If I have one travel pet peeve (more than surly TSA agents, or long check-in lines at the airport, or carbohydrate-heavy in-flight meals), it is travelers who use the verb “To Do” in referring to a destination in the world.
e.g. “Last summer, I did Europe” or the frequently-heard, “Someday I want to do Australia and New Zealand.”
Almost without fail, the tourists’ abuse of the verb “to do” is accompanied by some sweeping hand gesture, as if sliding a pile of chips from a roulette table or cleaning up a pile of hairballs from the corner of the kitchen floor—implying that all the world is a Wal-Mart and the men and women merely shoppers who must walk each aisle before closing.
I disdain “to do” because it so thoroughly fails to describe the real miracle of travel with all of the beauty, struggle, and happenstance which accompanies the moment of opening yourself to a new country. “To do” does no justice to befriending strangers on the road, or the hilarity that follows a series of cancelled flights, or the joy of discovering a place hitherto unknown.
“To do” ignores the infinity of travel, because the world is infinite. No two places are truly alike and neither are any two moments. New York City on Monday will resemble (yet not duplicate) New York on Tuesday.
Last December I spent a month in Tanzania—one full month hopping from one fabulous national park to another. I devoted four week to just one country and its many natural splendors. Many would say that I had “done” Tanzania, and that next time, I should consider “doing” Uganda or Rwanda, Ethiopia or Congo.
But no. I came right back to Tanzania—flew into the same airport I had departed six months prior. I returned to Tanzania not because I am unimaginative or boring or fixated, but because the journey is never done. Travel is never finished, and I wanted to continue the story.
All of my travels end with ellipsis . . . waiting to pick up from I left off. From the minute I stepped out onto the high African plateau of northern Tanzania, I recognized and remembered so many things, all stowed in the back of my mind: the taste of the dust, the cool and smoky air in the morning, the blaring colors of the women’s skirts, the silhouette of heavy loads carried on people’s heads, the whiny honking horns of the dala dalas, the policemen dressed in white, and the sprinting goats.
All of these things came alive again, and I remembered and resumed my exploration of tremendous Tanzania. Although some things were the same, many things were not. I had this strong foundation of wildlife experience under my belt, and yet I knew so little of the people and how they lived, so that this time, I lived in the village of Maji ya Chai and forged a relationship with a new cast of friends. I also traveled with eleven teenagers as part of National Geographic Student Expeditions, which offered a completely different experience than the one I had before and added a whole new layer of learning in my life-long relationship with Africa.
This is why I go back.
I go back because no place is ever done. You cannot “do” a country or finish a destination because you have “done everything there is to do” (impossible).
I have been to Paris more times than I can count. Every time is wonderful and unique and special. None of my future trips to Paris will ever resemble that time when I first caught sight of the Eiffel Tower but each new trip will promise something equally wonderful because it is new.
I love Guatemala and in my life, I have made no less than seven trips to this country. Each time, I add a new layer of learning about the people, culture, and beauty of this puzzle piece on the world map. Each time, the space in my heart grows bigger for Guatemala and I get to fill in the blanks of my foreign understanding.
We must go back to the places we love, and we must go back to the places we don’t love, too, in order that we learn to love them. Writing guidebooks taught me that first impressions count, but never to disregard a place until I’d been back to it three or four times. Travelers have bad days, and one of the biggest sins of travel is to project our bad day on some innocent foreign place.
I write this post from Iceland, a country I have been traveling to for more than 15 years. I have delivered countless travel lectures on Iceland and published magazine articles. I have authored a 500-page guidebook to this country and played tour guide to friends and strangers—but I am not done with Iceland. I am only just getting started, and whenever I leave Iceland (or Africa), all I want to do is go back.
This year I will be going back—back to some of my favorite places on Earth. Iceland is one of them. Tanzania was, too, and though I rarely give clues about my upcoming destinations, I will drop this significant hint: I am going back.
This is not because I am running out of new places. I still have never been to Rome (!) or Alaska (!!) or Beijing and about 90 percent of the globe. When it comes to travel, the world is infinite and exciting, but I want to go back and continue the story in so many of the places I have already traveled to. If travel is a contest, than I do not want to win. I want to play all day long and into then next day, like a Monopoly game that never ends.
No place is ever done, and no travel experience ever entirely complete. There is always someone else to meet, some new mountain to climb, some new food to try, some random adventure to fall in your lap, or some memory to reforge.
This is why I go back—because the story is not over, and sometimes (not always), the sequel is better than the first one.