OLAFSVIK, Iceland- This has to be the most dangerous question a traveler can ask. What am I doing here? If these words come out of your mouth when traveling you are already one step from going home.
Doing something while travel is essential, being able to answer “what am I doing here?” with a strong response of absolute pertinence.
“I have to tell you something,” my French friend Pierre spoke as we walked to a festival in Olafsvik, on the far end of the Snaefells peninsula. “I did not want to tell you when we were drinking beer, but from Stykishholmur I’m going home.”
It was high time to buy another round of beers.
In the midst of walking for hours in noman’s land through an insane wind storm Pierre asked himself the dreaded question of travel: “What am I doing here?” It is then my impression that he thought of all the things that he could be doing elsewhere and the pull was too strong to resist. He changed his ticket to go home early from the tourist information office in Olafsvik earlier that day.
“This landscape makes me introspective,” Pierre spoke.
“Yeah, I know. It doesn’t care about you, it makes you feel like a spec of dust,” I replied.
“It makes me feel like acting,” Pierre responded.
“Like being an actor?” I had not heard this one before.
“No, like taking action on things.”
“I’m not sure yet.”
I understood Pierre’s position keenly, and though I wanted to offer some advice on the matter and talk him out this move, the deal was already done. So instead I told him that I understood, and tried to share a lesson that traveling taught me long ago which is probably the sole reason I am still on the road today.
Iceland is not the easiest country for tramping: the landscape is harsh, the weather extreme, the population sparse, and the essential need to communicate with other humans inconsistently satiated. When you leave the bosom of point to point travel in Iceland, you are on your own. It takes a lot of drive to keep going in this country when you are outside the rounds of tourism, tramping outside, camping, and doing this, more often than not, alone. With the wind blasting you in the face hour after hour the Sirens in your own head is all you can hear. It is easy to listen to their call, reminding you of friends, girls, beer, music, and all the fun you could be having if you just turn back.
I admitted to Pierre that I had listened to these calls on various occasions throughout my early travels, and followed them. One time I called it quits while standing on a roadside in Spain on a stunted hitchhiking trip in order to return to an attic in Buffalo, NY for a few weeks of friends and fun. On another occasion thoughts of a girlfriend in Florida became too powerful to continue a path in Patagonia that became virtually miserable. Both times I found myself not only alone, but lonely. In Patagonia I went three months in virtually noman’s land without much, if any, deeper communication with anyone to speak of. On both occasions the reality of tramping a solo path of what was suppose to have been adventure did not match the allure that got me out there in the first place. On both occasions I proclaimed travel to be lonely, boring, and dumb and sought to go live some other existence based in friends, action, and community.
But on both occasions after a week or two of being at the source of my Siren’s song I began to wonder why the f’ck I returned, felt a tinge of regret, and then set back out on the road again. Travel is glorious in retrospect, and that European hitchhiking trip that ended in Spain and those months alone a foot in Patagonia stood out as being the adventure I sought almost immediately after they were over.
Like this, my first years of travel were rather erratic with many starts and stops, jagged edges — I had yet to come into my rhythm (though is this not the way youth should be?). I did not have a system, an overbearing purpose behind my journey, an answer to the question ‘What am I doing here?’ I knew that I could not stop traveling, that I would not want to stop traveling, but that I needed some way to make each day on the road worthwhile, a way to build something solid and continuous in my life while moving between locations.
I needed a reason for existing in those places in the world I would put myself. Site seeing is not an adequate reason — neither is adventure seeking, getting laid, partying, leaving “it all” behind, or simple seeing new places and doing new things. These later attributes of travel — though very real — in my experience are not enough to base a life in the profession. A person needs more in life than recreation: they need a purpose, an answer to the dreaded question of travel.
So I knew what Pierre was feeling after virtually walking from Reykjavik to the far end of the Snaefells peninsula. Travel often lends impetus to an intense urge to create, to build, and to accomplish. Thinking about your life all day long it becomes easy to get new ideas, fresh perspectives. Living an adventure often does not have the same allure as dreaming it. Adventures, if they are truly such, are difficult things to accomplish, they take an inordinate about of perseverance, physical and mental strength.
At an earlier date, Pierre told me about a Dutch guy he met who was walking clear across Iceland in twenty something days. “He must be really strong in his mind,” he concluded.
