I Haven’t Traveled the World


Last night Collin and I went to a dinner for expats living in Cape Town. This was the first specifically-for-expats event I’ve attended, but it’s far from the first time that I’ve been surrounded by other expats at a social event. I think expats have a tendency to glom together anywhere, grasping at the fake commonality of their otherness. And Cape Town is not a city wanting for transplants.

Last night something struck me that really emphasizes how atypical Collin and I are as Cape Town expats: all of these people have done this before. Conversations kept turning to “well when I was living in Turkey…” or “my semester in Sydney” or “my tour of southeast Asia.” These are all people who LIKE and LIVE world travel instead of suddenly living in Africa for two years when they never thought they’d leave their home country for more than a couple of weeks.

Part of that is because of intercontinental differences. First, Europeans seem to have a far lower threshold for how bougie one needs to be to start feeling compelled to be “well-traveled.” I grew up privileged and we went to the same damn (AWESOME AND PERFECT) lake in Vermont every summer. I always thought of international travel as something for “the rich.” Not so in Europe, especially not in those pesky semi-socialist countries where people have mad vacation days.

It also helps that in Europe, there’s like fifteen countries within spitting distance of any given point (SHUT UP UKRAINE, I’M BEING HYPERBOLIC FOR COMEDIC EFFECT). I’ve been to 36 of the United States! I’ve covered over 5,000 unique miles of American road!


But my affinity for domestic travel is not just because of America’s gigantosity or my personal life goal to visit all 50 states. It’s because America is easy. America stays pretty much the same. The worst thing you have to deal with is navigating the boundaries of the McDonald’s mustard zone. (Craters of the Moon National Monument, SEE ABOVE MESSAGE TO UKRAINE).

I just don’t have the travel bug. I enjoy traveling when I do it, but I have to be pushed to do it. I have to make life goals that encourage me to explore the world. I had to force myself out of the Amsterdam airport when I had a ten-hour layover there. It seems like your average expat purposefully plans their trip to have a ten-hour layover so they can put another pushpin in their world map (Although let’s be honest: if I had one of those on the reals, I would travel more, just for the satisfaction of PUSHING PINS).

My lack of natural interest in traveling is a problem not only because it gives me less to talk about with other expats trading backpacking anecdotes, but because I think it underlies a lot of the emotional problems I’ve been having since we arrived in Cape Town. (Heck, since we decided to move to Cape Town). Everyone says, “Oh it’s such an adventure” and of course there are times when it feels that way. When we climbed Devil’s Peak, I stopped and looked around at the vegetation along the trail and said, “I never thought I would be anywhere like this” and had a genuine moment of pure “well isn’t life a wonderful adventure of mystery?”1 satisfaction.

But most of the time it doesn’t feel like an adventure, it just feels like life, life minus all the comforts of home. And that makes me feel like I have the worst attitude in the world, and I start feeling guilty, and I start thinking about all the South Africans whose home is here and short on “comfort” because it is made out of scrap wood and metal, and I feel even more guilty, and how did I get into this particular pit of despair and shame from my original point of feeling INADEQUATELY BOUGIE?

Maybe because if I were a proper globe-trotter like all my fellow expats I would have engaged in enough poverty tourism at this point to be desensitized. Ugh, the world sucks. So why travel it?

Do you have the travel bug? Do you have a way to fake it? Or perhaps a map to get me out of my poor little rich girl shame spiral?

1Can’t take credit for that phrase, it’s my brother-in-law Matt’s probably facetious quotation of some Christian skater punks he saw on TV that we agreed perfectly summed up our mother-in-law Viki’s basic worldview.


  1. I say I have the travel bug. However, I’ve only been to Europe once. And Canada a couple of times. Like you I adore traveling around the US but I want so badly to go see more than just what is here. Really high on my list of places I want to go is India. And South America. And New Zealand. And.. And…

    Yeah. Travel bug.

    That being said, if you don’t have it, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Don’t turn down opportunities that come your way (like that 10 hour layover in Amsterdam) but you don’t always have to go seek out travel either. Travel is wonderful and I think EVERYONE should do some (I know people who haven’t ever been further than a 100 miles in either direction on I-90…I find that really odd); but no reason to become a globe trotter if you don’t want to!

    • I do have a bizarre impulse to be a travel completist. Like, the 50 states thing (I was literally in Nebraska only for the time it took to drive to a gas station on the proper side of the state line, fill my tank, and head back into Iowa, but IT COUNTS DAMNIT) and once we decided to live in Africa I now would like to visit all six inhabited continents, even though FUCK IF I KNOW what I’m going to do in South America.

