Forget “25 Places to See Before You Die.” The real rewards of travel cannot be Instagrammed.
I am at a cocktail party. I may also be losing my mind.
One woman, blonde and svelte, has just been to Africa. She has observed wild animals in their native habitats and ridden a camel in the moonlight. We all know this, since she has been talking about it for 10 minutes and showing us her smartphone photos.
I roll my eyes at my husband. This is clearly going to be a long night. “Lions are so iconic!” the woman tells us.
But then she’s interrupted by a guy who has been ice-fishing in the Arctic. Or maybe it’s the young man who went hang-gliding in Costa Rica and broke a metatarsal. Another woman speaks up to say she’s been swimming with dolphins, and it was transformative. Then …
Then? Well, I don’t know what. I’m pretty sure I heard something about Machu Picchu or the Great Wall. But who knows? By the time somebody mentions a bucket list, I can usually be found in the corner, communing with the house plants.
You see, although I love to travel, I don’t have a bucket list and I don’t want one—unless breathing and standing upright and hanging on to my marbles count. But that doesn’t get you very far at competitive cocktail party chat.
The trouble is, bucket lists seem to mandate doing something daring or dangerous and traveling to exotic locales. I’m the kind of semi-neurotic person who finds trying to cross the street in downtown Austin to be riskier than hang-gliding. (My life, I tell myself while dodging pickup trucks and SUVs in the crosswalks, is already dangerous enough.) All those much-hyped exotic locales on everybody’s bucket list? They’re fine, wonderful, life-enhancing, and all that. But over the years, I’ve grown weary of travel as a competitive blood-sport. I don’t have a perfectly charted out map of the landmarks I want to see before I die. And I don’t want one. In fact, nothing in my life has ever quite turned out the way I expected. Let me explain.
Like many in the Baby Boomer generation, I didn’t travel much growing up. My family drove from West Texas to Oklahoma to see relatives a couple of times a year. By the time we crossed the Red River, the air conditioning had usually gone on the fritz and my younger sister and I were sweaty and hoarse from screaming at each other. Our parents—sweaty and disheveled themselves—were probably scanning the horizon to find the nearest orphanage with a drop-off window.
It was your usual middle-class, 1950s family vacation, taken in a different time and different world. Back then, almost nobody we knew flew—unless somebody far away had died and you needed to get to a funeral pronto. Aside from that, flying was ritzy and glamorous, and only for people we called jet-setters and VIPs. Foreign destinations like Paris or Rome or Sydney were almost unimaginably remote and unattainable, pictures in a book or on a movie screen.
Over the next several years, though, airfares fell and flying became more common. I first saw Paris in 1972, traveling with college friends. I was 22, and I’d taken seven years of French. But that was classroom French, with a West Texas accent. These bustling, dark-clad, imperious Parisians streaming past me were speaking a different, more urgent and nasal language than I’d ever heard.
It was overwhelming and intoxicating and scary. The world was enormous and I knew so little of it! This fresh knowledge was like a jolt to my body. I slumped at a sidewalk cafe, where my friends expected me—the comparative literature major!—to order for all of us. I think we mostly drank, since I could at least pronounce Beaujolais.
I was young then, so it took me only minutes to recover. A few glasses of Beaujolais later, I felt alive in a new way, electrified by a vast new world of foreign sights and sounds. I was ravenous to see and experience it all. I wanted to be the kind of glamorous, sophisticated person who traveled everywhere. You didn’t talk about bucket lists in 1972, but if you had, mine would have bulged with all seven continents.
Four decades and thousands of miles later, I still love to travel. Taking in new destinations, I feel as if time expands, my eyes ratchet open, and the world becomes more vivid.
But I’ve also developed a more measured, realistic kind of appreciation for it than I had when I was young and wanted to conquer the world. It’s the kind of appreciation that won’t fit on any list or selfie: Among many other things, travel has taught me how staggeringly complex and various the world is. In fact, the more I travel, the more I learn how much more there is to know.
Far away from home, you look around and see people whose lives you can’t begin to understand, who think and speak in languages and dialects you’ll never know, who dream of things you’d never imagine. Sharing a glance or brief interaction with them, you might feel a sense of connection to them, or you might realize you’re as foreign and unknowable to them as they are to you.
A few years ago, I was in a restroom at a hotel in Dubai. A young Emirati woman came in, in a long black robe and hijab. She stood at the sink and began to sob violently, bending over at the waist. I stood there helplessly. In a country I was more familiar with, I would have tried to comfort her, pat her on the shoulder, pass her a paper towel or tissue. But I’d only been in Dubai for a few jet-lagged hours, and I didn’t know if that might be intrusive. I stayed just a few moments more, a couple of feet away from her, before I left to give her privacy.
What did I know of her life? Nothing. What did I really know of her country or her customs? Very little.
