After spending several weeks visiting family and friends in the U.S., England, and Norway, I’ve once again left the people whom I love most in the world to hang out with strangers in strange places. Well, not exactly, but I have left, and I have to wonder: am I just being selfish?
It’s something I’ve talked to a lot of other backpackers about, and it seems that many of us wonder if spending so much time on the road is a bit of a selfish choice. We miss important milestones in the lives of our family and friends (I’m really sorry I missed your wedding, Ann) and leave them to worry about us while we casually tell them we won’t be able to keep in touch during our three-week trek through the jungle. And in the places we visit, it often feels as though we take much more than we give.
When we were backpacking through Central Asia last fall, Danielle often voiced her guilt at leaving her aging grandparents, who kept begging her to just come home. Now, I don’t really have to worry about that, as my only living grandparent travels more than I do, as do my parents, but it’s still maybe not the nicest thing for them. Especially since now when I am home, I’m so unused to it that I spend most of the time sulking in my room browsing Wikitravel for my next escape.
I guess a lot of people grow detached from their childhood homes as they grow older, though. Especially when those homes are in America. Wait, sorry America, that was mean.
But, while I was a little apprehensive about visiting loved ones back in the U.S., I didn’t hesitate to book a return ticket to Chiang Mai to hang out with my friends there for a month or so before getting back on the road. Except oh wait, I just decided to ditch them for a couple of weeks to go to Laos with a boy. We leave on Thursday.
Yes, a lot of travel-addicts are impulsive and a little flakey, and you probably won’t see them all too often. But that’s part of who they are, right? I think so, and in fact that’s not the part of traveling that really feels selfish to me.
It’s not as much leaving loved ones, but the way that I travel when I’m gone that rings selfish. First off, I’m clearly not contributing anything to my economy back home, and have actually been living the past couple of years off of money I saved while working in Japan. And while backpacking, I live so simply that I can’t take much credit for stimulating any economies abroad. Like, Tajikistan maybe made $200 from me during my two weeks there.
Keeping a small budget has allowed me to travel for this long, but it also has made for some pretty selfish moves on my part. Like that time Danielle, Sasha and I were by the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and our driver had parked his van outside of a small guesthouse. We had spent far too much money on the ride over (confirmed by some Russian tourists who paid a quarter of what we had) and decided to make up for it by sleeping in the van that night.
But when the guesthouse manager heard our plan she was so concerned we would be cold outside that she called the owner to see if he could give us a special student price. She kept asking how much we were able to pay and we kept hesitating and looking at the van, so finally she said we could stay for free. She even had her nieces bring us dinner that night. The next morning we left them a thank you note, but… we definitely could have left them some money as well. I mean, $5? I spend that on
hot chocolate coffee all the time.
Or that time, and this makes me physically ill just to think about, we were in a market in Khorog trying to bargain for Pamiri socks and the two Tajik guys we were with slipped the vendors some money to cover the difference in price we were asking. They claimed they were just annoyed the vendors were trying to rip of tourists and they wanted us to pay the fair price, but I don’t quite believe them. They could just have easily been trying to cover our shameful stinginess by giving the vendors the rest of the money they deserved. And I am a horrible, horrible person.
It’s tough to find a good balance between avoiding getting ripped off and just being an obnoxiously stingy tourist. I certainly haven’t come close to mastering that balance, as usually I’ll find myself paying too much one moment, and then trying to make up for it by denying the next person the money they deserve.
But what makes that even worse is that they are often the same people giving me such a rich travel experience.
While traveling I am constantly relying on the hospitality and knowledge of locals, who usually welcome me as a guest and do everything to make my time in their country amazing. They’re like the best teachers ever, except they aren’t getting paid for it.
And what do they get from me in return? Some nice comments about their homes? A photo with a blonde girl? It’s definitely not a fair exchange.
I can hope that, while I don’t feel like I’m contributing much to anyone right now while on the road, maybe the things I learn traveling will help me to do Awesome Things in the future. But who knows if that will work out, right?
