In the iconic movie Eat, Pray Love Elizabeth Gilbert packs up her life in New York and sets out on a journey of self-discovery. Her mission to find her appetite for life did not lead her to the Great Plains of Montana or Texas. It led her to the winding romantic streets of Italy, the colourful buzz of India and the lush green countryside of Bali. Her journey concluded when after months of overeating and meditation she touched an elephant, found her answers, fell in love, wrote a bestselling book and became a millionaire.
That's the dream isn't it? Leave the job you dislike, the city you have outgrown and venture into the unknown equipped only with a backpack and an open mind. It's a philosophy that is continually encouraged in western society from yoga classes to the 11am coffee break. However, what is rarely discussed is the truth behind making this momentous decision.
I recently returned from a solo trip around Thailand where I began to see the realities of this growing trend. In Bangkok, monks offered meditation classes to soul searchers and bar owners offered cheap alcohol to escapists. It was clear from the moment I arrived in the city that everyone was willing to capitalise on our thirst for an 'enlightening' Asian experience. Westerners didn't want to see the real Thailand; a country run by the military, struggling to cope with poverty. They only wanted praying monks, white beaches, Buddha statues and friendly locals who could tell them the meaning of life.
The hostel common room was an interesting place to examine the clash between peoples' expectations and their realities. Backpackers didn't want to talk about their careers or ambitions, they only wanted to discuss past travelling experiences. In truth, most seemed utterly lost, confident of the direction they were going in geographically but had no idea of the direction they were going in in life.
Travel is undoubtedly important but buying into the marketing and believing that it holds all the answers has its consequences. I would put forward the argument that real self-discovery happens at home. What is so often ignored by Eat, Pray, Lovers, is that everything normalises. Stay on a beach long enough and the novelty wears off, the same for cities, retreats and even people. Therefore, if we cannot learn decision-making skills at home, how long will it be before we lose our appetite for life again and need another big adventure?
A common argument is: It's not where you go it's the people you meet. It's true, on my travels I met some wonderful people. However, I didn't have to try hard to meet them. Everyone bands together when they leave their individual comfort zones. At home, I think it's braver to decide to join a club on your own in the hope of widening your horizons. The same for making career decisions. In reality if you are unsure of what path to take the only way to make that decision is to experience the work, chatting to someone while climbing a mountain isn't going to give you the same feel for it.
Not all who wander are lost, but they are certainly not finding the answers that they think they will. Travel should be a privilege to be enjoyed and not a means to an end. Perhaps we should stop eating, praying and loving and simply go, there and back again.