The Tao of Travel

Against all odds, I became a world traveler in my 25th year.

It began, as all things inevitably do, with a girl. I thought it was ever-lasting love. She was setting out for a year abroad — a summer in Germany, then an academic year in England. I decided, halfway through our summer apart, that I’d join her in England.

Ah, youth.

The relationship didn’t even last until my departure date, but with tickets bought, baggage acquired, traveler’s cheques already paid for, I decided, “Why not?”

Best decision I ever made.

What I learned in my year abroad, besides the lessons of the healing of a broken heart and the awakening of a real relationship (for in London I met the woman I’d be with the next 7 years), besides the proper way to indicate the number “two” to a British person (hold your thumb and forefinger up; the typical US “V” with the index and middle finger means something rather else indeed in Britain, especially if your palm is facing you), besides the joys of hostel living and on-the-cheap backpacking (ah, Prague…) — what I learned was something simple and liberating, something I call “the Tao of Travel”.

The Tao of Travel is short — no epic poems here to pass down through the centuries, no book-length treatises explaining the finer points of language, no silky-voiced narrator reading the audiobook. It goes, simply, like this:

“What the [expletive] do I care?”

I take it you’ll work out which expletive easily enough — it’s hardly the most important part. Not worth offending anyone’s content filter over. You could, really, drop it, or replace it with “heck” or “doodlydoo”. In my life, though, it was definitely an expletive.

Now, that may seem simple, and it is — but not too simple. It was a kind of mantra I chanted to myself when I was about to excuse myself out of the very kinds of experiences I had decided to travel for in the first place.

Here’s an example: It’s 11:00 pm. Pubs in London close at 11:00 (or did when I was there, circa 1996), and I have to be at work at 7:00 am. But clubs are open several hours later, if you don’t mind the price of admission and the exorbitant cost of beer (served in bottles, not from draught). Inevitably, someone suggests we hit a club.

My inward response: “Well, I have to get home, I have to go to work tomorrow and if I stay out late I’ll be tired and cranky and… eh, what the [expletive] do I care?”

My outward response: “Sure, let’s do it!” Because, really, did I come to London to chop tomatoes for sandwiches (I worked in the cafe at the National Gallery), or did I come to hit late-night clubs in Camden Town?

The Tao of Travel is, I think, a fair sight more compelling than that old chestnut, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. First of all, the Romans drive really small cars like insane people, and I don’t even own a really small car. Second of all, I think traveling should be about something more than doing what the locals do.

I mean, don’t even think about doing what the tourists do. I’m not advocating that horror. But traveling is about experiencing things new and fresh — something the locals simply can’t do. After all, you are a local, when you’re at home. How exciting is that?

And really, going well beyond what the locals do is not only valuable for you, the traveler, it’s valuable for the locals themselves. Travelers — real travelers, travelers with a sense of derring-do and adventure, and a bit of the Tao of Travel about them — give people a chance to show off, to experience their everyday surroundings as if they were fresh and new. You can easily take that old ruin on the side of the hill for granted — it is, after all, just a place where teenagers go to drink and make out — until some traveler passing through asks you what it is. Ah, there’s a story to be told…

But that story only gets told to the traveler who asks himself (or herself), when faced with a hundred reasons why this side-trip or that diversion or those few more hours out in the face of a busy day are a bad idea, asks herself (or himself), “what the [expletive] do I care?”

And that’s the Tao of Travel.

Or at least my Tao of Travel. With summer — and that means vacations — fast approaching, we here at Lifehack decided to devote this month to the theme of travel. So for the next few weeks, look for tips, advice, and maybe, just maybe, a little Tao.

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