Travelers have long suffered a bad rap as bums, stoners, and drifters, lost in the vastness of mother earth's open arms. The hippie trails of the 1960's and 70's only served to further this unfair reputation. Those who left their desk jobs to dip their toes in foreign seas were seen as flighty, unstable, and generally aloof. By jumping off of their surefire career path, they supposedly set themselves up for years of waiting tables and flipping burgers. But those of us who have taken the leap, despite all of the obstacles, know that it just isn't true.
It's not easy to pack up your bags and buy a plane ticket to an unknown land - to leave on a jet plane not knowing when you'll be back again. Long-term travelers are risk-takers, unmoved by the voice of reason. They are rebels, but they are not rebellious. Long-term travel is not a protest against the homeland, but a longing for perspective.
Each country has its own names for it. In New Zealand and Australia they call it an OE (overseas experience). Younger generations in Europe and the Americas call it a gap year while older generations label it a mid-life crisis. Call it what you will, long-term travel is not about running away from home, it's about understanding a global world.
Long-term travel is a passion that is hard to defend. It is irrational by nature. While I have found no good words to support it over the years, what I can say is this:
There is the world that you live in and the world that you dream to live in. Often times, when you start to live the life of your wildest dreams, you find yourself longing for the familiarity and comprehensibility of the life you left behind. As a traveler and a constant dreamer, you find yourself living for the dream, running from the reality, and longing for a connection on either end. Complacency scares you and the end goal eludes you, so you keep on running towards an uncertain future in hopes that, in the process, you will find the answers to questions you never even thought to ask.
Some find contentment in short vacations, bookended by work. Great! I am not arguing that long-term travel is superior to the traditional holiday. On the contrary, I only argue that the act of traveling, however it is done, is an important part of understanding the human condition. To step outside of your comfort zone and look back on your life from an outsider's view offers you the chance to appreciate what you have. Even if the trip is to Disneyland, at least you can look back and say, I don't have a bunch of fuzzy, overstuffed critters marching around my hometown but, at the end of the day, I think I'm okay with that. The realizations need not be grand ideas.
Yet, the longer and farther you travel, the more your traditional values are questioned. I always thought that long-term travel was about absorbing other cultures and ideas, about meeting different people and trying new things. I thought it was about everybody else but me. But no matter how far from home you go, the one thing you're left with is yourself. I may learn heaps about foreign cultures, religions, and ideals, but more than anything else, I learn about myself.
And so, in defense of long-term travel, we are not all bums, stoners and drifters. We are not rebellious. We are not even as confused as we seem. Some of us know exactly what we're doing. Sure, we may be unconventional dreamers, but our dream is a collective one of global understanding. To use the famous J.R.R. Tolkien quote, Not all those who wander are lost.