Until then, I guess the best I can do is try to have the best interactions I can with people while traveling, and show them the appreciation they deserve for everything they do for me.
It sounds like a weak plan.
Woooo shout out!
I don’t have all that much to add… but I really liked this post. I think most people live selfishly (that I know, anyway), so its important to be aware of that in yourself. I don’t know if its bad necessarily… especially if you balance it out with doing good for others. We do only get one life, so I think part of our life should be doing what we truly want.
No I think you’re right, and I know I wouldn’t magically be less selfish if I weren’t traveling. In fact I’d probably be so cranky and unhappy I’d be horrible to everyone, ha. But I think it’s the balance that sometimes feels off, because the things I’ve learned and received from locals can seem so overwhelmingly huge and impossible to begin to return. Then again those are the sorts of things that can’t be measured anyway, so maybe I’m also affecting them more than I think? Impossible to really know.
You did also do refugee work sooooooooo…. but yeah, I think being a good person can go along way. The money thing was interesting too, because we all want the lowest price–Like, I usually buy from chain stores because, while I really appreciate local business, sometimes its too expensive (or seems too expensive comparatively), even though I definitely in theory support local over chain. But then I draw my line at Wal-mart, so I give myself credit for that lol. That may seem incredibly unrelated lol, but basically, you can only do so much before you are sacrificing yourself and your own happiness. Which really isn’t worth it in most cases.
What an interesting blog! I like this new style…
Tante Hege says
OOOH… that Catholic education is coming through nice and strong! Thank you for that reflective piece, Silvia. They were all questions we should ask ourselves once in a while. Now, QUIT IT! You are a Tourist Ambassador, very important work, if you are respectful, and trust me, you are! My advice is: Don’t assume to know what people are thinking. Good visits are like good books. They can stay with you for weeks/months, can inspire and lift your spirits, and educate and change the way you look at things. So keep smiling in those pictures, blonde girl; you may inspire someone today!
Love, your OK aunt Hege (fine, your aunt who lives in Oklahoma)
Hahaha oh dear, it’s a little disconcerting to think I still have a bunch of Catholic buried in me. And you’re right – I really don’t know what sort of impact I have on others while traveling, and maybe it’s not aaall negative. Smiling at least is a plan I can follow through with!
Kusine Susanna says
That was deep. But I think that people will enjoy the experience of having a strange foreigner with them just as much as you enjoy staying with the friendly locals. Half our family(on our moms’ side) is basically ascetic. So your not being selfish. You’re living up to the family name. If you’re selfish that means that you’re obviously living your life the way you want it and that’s good right? Although in truth I’m an inexperienced teenager so I don’t know how much my advice is worth…but hey! Don’t knock it till ya try it!
Your cousin whose also from Oklahoma(boys dig the Old West(at least the ones I babysit do))
Yeah I think it probably actually is good to live at least somewhat selfishly. I mean, I’ll definitely never good be selfless, even (or actually especially) if I weren’t traveling. Judging from how sulky and awful not-traveling Silvia is, it’s probably better for everyone if I keep being ‘selfish,’ haha. As far as locals enjoying spending time with me as much as I do with them goes, they are usually so awesome that seems utterly impossible, but maybe that’s all in my head.
Now stop being so wise, little Susanna! (Except don’t, because I will clearly always need someone to go to for advice).
Your wonderful reflection made me think of Rilke’s “The Eighth Elegy”. Perhaps you’re just becoming an animal moving into eternity “the way brooks and running springs move”.
If I could see the world with such purity I think many of my problems would disappear, ha.
NZ Muse says
Love this post – so thoughtful. I definitely felt my privilege while traveling through Asia, and it’s a big reason I never got too stressed about haggling really, because the amounts we’re talking about are so small it really didn’t make a difference to me but it might have made a difference to the seller.
Yeah sometimes I catch myself haggling over fifty cents and have to take a step back for some perspective. Doesn’t much matter to me, clearly matters to them. Good on you for not getting caught up in it!
