why we go

Why We Go

So long as you carry the sources of your troubles about with you, those troubles will continue to harass and plague you wherever you wander on land or on sea. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4 BC – 65 AD

One of the benefits of being in a maritime Special Operations Force is that sometimes the places you go to do your job aren’t too far from some really beautiful parts of the world.

Years ago, along with most of my SWCC detachment, I was at a swimming pool at a beach resort in Mombasa, Kenya. I had spent the morning diving in the Indian Ocean and was now at the swim-up bar.

After ordering a Tusker, I turned to face the pool. There was a high dive overlooking one section of the pool and a variety of shenanigans were taking place, encouraged by the laughter and applause of a small crowd that had gathered.

A backflip contest had grown stale so guys were using various forms of teamwork to fling each other as high as possible into the air from the platform.

Further back in the pool was a twisting waterslide, and the contest of the moment was surfing all the way down by standing on one’s buddy and using him as a human surfboard. In case you’ve never attempted this, people are way harder to surf on than boards.

My beer arrived and I turned back to the bar for it. I saw them there, sitting on the dry side of the bar across from me. I had seen them several times before, most recently at dinner the night before.

They were a young-ish couple, late twenties, on their honeymoon. The girl had her chin resting in her palm, swirling the straw around in her flamingo colored drink, and was periodically lowering her head to pull from the straw. The guy would periodically stop peeling the label off his Tusker to tentatively put his hand on her leg and focus her eyes in his direction. After a hysterical laugh was cut short by an impact with water behind me, I heard their conversation drift under the thatched roof of the bar.

“Really nice out today. Again.”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s really pretty.”

“How’s your drink?”

“It’s good… Really sweet. You should try one.”

The night before I had witnessed the same scene play out. Small talk mixed in with spaces of silence. Food being pushed around in little race tracks around the plate. Yes, the weather is nice.

They were bored. Painfully, desperately bored. Sitting here in this tropical paradise, with any manner of diversions from SCUBA diving with whale sharks to big game safaris to trekking up Mt. Kenya or the main activity that I would think a couple on honeymoon would spend their time at, they were bored.

I realized that they were not alone. This place, like many others I’d been to, had more people like this.

Last time I was in Costa Rica I was in a hotel lobby while a family occupied two different phones and a beleaguered desk clerk. It was the rainy season and many of the packaged tours and activities in the brochures were closed. They were frantically calling numbers, striving to fit in as much as possible. The husband was consulting a day planner and becoming increasingly irritated as he had to scratch out activities.

Meanwhile, people walked past the door with surfboards and beach towels. Oscar Vargas was taking someone on a trip by horseback to the waterfall on his family’s ranch. A group of local guys were planning a soccer game. The girls from one of the yoga places were doing their thing on the beach.

I looked over my shoulder as I left. The mother of the family was rubbing her temples, her head in her hands. It’s nice to get away from it all.

This couple sitting in front of me in Africa were less frenzied, but no more likely to enjoy themselves. They too thought that the plane tickets and the reservations bought them the experience they had envisioned. They traveled to this far away place with an exotic name. There were elephants and Masai warriors on the brochure. Dragon eels and beautiful reefs in the ocean. And none of this could change the fact that they were still the same people when they got there. Unable to let go. Hesitant. Preoccupied by the mortgage and the unchecked voicemails.

I felt a sense of terror then. A fear took hold that has always been in the back of my mind. What if I become like them? Would I know it? Can one recover from this affliction?

As I write this I have a notebook on my desk with a list of trips. Snowboarding in Chile, skydiving in New Zealand, climbing in Moab. Running the Grand Canyon.

This proclivity for adventure travel can be called a form of sensation seeking. Chasing dopamine. Trying to taste once again the dry-mouth copper of adrenaline and feel fully awake, fully alive, immersed in an unforgettable moment as your heart hammers and time slows down.

I don’t travel solely for that reason, and I don’t suspect that many others do either. The spaces in between matter just as much. These can be for moments much less adrenaline-tinged but just as fun and meaningful, and they’re usually the sort of things that can’t be planned. Playing cards with Nepali Sherpas, enjoying a barbecue with Johan Genade and his family at their white rhino sanctuary in Uganda or sharing a late night bottle of wine with someone while watching lightning play across the clouds over the Caribbean.

Is it always that pure? Are we seeking these new environments in order to enable new experiences? What if it’s simply to avoid an old one?

What is the value of an experience when you’re not fully engaged in it? What if you’re only going in order to get away? There is a difference between moving towards X and trying to escape Y.

Now the important question: From what and whom are you getting away from?

Lucius Seneca speaks about this in Letters to a Stoic:

“Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there, though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.

This is not something, however, to which mere surroundings are conducive, unless the mind is at its own disposal, able at will to provide its own seclusion even in crowded moments. On the contrary, the man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing. The story is told that someone complained to Socrates that traveling abroad had never done him any good and received the reply: ‘What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?”

Fitness, as broadly definable as it is, to me entails a life of varied experiences and the physical capability to be fully involved in them. It’s to be able to pick up a surfboard, a mountain bike, a climbing harness or a backpack or even just to stand on the edge of a diving platform trying to decide if your body will remember what a backflip feels like, and go, knowing that your body will take you without a problem.

Travel is a major part of that. There’s only so much you can do and experience in one place.

But physical presence in a place does not bring full engagement in the moments to be had there.

The foundation of a memorable, meaningful and enjoyable trip does not start with the destination on the ticket. It starts with who you are when you get there.


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