• Uncommon Journeys

I Travel Because I Must

In the 14th century, Ibn Battuta wrote: “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

He first traveled to Mecca in 1325, to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam. His urge to continue traveling was spurred by his interest in finding the best teachers and libraries. He would go on to travel for 29 years, cover 75,000 miles and visit the equivalent of 44 modern countries. Near the end of his life he dictated stories of his travels to a scholar, who published them in “Ibn Battuta's Rihla (Journey).”

Reading about Ibn Battuta gave me pause. Beyond the memories and photographs that I bring home from a trip, there is the fundamental question of why I travel to faraway places.

Quite simply, I travel because I must. It is an instinct, a biological need so visceral that it shapes my very way of thinking, most evident in desperate circumstances.

On 9-11, weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Burma, terrorist attacks upended the world as we knew it. In the ensuing days I worried about freedom, tolerance and security. But in the deepest, most private place in my heart, my overarching concern in the wake of such unmitigated tragedy was, “They have to reopen the airports, because I can’t not go to Burma.”

In a world paused by COVID-19, my insatiable wanderlust is once again tested to the limit, leaving me obsessed with one thought: “I can’t not travel.”

The only way I can explain the need to spread my wings has to do with connection – to another person, another culture, the world. I use this connection to tell stories that already exist within me, even when I am unclear at the time of what the story might be.

An experience -- a ribbon of laughing children chasing a llama, bullock carts looming out of the dusty dawn, the weight of a week’s kindling on a pair of hunched shoulders -- has the potential to awaken a story by linking me to a larger view of the world. A culture, scene or person is sometimes so resonant, that a narrative not only describes the encounter, but helps to answer my own questions.

How do I feel about women who scarify their bodies as an expression of feminine beauty? What can I learn from watching tribal elders pass down wisdom to the next generation? Why do traditional societies affirm my own restless search for “forever” in our fleeting material world?

My reasons to travel are many. It opens my eyes to exotic life ways and customs. It affords me the opportunity to learn about other cultures. It introduces me to extraordinary people living in the remnants of time.

But why do I really travel to faraway places? Because in the spirit of Ibn Battuta, it leaves me speechless, then turns me into a storyteller. It teaches me about the world and about myself, linking me to stories that lie within.

I travel for connection. I travel because I must.