Hey Silvia! Just discovered your blog. Great post!!!! Often times I questions myself about this as well. But I think if I don’t travel and don’t do what I want to do in my life, I might be just unsatisfied, unmotivated, even more selfish person because I would be unhappy. Still, sometimes when I think of my parents back home, I feel guilty. Maybe going home once a year is what I need to put on my target list!!!
P.S. I’m going to read thru your Caucasus travels, planning a trip there later this year!
Oh I’ll be excited to read about your trip too! And yeah, I probabaly would also be miserable not traveling so I guess I have no choice? Haha
Katie Featherstone says
Thanks for this. Sometimes I think travel bloggers glorify a lifestyle of travel to a point where we believe that it’s for the common good or something. It’s not really true is it?! I basically just try and travel using as much public transport as possible (to minimise carbon emissions and that sort of thing) and be as culturally aware as I can whereever I go. As for people back home, I send them postcards and try to see everyone when I can- it’s not really enough though is it? I’ve missed weddings too. :/ I’m not sure what the answer is! Thankyou for trying to address the problem though!
Nice to see that someone is on the same page as me with this! I think everything you’re doing sounds perfect – I really should learn to send postcards every once in a while!
Ashleigh Arthur says
A very insightful post m’dear…and one I can truly relate to. Perhaps the Catholic education, but I think you’ve definitely hit something on the head with this. I would love to travel, but the idea that I’d be viewed at being extremely selfish is something that has always held me back. It’s difficult to overcome and I admire you greatly for not only travelling, but also providing us with this raw honesty about your emotions regarding your travelling.
Ah well, I’m just glad to have found your website and look forward to reading many more posts. 🙂
That’s really great to hear, Ashleigh! Though it seems like a huge shame if those feelings stop you from traveling. I’m really trying to find a positive balance in it – surely we all can, right?
I definitely share many of your feelings. Travel does feel selfish sometimes.
One of the things that I sometimes tell myself to make me feel better is that I’m making use of the opportunities my family has created for me. My parents have never been able to travel but they have always been extremely hard workers in order to provide me and my brother with everything they could, even if it wasn’t much. If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be able to travel. So, I feel that if I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing (travel), I would almost be wasting the hard work they have put in over the years.
Hmm yeah, I guess I don’t often think about it from my parents’ perspective. They both love to travel, so I think they fully expected me to grow up with the same love – though maybe I’ve become more extreme about it than they would like, ha. I’m sure your parents must be incredibly proud of all the crazy adventures you seem to find yourself on, Matt!
Sure, traveling long term is selfish, but I think that it is positive selfish choice in that we were able to move forward with doing something we want in life, instead of living a lie or not pursuing ours dreams. I think of friends back home who are just going through the motions, marrying, kids, mortgages, who may not actually be living the life they want. So while we are selfishly doing this travel thing, we’re making the most out of the one life we have! (Or at least that’s my thoughts on it!)
I so agree with that attitude, Emily! Sometimes I feel a little bad about it, like I’m judging my friends back home for what seems to me like a boring life, but I guess traveling is also definitely not for everyone. I love that you call it a ‘positive selfish choice’ – I think that sums up what a lot of people have said in response to this post!
That’s a good question. I was travelling for the past 3 years and I don’t think it’s selfish. I have experienced the same things you are at the moment and I feel like sharing it with others! I became more humble and open-minded and I love how travelling has changed me from a girl into a woman.
Yeah, it’s crazy to think about what sort of person I would be if I didn’t ever travel. Great to hear that it’s had such a positive impact on your life!
Si @ Man vs World says
Never! Haha, great idea for a blog post. Honestly though, while I can see a solid argument that long-term travel is selfish – you can’t let thoughts like that rule your life. I think you’ve got to do what’s best for you. How selfish am I sounding just now?
I know what you mean about finding a good balance between avoiding getting ripped off and being stingy. I grapple with that problem every time I travel – and even sometimes when I get home and have plenty of money again!
