Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Travel: Why We Leave

Here we go, off on another trip! This time we're headed to New York, New York for five days, and then flying to England for two weeks of exploring London and venturing up to Scotland for a day or two. This isn't the first trip we've taken since getting back from our big "Border-to-Border" motorcycle marathon a couple years ago, and I'm sure we'll continue to travel where we can, when we can, for as long as we can.

Why though? We love where we live, so why do we insist on spending considerable time and (at least for us) considerable money to leave the place we love?
I'm sure I can't speak for humanity as a whole, but I think the reason we leave may be the reason some of you do as well. Since I'm stuck on this plane and its lack of Internet connection for another hour, it seems like an ideal time to hash this out in my own head by writing it down [final spell checking performed later that day at our hotel].

WARNING: this could turn out to be a very long, rambling essay. Flee, and go watch a Youtube video of kittens! Save yourself!

Still here? Okay, let's do this.

It's true that part of the reason we travel is because it's just something you're supposed to do. You get some vacation time saved up, you take it, and you go someplace because when you have time off, you're suppose to go someplace. Everyone else goes someplace, right? And for some people, that's as deep as it gets: they take their two weeks each year, go to a resort or Disneyland or whatever, and then they go back to the same place next year, and the year after that. And that's okay! Do what makes you happy. When we travel though, there are really only two main motivations.

The first is friendship. We've been in a gaming fanclub for years, and every year we travel to Canada for the Canadian branch's annual convention. We've made some good friends up North, and every year try to make the trek to see them. It's been a good way to see more of Canada, a country that is very similar to America at first glance, but very different from us the closer you look. We've seen more of the country than I ever thought likely, and if I ever moved to another country, Canada would probably be where I'd end up.

Canada's not just maple syrup and Mounties! It's a surprisingly intense friendliness from almost everyone you meet, and a sense of humility about not being the most powerful nation on earth. But it's also a deep pride in being Canadian, and of what "Canada" means: a niceness that's internationally loved, willingness to compromise a bit so that everyone is happy, an easy comfort in making fun of themselves, but a willingness to fiercely defend their way of life from anyone who tries to threaten it. Most Canadians don't even realize how incredibly Canadian they are, and why Natalie and I think they're so amazing for it.

But enough about Canada! Let's get to reason two, which involves a distant country that forgot to invent left-hand turn lanes.

We travel to see friends, and friendship is a damn good reason to travel, whether it's the friendship of family members, or of people you've grown to think of as family. But what's the other reason to leave home? A change of perspective. I'll confess, that sentence took a lot more time to formulate than you might think. I was going to say something like "new experiences", "exotic foods", "natural and man-made wonders" or "cultural enrichment", but they're all ways of saying that we crave a change of perspective. Let me give you an example that involves Thailand's bizarre, misguided traffic planning, which happens to be neither of those things.

Years ago we went to visit some friends of ours stationed in Bangkok, and a few days into the visit I somehow found myself behind the wheel of their car in heavy downtown traffic. I needed to make a left-hand turn, but noticed with annoyance that none of the intersections had a left-hand turn lane. The Thai people literally forgot to include this essential design feature! What sort of country was this? It was about two blocks later that I realized I was a presumptuous idiot.

When traffic is horrifically bad, reserving some time during each light cycle for left-hand turns causes two big delays. First, you're only letting a few of your available lanes move through the intersection, which seems inefficient. If your city has a lot of pedestrians, you run into the second, bigger problem. Left-hand turning cars run smack dab into the hundreds of people streaming across the cross-walk. And they will stream across the road; in most Asian countries, waiting for the "WALK" signal is rarely considered essential. So now the cars have to pause, or the pedestrians have to pause, and suddenly the light is red and there are still left-turning cars clogging up the intersection and blocking everything. It's a great design for America, where pedestrians are second-class citizens, but for Thailand it's a terrible idea!

Instead of left-turn lanes, many streets in Bangkok have a U-turn lane halfway down the block. You get into the left-hand lane, scoot over into the U-turn lane, and suddenly you're headed back in the opposite direction. How does this help? In Bangkok, Washington State's wonderful "free right turn" law is in full effect. Instead of clogging things up for everyone by turning left, you just U-turn and then turn right. It seems odd to us, but it keeps traffic flowing. And in Bangkok, "You must maintain the flow" became my mantra for understanding how to drive there.
As a side note, the freeways are set up the same way. I never saw a cloverleaf interchange. Instead you'd see a right-hand off-ramp every few miles, that went up and over the freeway and merged right back onto the freeway going to the other direction. They were U-turn ramps! You would take one, then go back and take a simple right-hand turn headed to wherever you were going next. Nice and easy!

That was quite a tangent about road design in Asia, but I had a good reason for the detour. My moment of irritation at the stupidity of the Thai road design, and my subsequent realization of my own lack of understanding, was a sudden change of perspective. It made me realize that things that at first glance seemed "crazy" or "weird" about Thailand were in fact, quite sensible from the perspective of the people who lived there. The second epiphany was when I realized with a jolt that our customs and practices probably look equally weird to visitors. Another change of perspective.

That's why Natalie and I travel. We travel to eat new and unusual food, to meet and chat with random strangers, to see new things and confront weird new customs (did you know that jaywalking in New York is practically required?). We do it because it's fun and exciting, but we also do it to see things from a different perspective. In some cases, it teaches us something about the country or city we're in, and about its residents. In some cases, it gives us a new way of thinking about our own city or country. And in a lot of cases, it reminds us that even if the Canadians eat french fries with a fork, or the Thai Steve soda in a Ziploc bag with a straw, the average person anywhere probably looks forward to his day off, enjoys hanging out with his friends, worries about money, and loves that one restaurant way more than that other, almost identical restaurant (and wants to take you there, even though it's not quite as good as it used to be "back in the day").

This may have been a very long explanation for a very obvious idea, but I hope it's help explain a little why we love our home, but also love to leave it sometimes.

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