What it Means to Travel
The Introductory Post
What do you say when someone asks; ‘how was your trip?’
While ‘oh the food was good and the museums were nice’ seems like a perfectly genuine response, I felt like I was committing all kinds of grave injustices by giving such a generic answer. How then do we appropriately represent the places we've been to? Or better yet, how do we define travelling? Is it to travel the world on one's terms and without a travel advisor? On reflection, I think that's it is quite possible that the key to understanding this predicament may lie with what one thinks travel is all about.
What travel has meant to me thus far
As an uninformed teenager (read: ruinous millennial), the idea of travel as a means of learning to appreciate foreign cultures was an alien concept. Back then, I simply saw trips as a temporary escape from the study and work commitments I had back home.
My thought process and approach to travel went along the lines of:
- Eat all the food you could possibly stomach
- Get your hands on cliché souvenirs that you will likely not have any use for
- Try to avoid appearing in embarrassing family photos
… and that was pretty much it.
At the end of the day, travel wasn’t about gaining new insights and experiences but simply, to allow me to say - been there, done that. I wouldn't be the first to say that this approach to travel is unideal and bordering on wasteful.
As if to further worsen the sad reality of my young been there, done that attitude, the trips I embarked on were essentially an exercise in rushing to cover all a city had to offer in the shortest amount of time possible. I'll give an example. On my last trip to South Korea (circa 2007), I was given the liberty to plan out the itinerary for the trip - which (as you'd guess) led to one of the most packed itineraries ever.
A part of one of my ‘ideal’ days read:
Take the cable car to the top of Namsan mountain at 1.30 pm
which then casually segues into
EAT AT THE BEST CAFE IN ITAEWON at 2pm
While these stops were all planned out to stunning detail and accuracy, we all know that what happens in reality often differs from our plans. Cafes are closed, museums undergo restoration projects or god forbid, the metro is experiencing a disruption. The result? Instead of being awed by what we do see, we get disappointed that we didn't get to see everything.
These types of trips always seem to have to progress at lightning speed, lest I end up feeling short-changed at the end of it. It was THE schedule, with its mandatory adherence to mechanical efficiency and precision that was paramount, not the experience of seeing what I had planned to see. And this was all back in the day when there was no ‘lose yourself to find yourself’ bullshit.
Travel and sightseeing became yet another tiring to-do list with an endless register of tasks that I had to tediously check off. But why do we do this?
I think that besides my own self delusions about wanting to see everything, this (quite popular) approach to sightseeing is perhaps a hangover from when travel used to primarily be the domain of tour operators. Back then, planning was out of the tourists' hand and done almost exclusively by the guides, who invariable always tried to cram everything into the itinerary. This made perfect business sense as advertised trips with more sights would sell better but these would obviously (but unknowingly) lead to a sub-par experience. As the popularity of free-and-easy travel started to gain popularity and eventually usurp the dominance of the tour package, we were given a measure of freedom in planning our trips, but I think that travellers as a whole still remain hemmed in by the same mentality of having to cram everything in.
While this approach is great for travellers who want to maximise experiences, dutifully cramming all the sights and sounds of a particular destination into a single trip just isn’t the way to go. Paris shouldn’t be reduced to the series of artisanal bakeries you visited for 5 minutes apiece.
Lessons from 2017
At the start of the year, I didn’t really expect to be able to travel that much due to constraints of my National Service commitments. Yet, as the year progressed, opportunities to slot in quick weekend trips kept popping up. The thought of combining leave days, a public holiday and two weekends became my ultimate temptress.
Sadly, the same catch-all mentality began to rear its ugly head as I started to plan for those trips. It’s pretty clear that those habits and attitudes are deeply ingrained when one starts to wonder - ’Can I really fit a full trek of Bukhansan and the Seoul City Wall in the same day?’
The frequency of my travels however, began to force me to reflect on what I was actually doing on those trips and whether they actually did (as many writers claim) improve my life.