After experiencing a test of my mental strength as well along this trip, I had to agree. But this Dutch guy also had something else to his advantage: an end game. If this guy ever asked himself “what am I doing here?” he would have a simple response: “I am walking all the way across Iceland.”
Pierre did not seem to have an end game to his Icelandic travels, he did not possess any Olympian end game, he was not out to complete any great physical challenge — he was just out walking to better absorb the country and meet the Icelandic people. It was not my impression that Pierre had any solid goals in mind when he descended from Mount Esja and began tramping, and without a solid forward push the backward pull grew stronger and stronger. Eventually, Pierre seemed to snap:
Lets get out of here!
Pierre called his Icelandic travels short and returned to France. He partied with is friends, visited his family, recharged his moral, and thought a lot about Iceland. It is my impression that he may consider the trip a failed effort, but, if this is true, I must disagree with the analysis.
It is my impression that the French tramp learned something worth far more than any successfully completed journey, knowledge that will take him vastly farther than any Dutch guy traveling across countries for sport.
Pierre is now in Sweden making a documentary about a group of Sudanese refugees. He is doing something.
There is a trick to perpetual world travel, one that ALL long term travelers that I have met employ as they move through the world: you must find a way to blend the stimulation of a passion, a profession, a hobby, a job, a business with the free flowing ways of world travel.
Freedom is not enough, there must be an end game to travel in order to keep going.
I never ask myself “What am I doing here,” because the answer is always clear: I am working on VJT, writing, working, studying, or I’m involved in some pursuit of a particular brand of knowledge or a skill. I learned early on that going places just to see what’s there or for recreation loses its glimmer real quick — to enjoy travel I must have projects, something to be involved in which exercises my mind and body, least I become flabby, bored, less than confident, lonely, and, for all intensive purposes, worthless.
I can go to these hellish lands of solitude and harsh weather and feel emotionally stable because I have a constant mission, something that I’m working to build each day, a drive, a passion. I do not have this through any lucky role of the dice. To the contrary, I’ve experienced what it is like to travel bare bones, without a project, without a plan, and I occasionally ended up mentally flaccid and under-stimulated, asked myself “What am I doing here,”and went home.
To travel perpetually I realized that I needed something more than the fruits of travel in and of themselves, I needed a portable passion, a mobile project, something that I could work on and build from all locations of the globe, I needed a life. Otherwise, the doldrums periods of travel, the feeling of “doing nothing,”would have set me sedentary long ago. I began VagabondJourney.com not only as a project that I could make a living on, but also as a stream of passion that would keep me traveling the world. So far it has worked.
Once out on a journey, once comfortable with the lay of the land, the beat of traveling, there often needs to be a reason for existing where you are that is greater than “to see and do new things (people).” Quite simply, the successful performance of new things inherently makes them old things — this is perhaps the Catch-22 of travel: once the initial thrill of being on the road wears off, what are you going to do?
You need to do something when traveling if the goal is to make it a lifestyle. The human mind craves more stimulation, challenge, and substance than this. The act of travel is often the anti-thesis of productivity — it is set up as a leisure activity, and the daily struggles of life which normally keep the mind sharp and in shape are often deficient in this lifestyle. I often answer honestly when people ask me how long I’ve been traveling. All too often they seem to think that I’ve just been site seeing and partying for all these years. Cosas aburridas — boring shit. No, The Good Life means having a life, it means building an expertise, a profession, a reputation, a daily passion, a curriculum vitae of accomplishment to stand as a monument to your wayward path across the planet.
I have a clear answer to the dreaded question of the traveler, but I did not arrive at it through easy means. No, I was a slow learner, it took years of self-questioning, blown journeys, dead ends before I came up with a living strategy that blended the urge for travel with the urge to do something. I have since earned a university degree in global studies after studying in seven countries, became an archaeologist, an English teacher, a gardener, a farm hand, a hotel receptionist, sold articles to magazines, and now I live as a full time travel writer and webmaster. I found something to do when traveling, and I move through the world feeling pretty damn solid in this lifestyle.
It is my impression that Pierre, the French tramp, will be a faster learner than I was. At 21 years old it seems to me as if he already learned this vital lesson of world travel, and is making good on it right now. If you find him someday on the side of a lone highway walking fast and steady, offer him a ride and listen to his words, as this kid has bitten into the lotus flower — he is destined to keep traveling and never (truly) return home.