That’s the whole point of travel, to me, though— that sense of dislocation and of being off-balance, of realizing how vast the world is. After a few days or even a week in a new country, I’m not sure you can mark it off your list. It might be better to flag it with question marks you hope to answer someday.
On the other hand (there’s always another hand), I may be complaining about bucket lists simply because I don’t like lists, bucket or otherwise. Maybe this is all about my husband’s and my sad inability to get organized and make coherent plans. We make flight and hotel reservations at the last minute. We try to inform ourselves about where we’re going as we fly there—like we’re cramming for a final exam. In an era of bucket lists and minutely detailed plans, we’re list-less and unprepared.
The truth is, my husband and I are the kind of chaotic travelers who like to insist that we’re not sure it even matters where you go, as long as you venture out and pay attention.
We also like to claim that our unplanned, most disastrous trips make the best memories. All of which brings me to our family’s 1998 trip to Europe, when my husband, son, and I were trying to get from Italy to Greece.
“Here’s a shortcut,” my husband crowed. “We’ll go through Albania.”
On the map, it looked plausible. We could cross the Adriatic Sea east to Albania and head south to Greece. The more we were discouraged from going to Albania—by half the population of Italy, it seemed—the more determined my husband became to go there.
“Have you ever been to Albania?” he repeatedly challenged the naysayers. No, they hadn’t. But it was dangerous, they all told us. Everyone knew that. “They haven’t even been there,” he kept telling me. “What do they know?”
Undeterred, we left Italy on a sunny June afternoon, traveling on a Norwegian ship that played Willie Nelson on the intercom. “Isn’t this great?” my husband chortled. The ship had upgraded us to VIP status, since we were the only passengers who weren’t being deported back to Albania.
“I’m surprised you’re going to Albania,” the waitress said, as she served us drinks. “Americans don’t go to Albania. It’s too dangerous.”
“Have you ever been to Albania?” my husband asked.
“I’ve lived there all my life,” she answered.
“Oh,” he said.
Once we landed in Albania, we spent the next 48 hours trying to get out. This wasn’t easy in a country that had just survived the disastrous collapse of a pyramid-scheme economy. Flights left once a week. Trains didn’t exist. Buses were intermittent. We finally hired a taxi driver who chauffeured us to the border of Greece. Along the way, we noticed the many lavish floral displays on the side of the road. The driver explained they marked the spots where people had been pulled out of their cars and summarily executed after the nationwide pyramid scheme collapsed.
He waved goodbye to us as we crossed the border into Greece. Pimply teenage boys with automatic rifles watched us suspiciously on both sides. “I’m glad we got to see Albania,” my husband said. I didn’t answer, since I wasn’t speaking to him by then.
But that’s the point of travel to me, too: the great trips, the miserable ones, the shared laughter, the fraught discussions, the occasional long silences. It’s not just where you go, it’s who you go with. After all these years and many trips, I’ve come to think that travel with another person is a real bellwether of a relationship. If I ever get to make the rules, I think it should be a prerequisite to marriage.
How do you get along with the other person when everything familiar has vanished, when you have to improvise on an hourly basis, when everything is in Swahili, and your Swahili’s a lot worse than your French? What do you talk about? What do you each think is important when you travel—food, people, museums, sightseeing? Do you have fun when you start speaking to each other again?
The strangeness of your surroundings can make you look at each other more deeply, talk at greater length, remember everything more clearly. Sharing new experiences and being pulled away from the phone, the computer, the everyday tasks draw you together in unexpected ways.
After so many years of travel together, my husband and I now see our younger selves in the student backpackers and the families herding small children. We remember how we once got stuck on an overnight train between Madrid and Malaga, riding in sub-freezing temperatures between the cars. We recall almost being deported back to France during a turbulent Channel crossing when one of us mouthed off too much. We smile indulgently at those younger, rasher versions of ourselves, but we don’t miss having to share a bathroom with everybody on the hostel floor.
When it comes down to it, a life well-traveled is not about what you cross off on a bucket list, post on Instagram, or brag about at a cocktail party. It’s more of an interior journey. When you look around and nothing is safe or familiar, you begin to know yourself a little better and understand who it is you’re really traveling with.
Or maybe it’s just all about the perspective you get from time and miles traveled. Last year, my husband and I were flying back home from London. We fell asleep and woke up hours later to the pilot’s voice telling us the landmass we saw out our windows was Ireland, not the United States.
“Our hydraulic system is out,” he said in his calm, reassuring pilot’s voice. “We had to turn around halfway over the Atlantic Ocean. We’ll be landing in London in a few minutes.”
I sat back and told myself the pilot’s voice sounded just like Sully, the U.S. Airways pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River. That’s what I mean about perspective: Sometimes, you forget your well-laid plans and you’re just happy to land safely. Besides, I’d always liked London.
Ruth Pennebaker, JD ’76, is co-author of Pucker Up! A Subversive Woman’s Guide to Aging … and author of the novel Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.
Illustration by Kaley McKean
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