I learned the benefit of having a plot to my travels the hard way: through experience. For years and years of travel I never really bothered too much with planning, preparation, or plotting missions of intrigue — I would just pick places to travel to on whims, stay for as long as I wanted, and left when it felt right. Sometimes I would carry on smooth paths across vast spans of geography, sometimes I would do a bunch of U-turns and find myself traveling in circles. The first years of my travels look like Shane McGowan’s mouth: jagged, ugly, and full of blank spaces. I didn’t ever lose the plot, I didn’t have one to begin with.
For years I had the sole intention of just checking out what was there without pushing the boundaries of what I could learn, observe, or experience. There is nothing wrong with this, but it soon became clear that I wasn’t using the power of travel to its fullest extent, that there is a lot more to this occupation that what lies on the surface.
Travel gives you the power to observe, experience, and make inquiries about what is going on in the world today for yourself. Travel gives you the power to go to the places that most people only read about in the media. Travel gives you the power to be a spectator to the social, economic, environmental, and political issues that are shaping our world right now. Travel gives you the power to learn about culture and people through experience rather than book. But so many travelers do not use this power to its fullest potential — they wallowing away their time in the tourist bubble, sitting back and waiting to be entertained. There is an alternative, and it is actually rather simple.
It is my impression that part of the art of long-term travel is learning how to create good and interesting plot lines. Look at a conventional plot line of a story for a moment: it has an introduction, a hook, rising actions, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. Nearly all stories follow this pattern for a reason: there’s just something about it that psychologically makes us feel good. The plot keeps our attention, it builds up excitement, it climaxes, and makes us feel complete when it’s all over (or else it should).
So why should travel be any different?
It is all too easy for long term travel to become a long, unchanging hum. After a month or two when the pattern of entering a place, finding a hotel, seeing the sights, eating at a restaurant, going to another place . . . becomes old, you have to do something. Travel is an occupation where laziness is often sanctified and raised up on a pedestal, and that F word gets thrown around as if it’s a status symbol. Freedom means nothing if you don’t do something with it. For our purposes, the term “travel and leisure” is an oxymoron.
Travel needs to be kept continuously stimulating and interesting, just going to different places is not enough, we need to create plot lines. Rather than planning out a continuous succession of places to visit, plot out a succession of intrigues to check out, curiosities to satisfy, questions to answer, things to learn, topics to research. So if you’re interested in coca cultivation, go to Bolivia and check it out for yourself; if you have a thing for tea, go to India; if you’re interested in the changes that are happening in China, go there and experience them for yourself; if you’re concerned about disappearing traditions or ecosystems go out and document them; if you want to learn how to play the sitar go find a teacher; if you’re interested in Buddhism, go to Japan and practice. Devising a good plot line in your travels is simple, but it’s not easy: it takes effort, dedication, and guts.
The traveler’s plot line
- Exposition: looking for topics- When you first decide to go somewhere or when you first arrive, start off by learning everything you can about the place. Start reading its news, researching its history, learning about its culture.
- Narrative hooks- Find things that pique your interest that you may want to investigate deeper. These can be a current news story, the history behind a certain place, a form of architecture, a type of tool, a particular culture, a group of people, a type of music, a social or environmental issue, or something that you want to learn. Once you find some hooks, list them out, and then start devising plans on how you’re going to investigate each.
- Rising action: researching hooks- Choose a hook and develop it into a rising action. This means doing extensive study on a particular topic, calling people who are knowledgeable about it on the phone, sending emails to experts, making contacts. When you have a good idea what you’re getting into figure out how you are going to travel to wherever this topic/ event/ culture/ place is.
- Climax: going there- Engaging the hook in person is the climax of the plot line. Go to where it is, meet people that can teach you about it, investigate it for yourself.
- Falling action- The falling action is where you process and consolidate your research with your experiences. This could be manifested through writing, editing and organizing photos, or some other way of completing the project.
- The resolution- Conclude your investigation, try to find something useful to do with your newly acquired knowledge. If you’re writing about it, then try to publish your story, etc . . .
After this you’re ready to start your next plot line.
Like this, plots can be developed across large spans of geography. If you’re always researching an intrigue, chasing it, experiencing it directly, or processing it, you’re travels will be remarkable. At all stages of these plots you are completely engaged in your pursuit, you have a purpose, and you’re working towards building a store of knowledge and experience from your travels that go far beyond just buying a ticket and taking a ride.
But doing this takes time, effort, and guts. You don’t just stumble into interviewing famous archaeologists, up and coming musicians, refugees, authors, renown artists, or investigating traditional arts, disappearing traditions, complex social issues, ancient cities etc . . . by accident. No, you set these projects up on plot lines and act them out.
When I come into a place I start making a list of hooks that I want to investigate, and I organize my journeys based on this. When I finish one hook I write it all up and then move on to the next one. I just returned from a journey where I visited a strange little island of Taiwan of China’s coast, a cloned Austrian village, and the largest mall in the world that has reputedly become a ghost town. I lined these hooks up, researched them, and went out to investigate them for myself. I’ve been doing this for many years now, and I’ve not grown bored yet. There is also something new to check out, some curiosity to call me farther down the road.
This strategy adds a layer of intrigue to simply traveling, it gives you a purpose, a riddle to solve, knowledge and experience to pursue. Having a reason to travel is one of the most valuable things a traveler can have. Devising purposes for going places which keep you focused, on the path, gaining knowledge, alert, and transforming simple tourism into a mission of intrigue. Don’t lose the plot.