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Things You Only Know If You’ve Never Been Travelling

Photographed by Rory DCS
“See the world!” instructed the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore last week in a list of Twenty Things To Do In Your 20s. We should spread our wings, take ourselves off to faraway places and do “hard and lonely and dangerous” jobs to pay for it.

Those words still came like a hard prod in the gut. They always do. It’s a harder gut-prod every year, as my 30th creeps closer and the to-do lists get longer, loftier and less helpful, but continue telling me to see the world.

Because I have failed on that point. I have never been travelling.

Actually, I’ve never been on holiday for longer than a week and a half in my life. It’s a fact I never thought was all that remarkable, except that often when I tell people they gasp in horror like I’ve just said I’ve never had a birthday present.

“But HOW?” they ask, their eyes filling with tears. “I don’t know,” I shrug. “Money, I suppose? Two week holidays are expensive. Also, two weeks is a long time to take off work. It’s a long time to squeeze in between other stuff, like the million weddings I must attend every summer. And let’s be honest, it’s a long time to spend with a very small group of other people in a place that may or may not have functioning wi-fi. Truth be told I worry I’d get bored. I’m used to the kind of holidays where it’s all anticipation, planning, settling in, working out how to use the shower controls, then suddenly ‘one last swim’, using up your Euros and coming home again with maybe two days in the middle of actually being on holiday. You really appreciate those two days, though! Boy, those two days are bliss!”

Then they nod and smile, nervously, and you can feel them making mental notes to send me for a fortnight in the Seychelles if they ever win the Euromillions.

But while long holidays are one thing, ‘travelling’ is a whole other kettle of fish. Travelling is the real badge of honour; the rite of passage that shapes you, breaks you and rebuilds you as someone wiser, better, with a stronger sense of self, a crochet bag full of memories and a fairly shit ankle tattoo. Everyone knows this. And nobody knows it more than us, the ones who never went.

When you’ve never been travelling, you find yourself turning mute in a lot of conversations. It’s worse at uni, of course, when all roomfuls of people can generally be divided into those who want to sit on their Thai triangle floor pillows and tell you all about their life-changing experience on the Inca Trail, and those who consider being out of their parents’ loft conversion with a caseful of weak lager and a Durex variety pack enough of a life-changing experience for now, ta, but even at the ripe age of 28 I can still be marked out quickly as One Who Has Not Travelled. A sheltered tourist. It’s like walking around with a tell-tale hotel pillow mint stuck to your forehead.

When you’ve never been travelling, you have no good anecdotes about near-death on a fishing boat or sex in the back of a tuc-tuc. You didn’t learn to play guitar round a campfire with a man named Dr Jesús. You don't have any photos of yourself silhouetted in a bikini on top of a mountain, and you worry it might be holding you back on Tinder.
Photographed by Rory DCS
You might still have been to amazing places, but you did them with a breakfast buffet. You might engage thoroughly with global current affairs, but it isn’t the same if you can’t start sentences with “well when I was hitchhiking in Kashmir...” You might have had reckless flings with unsuitable people, but they won’t have been nearly so formative if you had them while working at a tea room in Harrogate rather than a roadside bar in Caracas. You say things like that, laughing, and then panic because you don’t actually know if Caracas has bars.

And even if you're totally confident in your life choices, 90% sure you would have hated it all and probably fallen into a crevasse on day three, there will always be a small voice in the back of your head that wonders if six months schlepping around Vietnam wouldn't have made you a slightly more interesting, more attractive and more worthwhile person. Would you have more ambition, thighs of iron and a colon of steel? Would you be braver now, if you’d been? Better at pub quizzes and less scared of tube mice?

My boyfriend has been travelling. He spent eight months journeying round southern and eastern Africa, teaching, volunteering and having adventures that if his photos are anything to go by largely seem to have involved sitting around talking about the Manic Street Preachers under trees with a lot of white girls in vest tops – but anyway. He had a blast, it shaped him as a person, etc, etc. “The main reason I wanted to go away was to experience places that were just really different to what I was used to,” he muses, a slight mist descending. “In terms of culture, politics, economically, socially… you can read about these things, but before you see it and experience it for yourself, you don’t really get it.”

“But also, the big thing for me about having gone travelling is that I don’t feel the need to go travelling ever again. I can just have nice holidays.” Box: ticked.

Does he love me any less for not having done it, though? Has he been privately cringing at my lack of worldliness and general stench of western privilege for the past six years? There was a moment before our first holiday together (Andalucia, nine days) when I freaked out that our rental apartment didn’t have a TV or wi-fi. “But what will we DO? How will we watch hilarious Euro game shows when we get bored?!” I demanded. “We won’t get bored,” he said, with all the patient stoicism of one who has spent 36 hours on a bus between Malawi and Tanzania with a dozen chickens for company. “We will read books and talk to each other.”

In the end it was fine, of course (I paid extra for data roaming), but even half a decade on with plenty more lovely holidays under my belt, it’s hard to be sure I’m not a traitor to my generation. And the collective wanderlust is only growing – Millennials are travelling more than ever, with the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation predicting a 47% increase in international trips for young people between 2013 and 2020. That’s 320 million adventures, or a hella lot of hammock selfies.
My friend Sarah, who memorably returned from four months in southeast Asia and Australia to announce “some of it was great! Some of it was shit” is a reassuring breath of fresh air on the topic. “I did the typical route, aged 22, and it’s so well-trodden it’s basically like going to uni,” she says. “You just go out and get pissed. And there are a lot of days when you’re just sitting around hostels, hungover, trying not to spend money. Sometimes it rains. Nobody talks about that stuff.”

So is it possible that travelling, like university education, resilient livers, glowing skin and so much else, is wasted on the under-25s? All those bunked lectures and slept-through seminars that I wish I could go back and appreciate now – would I feel the same about half a year spent pissing about the most beautiful corners of the globe? It’s comforting to think I could still do it all in the future. Maybe with wisdom under my belt and money in my bumbag, I’d do the whole thing with more sensitivity and less sunstroke than my 18-year-old self would have managed.

But on the other hand, the older we get and the more firmly entrenched in our lives we become, the harder it would be to run off to do an Eat, Pray, Love. There’s the career upheaval, the money that you could be spending on something concrete, the fear that you’ll come back to find all your friends have got married and moved to Herefordshire. Besides, if Instagram is anything to go by then a few extra years and some fledgling crow’s feet are no guaranteed protection against turning into A Traveller.

(Likewise, not having been travelling is no guarantee you won’t still be self-indulgent enough to write whole articles about whether or not you should have gone travelling. Nothing is certain in this life.)

Maybe the question isn’t whether travelling is a crucial box-tick, but whether the tick-boxes are really helping anyone at all. At this rate I won’t have found myself up a mountain by the time I’m 30, but I’ll have clocked up a solid decade of supporting myself in London... which, one could argue (I won’t), is just another kind of jungle. And anyway, who decided that the world is best devoured in big chunks rather than dainty bites? Us holidayers might have prioritised laying down roots over sowing our wild oats, but we’re still seeing the world, slowly, savouring it from a series of AirBnB windows.

Plus, we’ve sat through a LOT of other people’s travelling stories. And as feats of noble endurance go, that has to count for something.