Travel
Travel isn’t about ticking off boxes, making bucket lists, and finding the cheapest way around the world. I’m not saying that theses things are bad at all. In fact, I love finding cheap flights and there is a sense of satisfaction in completing a journey or visiting a place that previously seemed out of reach.
Travel is about experiencing things that you will never, and I mean never, experience living in your own country. It’s about interacting with people in ordinary ways, but which cannot be recreated when you are living your daily, normal life.
Many of the most lasting memories I have of travel are of mundane things like sitting on a bus with an anxious anticipation of the destination or feeling the heavy, humid air press against my skin for the first time in a new country. I can still smell the streets of Buenos Aires like I was still there.
The memories of people bring me the greatest joy. Despite the fact that I've seen some of the world's most amazing places I still feel deeper rushes of excitement and pangs of sadness about the people I met along the way.
These things I treasure more than any photo. In fact, I spent many years travelling without a camera. This was more due to laziness and stubbornness than any rational reason. (These days I mostly travel with a DSLR and iPhone). If I want to see what the Eiffel tower looks like with someone standing in front of it I can find plenty of those on the internet. (“Instagram Eiffel Tower Selfie” returns almost 2 million results). So I didn’t travel for the photos but I do wish I had carried one some of my trips. Now and again, I find myself wondering what a place really looked like, at the time I visited. Just my view of it.
I think most people would benefit from slow travel. And by that, I don’t mean getting a horse-drawn carriage to transport you from Paris to Egypt. I mean spending extended time in a country. Bucket-listing my way around the world would leave me with more of a sense of dissatisfaction that accomplishment. My only real travel regrets are that I didn’t spend more time in a place. Living in a country for months or years really allows one to experience something special. I enjoyed my travels more when I didn’t have to think about the next flight, or sit in an airport, or worry if I am getting ripped off by people who spot that I’m ’straight off the boat’. I guess that, to some extent, routine and familiarity are good for the soul and the mind. I always learning a city and
Living in a country for months or years really allows one to experience something special. I enjoyed my travels more when I didn’t have to think about the next flight, or sit in an airport, or worry if I am getting ripped off by people who spot that I’m ’straight off the boat’. I guess that, to some extent, routine and familiarity are good for the soul and the mind. I always enjoy learning about a city and its people. Understanding how things are done in a place doesn’t happen on a 2-day stopover.
The benefits of slow travel also extend to monetary gains. Paying the local price, eating the local food, taking the local buses means that I don’t blow through money as I would if I was a speed-traveller.
Travel has made me a better person. This I am sure of. I now think about the world differently. I approach problems in a new way. I am more tolerant of different views and cultures. I have more empathy for my fellow human being, regardless of their background.
I usually travel alone. But I'm not anti-social. As I mentioned earlier, the most important thing I take away from my travels is the human connection. Being a solo traveller means forces you to connect with people.
Shy people and the socially awkward should try travelling solo for a while. If there's one sure way of combating your shyness it's travelling alone in another country. Making it work comes down to a trial by fire process. Do it, make mistakes, learn. If you never move outside of your social circle you'll never want to move outside of it. Taking trips to places you don't know and interacting with people you've never met before makes you open up without even thinking about it.
Travel is a confidence booster better than any therapy or drug.
Go and travel! It’s good for you.