I learned a few things:
- Planes are pretty damn awesome
- Travel photography, when done well, can make trips unforgettable
- Take the time to explore the areas around a city’s sights - it’s often more rewarding
1. The miracle of flying metal tubes
In just under three decades, air travel went from luxury jet-set to pay only airport taxes. Behind this revolution is nothing short of a dual engineering and economic miracle. Industry developments have also led to the democratisation of international travel and have brought the furthest reaches of the world much closer to each other. In view of this, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t deeply fascinated by how everything works.
Furthermore, the practice of 'travel hacking' is also quite intriguing. It is a known fact that no frequent traveller can ever come close to affording regular travel without maximising the value from frequent flier programs and finding great deals on flights. It is in my opinion, essential for the modern traveller to keep abreast of these developments. As such, one goal for next year (and this site in general) is to be able to uncover and share what I discover about these strategies.
If you do become a regular reader of this site and if I don’t get kidnapped on my next trip, you’ll probably see quite a few articles on airlines and planes, amongst other travel related musings.
2. Travel photography is the ultimate memory minting machine
Prior to my first trip of the year to Bangkok, I pulled the trigger on a mirrorless APS-C Fujifilm X100T and I haven’t looked back. Before this, all of my travel photos consisted of shakey iPhone shots paired with high contrast filters from VSCOcam. It would be a huge understatement if I said that I was simply thinking about being able to capture better photos.
While the iPhone/Samsung Swhatever/HTC/what-have-you does take great photos, it is often the motivation (or sunk cost) of having a dedicated camera that results in photos with better and more poignant composition. More on this in future posts. Comparing the photos I took during my trips this year, I could see a huge improvement over my previous iPhone-VSCO shots. I have no regrets whatsoever.
Besides immensely upping my photo game and giving me new iPhone lock screen wallpapers, the photos I got from my X100T have really formed more than half of my motivation to travel more. Something really has to be said about the unparalleled satisfaction one gets from being able to capture a slice of reality on your own terms.
Side note: If you're just starting out your journey into travel photography, I'd highly recommend that you purchase a mirrorless camera instead of a DSLR. DM me if you have questions.
3. Go to Gangnam for Gentle Monster, stay for Garosu-gil’s vibes
As many of the world’s greatest cities foster diversity and continually reinvent themselves, it would be folly to explore a city through the back of an Uber. While it makes sense to plan itineraries with attractions in mind, more often than not, I've found that the side streets and shops surrounding those popular monuments/sights will give unique glimpses into the daily life of a city. I’ve found that these unexpected and interesting finds are really what defines and enhances your memory of a city. And so, 2018 will be the year that I explore around instead and even perhaps, leave my travel planner behind.
Travelcene and a look to the future
Travel to me now represents an opportunity to better engage with the things I'm visiting. Furthermore, it is a way to connect with people I would not have otherwise been able to meet. One thing I'd like to do is to interact more with locals and fellow travellers alike, something which has been notably absent in all the trips that I've embarked on thus far.
It also is about chasing and cherishing defining moments - like how a delayed inbound train from Naples caused me to miss my connecting train in Switzerland, thereby forcing me to run across this deathly quiet station near Zug in order to catch the last commuter train to Zürich before services ended for the night. Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is an earnest endeavour to make every trip a fruitful and different experience from each other.
Inspired by an eclectic mix of Neistat videos, Monocle editorials and my own attempts at travel photography, I feel like its time to redefine my relationship with travel. My ultimate aim is to travel more, better and further than what I’m accustomed to in the past, and this feels like an opportune time to arrive at a perfected balance between obsessive research and on-trip flexibility. Travelcene is the culmination of these growing interests and I hope that you'll support it though I definitely don't claim to be a professional travel planner or advisor. Feel free to peruse the other posts and explore the site (it took me quite a while to design the entire affair).
Travelcene will be dedicated to all the travel-related things I uncover in the future so stay tuned - but god forbid (do proceed to run far away) if I develop an obsession with #wanderlust and ‘losing yourself’ because let’s be honest; who really does that while they travel the world?