• Rainer Jenss: Why Traveling Is Important

    National Geographic journalist, Rainer Jenss has over 13 years experience on the road. Here he talks about the benefits in traveling as a family and why we feel so much more alive on the road.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Walter Bopp personally, but being that he’s the father of a dear friend, I found myself at his memorial service on a recent cold but sunny late winter’s day.  Walter passed away in March at the age of 98, after living what was seemingly a long and fulfilling life.  For his eulogy, my friend Peter, together with his three siblings, shared some of the favorite moments they spent with their father, who I would learn was a very successful and accomplished businessman.  Peter reflected on his business trips, which apparently took him away from home to far off and exotic places for days and even weeks at a time.  But what clearly came shining through was his passion for traveling with his wife and four children – and he did so at every opportunity he could.

As I listened to their stories of the special times they spent traveling together as a family, I was reminded of something I’ve always thought was true: when you come to the end of your life and reminisce on your most treasured memories, it’s the unique experiences you had that are often most fondly remembered, not the time you spent in the office or the latest deal you closed.

So what is it about traveling that provided Walter, his family, and myself with so much joy and fulfillment?   Is it simply the visceral thrill of being someplace different or the opportunity to experience new and wonderful things?  For me, it’s much more than that.  Traveling to other countries or different regions in the U.S. allows me to leave all my beliefs at home and see everything in a different light. I believe we travel, in part, just to shake up our preconceived notions of the world by exposing us to sights, values, and issues we rarely have to face at home and would ordinarily ignore.  More importantly, it reveals parts of ourselves that might otherwise lie dormant.  When we travel to foreign places for example, we inevitably journey to states of mind that we’d seldom have a reason to visit, and perhaps that’s why we feel so much more “alive” when we’re on the road.

Many of us travel simply because we have to, mainly for work.  Go into any airport on a weekday morning between 6 and 9AM, and you’ll see mostly business travelers anxious to make their flights.  I should know, I was one of them.  And because business trips are often stressful and anything but romantic, we yearn for vacations and the opportunity to lose ourselves, or in some cases find ourselves, in more exotic destinations.  But from what I’ve experienced, particularly with my family, is that traveling can benefit us in so many different ways if we’re just mindful to them.

When making plans for your next trip, you might want to give yourself the opportunity to try new things.  If you’ve always wanted to go on a safari, scuba dive, attempt dog-sledding, pick grapes at a vineyard, ocean-kayak, see U2 in Ireland or take a train just for the fun of it, adventure travel is more accessible than ever, so there’s no excuse not to give it a go.  Besides the inherent thrill associated with experiencing something for the first time, some of these activities afford us an opening to reconnect with nature, which will do wonders for our soul and psyche.

Traveling also reconnects us with our family, so whether you’re visiting relatives over the holidays or taking a week off for spring break with the kids, make it a priority to spend as much time together as possible.  After all, there’s a reason family photo albums are typically filled with holiday and vacation shots.  Time with family is precious, just ask any parent with children going off to college or university.  Maybe that’s why there’s been a big surge in multigenerational trips where families get together for reunions and special occasions.  Road tripping has had a resurgence, particularly in the U.S.  It seems grandparents are traveling more and more with their grandchildren these days, which is a wonderful trend for sure.

Another big growth area in the travel industry is specialised tours, especially for those interested in honing new or existing life skills.  There are now opportunities to take language immersion trips to South America, photography workshops in India, cooking courses in Tuscany, baseball clinics in Florida, and painting classes in France.  If you have an interest, there’s a travel package for you.  For those who prefer to travel solo, this is also a wonderful way to meet like-minded people and maybe even make new life-long friends.

One of the biggest benefits of getting away from our familiar surroundings of home is the chance to gain a global perspective and conceivably even appreciate what we have here in the U.S.  According to researchers, traveling awards us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realise that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate.  In China, this is seen as a compliment, signaling that the host has provided enough to eat. Here in America on the other hand, this might be looked at as a subtle insult, that the food wasn’t good enough to finish.  When exposed to these cultural ambiguities, we naturally become more accepting of the fact that there are different (and equally legitimate) ways of interpreting the world.

So travel is perhaps simply a shortcut to keeping our minds awake and active.   To quote the famous travel writer Pico Iyer, “If travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed.  That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

Like me, you have probably never met, or before now ever heard of, Walter Bopp.  But I’d be surprised if his wanderlust isn’t something we all aspire to in some meaningful way.  After all, as his memorial service served to remind me, a life spent traveling, is a life well lived indeed.

All images by Rainer Jenss