      • And I’m all purist about whether I can really claim to have “been” to New Jersey despite driving it’s length on I-95. My rule is: if you don’t leave an airport it doesn’t count. If you’re not there long enough to eat a meal, it doesn’t count (and if you only eat McDonalds I’m going to frown.)

        I’m right at 39 states I think with plans to get Hawaii in November and Alaska in July…I fully expect by the time 2013 is out to be DAMN CLOSE to finishing. All 50 states by 30. (My first “before 30 goal…” look at that!)

        Come meet me in South America (when I get there. Someday!)!!! We’ll drink Argentinean wine!

        • Not leaving the airport CANNOT count. As Jesse Pinkman might say, THAT’S FEDERAL LAND, YO.

          [Speaking of New Mexico, I've only been in the Navajo Nation part of it, and I don't know if that should count! Also only been in the Four Corners bit of Colorado, same problem. I will almost definitely be back in Colorado for a proper visit, but New Mexico, I don't know! INTERNAL CONFLICT.]

          • visiting the Navajo Nation part counts way more than just any part of the state, I think. probably way more interesting too

  2. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. It’s okay to be at peace with that. However, if opportunities open up, it might be good to lean into them. I seek out travel constantly though I got to go to New Orleans cause we were invited to a wedding there, an opportunity to travel that fell in our laps.

    There is a lot of exploitative tourism out there (and a lot of sanctimonious globetrekking d-bags) but there is also a lot of responsible tourism. I’m not sure it’s fair to call visiting a poor country ‘poverty tourism’. I like this site for a gut-check when planning my escapes: http://www.responsibletravel.com/.


    • That’s a fantastic resource! I didn’t mean to indicate that all traveling in poor countries is “poverty tourism.” I have also made it a personal goal to visit a township in South Africa (super impoverished, mostly shanty towns) while we are here, so I am a hypocrite (although I hope to do it in some semi-positive fashion like with a charity group or on a candy race and not just show up and gawk).

      • I did some dubiously worthwhile volunteer work in the Dominican Republic when I was in college, and these girls I went there with…..would just walk up to people’s shacks and start snapping photos of their “authentic” shitty life or whatever and I just wanted to evaporate out of my skin and exist forever as part of the water cycle and never have to think thoughts again. Ha. I think I just wanted to share that story, not super relevant.

        I really hope it’s possible to not be a shitty tourist, Nick and I end up in some sort of disagreement about levels of gawkery every time we travel I feel like. I really liked this post about respectful photography: http://capitulatenow.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/kao-tai-hoop-day/

        Good stuff. Ugh, Robin, I wanna Range Rover around ZA with you so bad!

  3. My general opinion is that it’s not worth competing for the “most travelled” prize because there’s always going to be some dual-citizenship kid with travel agent parents who were toting them all over the globe before they could even walk. That being said, I’m completely in love with travel. And, I don’t think it matters if you’re homesick the whole time you’re there as long as you don’t let that stop you from getting out and absorbing the culture. As a teenager I was an exchange student in Greece, and I LOVED every day of it, but every day I missed taking actual showers (instead of using a hose), eating food I was familiar with (the three kinds of cheese there were yellow, white, and feta), and understanding the language. You just have to buck up for a while and promise yourself that when you get back to the US you’ll enjoy those things more.

    One of my favorite quotations is from George Bernard Shaw and I think it applies perfectly to the living-in-another-country situation: “You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.”

    • Fantastic thought. I know a lot of people who have had hard moves/trips and even though at the time they were miserable they’re still glad to have that experience.

      Cordelia Chase put it best: “I think that that kind of adversity builds character. Well, then I thought, I already have a lot of character. Is it possible to have too much character?”

  4. I definitely love traveling, but not living places. The two are really different, I think. Also, I tend to go places for the food, plants, and animals. I’m not so big on people, largely because of the whole guilt thing. When I was in Namibia we had to visit the shantytown and ask these people with no electricity or running water if they’d vaccinated their dogs. Super awkward. They were mostly very nice, but there was one woman who was very persistent in asking what I was going to do for her daughter, who needed to go to school, and I had to try to explain that while I seem rich in Africa, I’m on the poor side in the US, and it had taken more than my available money to go there. I told her I’d tell other people what I’d seen and try to get them to help.
    POINT BEING- I totally get what you mean about it being life, minus home. I’m not sure what to do about that except maybe try to seek out adventures a bit? Find little bits like that hike maybe? I have no idea if that’s useful or practical advice.

    • I COMPLETELY agree that traveling abroad vs living abroad are different beasts, but I think I’d have more success with the latter if I were more into the former. Also, I feel you on the “I know I seem like a brazillionaire to you but I assure you I am NOT” thing. There’s no good and fair way to say it.

  5. I love traveling … to a point. my anxiety often gets the best of me, especially if traveling alone. since I work in international education, though, I really feel like my passport is vastly underused in comparison with some of my coworkers. but, I figure don’t force it if not necessary … but also don’t avoid opportunities when they come up!

    • I have REALLY bad anxiety when it comes to traveling places where there isn’t an overwhelming majority of people comfortable speaking English. I hate having the power of words taken away from me!

      The obvious real solution to that is to go all Sydney Bristow on their butts and learn every language there is, but sadly, I find language learning extremely difficult (I took Spanish for 7 years and have Mexican in-laws on both sides and I still know… maybe two dozen words? It’s embarrassing. )

  6. First of all: how is it that you’ve never been to Kentucky? Can we remedy this?

    Secondly — and I’m trying to think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound at all cliche — re: your second-to-last paragraph, I just think that’s a realistic, unromantic way of thinking of things, not indicative of a lack of adventure or anything that should cause you guilt. But! One thing I will say is that you’ll never be able to put everything in full proper context until you leave. Perhaps LONG AFTER you leave. It’s the weirdness of living abroad.

    • I have never been to Kentucky because I passed the bar exam. Seriously… the day before results came out, I was like, “The only way I will be able to deal with not passing is if I immediately get in my car and drive to the nearest new-to-me state.” But I passed so I just went to Hemingway’s.

      And I think you are right that I won’t really process this whole thing until it is well and truly over. All my attempts to write about it for a larger audience have been stalled by that. I can’t say how I feel about this decision until I’ve lived with it a bit longer.

      • In terms of stalled out writing, it can be good to just try and write what is happening and how you feel in the immediacy of living there because when you live, although you will definitely have a better perspective on things that changed for you without you noticing at the time, having a record of what you did notice might help keep it in perspective too. Am I making sense in this run on? Sometimes after a thing, you can only remember the positive experiences or the overall arch of experience, but a record of minutia helps keep that post-experience perspective grounded and gives you more to reflect on. Basically – keep writing ’cause I WANT TO READ IT.

  7. I definitely have the travel bug… have had it since I was 13 or something (or even before) and was begging to be sent to camp (even if at the beginning that was in another STATE of Mexico).
    I just love to be on the run, see new places, the way people live everyday life, realize we have much more in common than not, and just see everyhting there is, nature, monuments, cities…. (Actually now I am in Istanbul :) , finally summer break).
    But, I totally get you, when I lived in Mexico it was a lot more difficult to move so much (I think it is the same for the whole American continent)… the distances are huuuge, the places are very different , also culturally even while staying in the same country and it is just more expensive to move around and travel.
    And you are right… in Europe the distances are short, you can drive through 3 countries in 2 hr, and it is a lot cheaper, for 50 dl you can fly around quite far if you plan in advance… and there are youth hostels. But even if you do not want to have the hostel experience, you can find cheap/ish hotels that are still clean. And also, it is a lot easier to just ,say ,work through the summer and save enough for a ticket to Bangkok and from there travel all over Southeast Asia (not that I have done it, but I had friends who’ve done it and it was just an eye opener, the World just seemed smaller… I dont think by working a summer in Mexico you can do that).
    So yes… I definitely encourage you to see as much of the world as you can it is totally worth it… and yup we have a huge map on our living room and we want to travel as much as we can…

    • I wish travel from Cape Town were easier and more affordable so I could do that continent-hopping thing you’re talking about. Africa is just SO BIG and spread out and it feels like going ANYWHERE OUTSIDE THE CONTINENT takes two days on airplanes and a month’s rent.

  8. I came over here from APW after I saw your comment. I moved from Detroit to CT just over a week ago. I also had a bit of a complex over following a man, and I’m in a limbo zone waiting for work authorization/job searching/etc so it’s all yoga pants all the time right now.

    (I met my South African boyfriend a few years ago while spending a summer abroad and we did the long distance thing until someone could relocate.)

    I am also a first-time expat and not a particularly experienced world traveler, so I particularly enjoyed this post. :) I thought I would reach out and let you know that I am open to talking cultural differences and inadequate bouginess anytime.

  9. left a message on a prior post but thought this one was even more relevant . . . another american expat (with a complex about following a man) in South(e r n) Africa here. We are in Namibia though and I envy you guys in CT. But would still love to network and talk about the difficulties of relocation and identity crises!

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