Thanks, Si! I think that balance is going to plague me forever – though in a way maybe that’s a good thing too. It keeps us from getting complacent. And you’re absolutely right; while I think it’s good to think about these things sometimes, these thoughts shouldn’t rule our lives.
Syd @ Nomadically Inclined says
Wow, this hit home just now. I’m in New Zealand, living out of a car, bumming free camping, spending 10 dollars a day on food. Recently a local said “oh you’re just having a one night stand with my country.” It was a joke and he thought it was hilarious, but it kind of stung. I don’t want to travel that way. Such a difficult balance. Excellent post, thank you.
Those feelings can be really hard! I think what a lot of people have said in response to the post makes sense though – ultimately following our travel dreams will make us more content, happy, and generous people. At least I hope so! Keep enjoying your time in New Zealand (super, super jealous by the way!).
Where in the World is Nina? says
I feel the same way! Sometimes I bargain for what’s maybe between $.40-$1.00 difference. It seems so silly. On that same note, I just want the right price. What do the locals pay? That’s what I want to pay. Whatever it is. It’s annoying and pretty much borderline racists to jack the price up just because you’re a foreigner.
I so agree, Nina! It’s tough though, because it can get really frustrating always being overcharged, but then in a way I also can’t blame some locals for jacking up the prices, as I am coming as a tourist from a wealthier country. In Central Asia I would always get into big arguments with taxi drivers, and usually they would just say “You’re traveling, so of course you have money! If I had money I would travel, but I don’t so I have to work.” We would try to explain that we were spending all our savings on travels, but to them travel was such a luxury.
Kyle (GratefulWanderer.net) says
As far as family and friends go, you have your life and they have theirs. It is important to be there when they truly need it, but otherwise it could actually be more selfish on their part for expecting you to give up what you want to do so that they can be satisfied.
For everything else you mentioned, the most important thing is to be culturally aware and remember that you are a guest in their country. This does not give them the right to treat you adversely because you are a foreigner, but it does mean that you should not expect any privilege just because you are a guest. It is also important that you do not abuse their hospitality; and you have to consider it in terms of their culture, not yours.
That is my opinion of course. Do what you think is right and remember that everything you do is building either good or bad Karma.
Nice post, I like the words you wrapped the issue in.
I know that, in these years, I am also probably taking more than I give. But I hope to make up for it at some point, when I am in a different life situation. This divergence always appears to me quite clearly when checking my couchsurfing stats: I have surfed much more than I hosted. I would like to host more, but at the moment I am living in a dormitory and thus can’t. But I plan on hosting as much as possible once I have a place where its possible.
I think we should thus always remember what we have gotten so far and try to pass it once when we have a life allowing us to.
Yeah, I think that’s a really way to look at things – I mean, we can’t do everything at once, so it’s okay if we take a little more now, and give later. I’ve been in the same boat with Couchsurfing, and I think it really goes in waves. During my two years in Japan I almost only hosted, and now I only surf. It just depends on where we are in our lives!
Adrian of Adrian's Travel Tales says
This is a problem I struggle with every day, since I first booked my one way ticket to Asia over a year and a half ago. I worry about my family, my aging grandparents, my multitude of siblings and their spouses and their children, my amazing friends and even my dog (who sadly just passed away a few weeks ago). Its hard to miss the major milestones like my old roommates wedding last Friday (sorry Jen). But I have been told by them to remember that they love me just as much as I love them and they want me to be happy. They know traveling makes me the happiest and as long as I’m being safe, they want me to continue. As for being a traveler, good luck on finding the balance between getting ripped off and being stingy. I haven’t found that balance yet either!
I’m so sorry about your dog! Mine passed away while I was studying abroad in Nepal 🙁 It’s so hard to get over that guilt, but you’re absolutely right that they want us to do what makes us happy. Though sometimes I think they wish staying at home would make me happier!
You are not selfish! You are your own person and you should do whatever you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone. People are selfish to tell you that you should “come home”. They want you around for what? For themselves. That’s selfish. Live your life. You come home and visit every now and then. I know people who live probably two hours from their relatives and maybe see them once a year. Live your own life.
Also, maybe you feel bad about enjoying the hospitality of others when you travel. I assume they want to do it. I love having people visit. And if you still feel, later on, that you owe a debt, then open your future permanent home to visitors and pay it forward.
Thanks, Nicole! I hadn’t really thought about the fact that some people live really close to their families and never see them, but it’s true! I can at least try my best to see my family often on Skype. And yeah, I always try to tell myself that I’ll be similarly welcoming to visitors when I have a home as locals have been to me. Gotta keep the hospitality going!
Have you ever seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service”? It’s cute, you should! Anyways, you could always do what she does when she feels she gets paid to much…manual labor! Haha it won’t cost you anything but you could help out around their house or whereever you’re renting a room or their business. A little of your time could mean a lot and still save you money!
I love that movie! And you’re so right. I do usually try to help out when staying with people, but I guess some cultures just don’t like to have guests doing anything!
Tom Hickey says
I agree that long term travelling is totally selfish. We hardly contribute to the local economy and we leave our family and friends to worry what stupid mistake we might make when we are gone. I too have done some shameful bargaining in markets and not left tips when I think I should have, literally makes my stomach turn when I think about it. Although I always give back change when they give me too much, they will always know the deal that has been made.
On a slightly different point, I don’t usually feel like I travel for pleasure (unless I go somewhere to party) but I tend to think of it as some kind of mission that needs to be accomplished, whether I like it or not, the enjoyment that I feel then feels more just coincidental than a goal in itself. Do you ever feel like this?
That’s so interesting, and I can definitely relate! I often feel like I’m traveling for pleasure, but there are some destinations that I feel like I simply have to visit, usually because they have a bad reputation in the West and I want to challenge that. Keep doing what you’re doing!
“usually I’ll find myself paying too much one moment, and then trying to make up for it by denying the next person the money they deserve.” That happens with me all the time.
Right? Ahhh I wish I could avoid that!
Caroline Bogush says
Hi! Just found this article on Pintrest! I really related with what you wrote and your theory. I am very thankful that my parents have funded two of my trips (one to the Dominican Republic and another to Italy) and I self funded my second trip to Italy. Recently, I have been having the urge to go somewhere new and my parents imply that I am being selfish and I should stay home and work (like all American parents). I usually get annoyed because they are not funding my adventures; but, sometimes I agree with them because they never had the opportunities I had. Not that I have to ask my parents permission; but, I am wondering what type of advice would you give to young adults ( I am 21) who have stubborn (and probably jealous) parents.
I am offended for your parents by the comment that you are upset that they are not funding your adventures. Hell, no they should not be ( and I am do not cuss often!). Thankfulness goes a long way, and not for the ones who you are thanking, but for yourself and just being happy.
If you are expecting your parents to take care of you when you have the capability of doing so for yourself, then you are being selfish. Parents often may not have the opportunity to pursue their own passions while raising a child, but there is still a lot of life to be lived when our children become adults. If you expect them to work so you don’t have to, then not only are you asking them to give their time to you but to forsake their own dreams and passions for you.
If you pay your own bills and are in “adult” in this area, then you should not feel guilty for living your life doing what you are passionate about and what fulfills you. As a parent to younger children, I do not like the idea that would be so far away from me as I want to know that they are safe, happy, and healthy, but I absolutely hope that my children have the strength and character needed to fulfill the purpose God created them for and that I have the strength to let them be who they are.
I’ve always been incredibly independent and self-funded everything, which then gives me the freedom to, well, do what I want. I think it’s totally fair of your parents to want you to get a job, but what that job looks like and what you do with the money will ultimately be up to you. I’m a big fan of working hard and saving as much money as possible to live the sort of life I want – which includes a lot of travel.
This is a really interesting piece — definitely something that’s crossed the mind of everyone who travels, and an increasing concern among backpackers! Thanks for sharing!