Years ago, when I was a student, I lived in a small village in Tanzania. Sometimes a truck full of backpackers would pass, and my neighbours would ask where these people were going. What was the point of sitting on the truck? What were these people looking for?
Of course, my neighbours knew about the temptations of neighbouring places. Not that they would go, except maybe to a doctor or the hospital. But they would often see their husbands take off without a word, never saying where they would go, when they would be back, and without leaving any money. For these women though, their husbands disappearing gave them a good reason to buy maize beer and enjoy the moment.
So yes, visiting a neighbouring village, for business, to see friends or attend a football game, was known to them. But leaving home for a longer period of time, just to be on the road, was something unfamiliar. And even though I had been on the road myself, and am a passionate traveller, I couldn’t offer them a satisfactory explanation.
What are we looking for when we decide to travel from A to B. I explained about meeting other people, seeing new places, living in another country, admiring new scenery, leisure, a break from the daily routine, learning about the world. And listed many more of the obvious reasons to travel.
But then the women wondered why these travellers never stopped at their village, to see their scenery, take a break there and meet them. Most of these backpacker trucks stop outside a village, or at a campsite. Somewhere they wouldn’t be bothered by local people, or bother them. At least, that was my experience while travelling on a backpacker truck through what was then called Zaire.
The group I had joined was on its way to Nairobi. They had already crossed a notable number of countries, seen amazing things, and had impressive stories to tell. Their favourite was the story about how one day they almost all ended up in the hospital, all heavily dehydrated from faecal contaminated water. That’s what you get when you don’t know what the extra hose is used for in some of the toilets you visit on the way. And they had dozens more of these great and funny stories, of the wonders and hardships of traveling, what had happened to them or other foreigners they met on the way. But hardly any of the stories would be about the local people they met.
As far as I know, it is only the odd individual who stops in small villages, interacts with the people and tries to get to know them. Those who take the time, write travel stories, maybe know people in the country, decide to stay, or go back every year to the same place. However, most tourists and travellers don’t. And if I think about it, maybe that’s better. Can you imagine your own street, village or even just your local pub and a whole load of tourists turn up? They want to interact with you, come to your place for dinner just to see how you live and what you do. Maybe once or twice would be fun, but every day?
Anyway, that still leaves me with the same question: What are we looking for when traveling? Or better: what am I looking for when traveling, going from one place to another. Other than passing by, briefly admiring the scenery and experiencing the opportunities the place has offer? And now, back on the road again, and being asked the same question, I realise that I still don’t know the answer. Other than, that I just love moving around, seeing different places and, when the occasion presents itself, meet new people. I realise that I am not looking for something special, and that there is nothing for me to achieve or reach. Of course I learn new things, about the places I visit, about myself and my culture. But, I also realise that most of it I could also learn while staying in Amsterdam and interacting with others, especially the foreigners who visit or stay in the country.
Just as others like to stay at home, I, and many others, like to be on the move. And again, now that we are back in Montevideo, Eduardo Galeano, Uruguay’s world-renowned poet who died recently, nicely summed up my drive to travel: