By Jody Hanson, PhD
Contributing Editor — Travel
So, why do you want to travel? Curiously, a lot of people don’t bother to ask themselves the question. Instead, they just book a bus trip or take a cruise.
The ones who make me snort are those who say, ‘We’re going to travel when the children are grown’ or ‘When we retire.’ Yeah right, and at a month short of my 60th birthday I think I’ll have twins as I forgot to experience motherhood earlier on in the piece. Then again I also forgot to get married, save any money or develop a comfort zone so there may be a pattern there.
Others come up with descriptors like adventure, cross-cultural experience, self-awareness, challenges and the like. Pure and noble reasons? Hummm, perhaps, but I detect the scent of tourist denial with a slice of sanctimonious attitude thrown in for good measure.
My motivation to travel is boringly simple: to meet interesting people, shop in spectacular markets and eat spicy food. And if these essential ingredients aren’t available, I’d rather stay at home.
Take the trip around the south island of New Zealand as an example. At the time I was teaching at the University of Waikato. All the Kiwis — which is how New Zealanders refer to themselves although I have no idea why as kiwis are dull brown, nocturnal, flightless birds – insisted I had to visit the South Island. And I mean every single one of them, “It is so beautiful. You just can’t miss it.” The fact that many of them had never been there themselves did not deter them from their enthusiastic endorsement that I had to see it because I was a foreigner.
My friend Patty came to visit from Canada a few months after I’d moved to Hamilton. She is an outdoor type who camps and hikes and such and she thought it was a good idea. So we took the train to Wellington, crossed on the ferry, rented a car in Picton and set out to drive around the entire South Island. I hated every minute it.
Absolutely every waiter, gas-jockey and person on the street had to be assured that, yes, the South Island was, indeed, beautiful. But really what can you do with scenery for more than five minutes unless you are a landscape artist? And beautiful doesn’t make up for boring by a long shot. However, just as you can’t tell a mother that her baby is actually ugly, a bit of social discretion was called for. Besides I didn’t want to run the risk of having people burst into tears because they all took personal credit for the South Island landscape. No tick for the interesting people box.
What markets? Kmart, Farmers and Smith & Caughey just don’t cut it. Okay, okay so there were lots of souvenir places with sheepskins and other tacky knick-knacks on offer. But what would you actually do with the sheepskins? Mats for the bathroom floor, perhaps? And I can’t imagine actually buying a stuffed kiwi bird made in China. The markets on South Island were so bad that they don’t even get a box, never mind the tick.
The third reason to travel is food. Remember that New Zealand was settled by the British who are renowned for their bland cuisine. Worse, it was the Scots who headed for the South Island so the fare is really dour. I know, because my maternal great-grandmother was a Fraser from the Highlands. Think porridge, over-cooked roast beef, bangers and mash. At least in the larger centers on the North Island you can find Indian, Thai or possibly Korean restaurants. The South Island, alas, wallows in cheese and the spiciest thing on offer is the mustard and ketchup packets that grace many restaurant tables. What saved me from starvation is that you can get bottles of Tabasco at the supermarkets and they tuck nicely into a handbag. But spice should be cooked into — not dolloped onto — a dish. No box, no tick.
By the time we got to Greymouth on the home stretch, even Patty was over the scenery. Yeah, right another beautiful beach. Just don’t tell the locals. In fact, the only good thing about the trip was that the Kiwis left me alone because I had been to the South Island.
So before you head out on your first RTW — travel talk for “round-the-world” — spend some time thinking about “why” you want to travel. If you strip it all back it could well be that the song “The bear went over the mountain” sums it up best: “to see what he could see.” And that is perfectly acceptable. If you figure out the “why” it will also help you focus on the “where.” So if you want a good food experience you won’t be booking a trip to Dunedin or Christchurch.
Two more “why do you want to travel” questions that you need to think through before you start packing: What do you want to get out of it? What are you going to “give back”?