Generation X: The Quiet Traveller
Generation X perfected the art of travel.
It’s true (you just read it on the internet, so…).
Sure, a handful of tie-dyed Boomers lemming’d to India when John Lennon gave the all clear, but most Boomers hippied out at home – too stoned to find their way out of the lounge room.
Millennials probably do more air miles in a year than Boomers did in entire generation. But Millennials’ idea of travel is a prosecco tasting tour of airport lounges.
Travel for Self Improvement?
Generation X was wide awake to the explosion of affordable air travel in the late 80s and 90s. We travelled in huge numbers.
For many us it was part of our personal growth, through our late teens and into our 20s.
Gen Xers continued their life-long love of travel when we had kids. In fact, this Christmas our family joined another (five kids in total!) to travel to Africa for our trip of a lifetime.
As I watched the kids meet the local folks (kids are magnets for meeting people), gape and gasp at the wildlife and landscapes, and experience the sights and sounds and smells of Africa, I remembered my early years of travel. I wondered, is travel a form of self help?
Gen X’s Golden Age of Travel
Generation X stepped into the world without really knowing it, having grown up in the pre-internet age. What we knew of ‘the world’ came from the news and the classroom and TV ads for carefully manicured ‘overseas holidays’.
We were naive, for sure, and we were driven by the same sense of adventure and self exploration that our Boomer parents were. We donned our backpacks and headed off.
As we did, we breathed new life into travel haunts like Thailand, Turkey, Bolivia and Nepal. Places where the 60s and 70s resonated and you could still see Hunter S Thompson’s high-water mark.
Travel for Self Exploration
Bangkok’s Khao San Rd in the early 90s still sold pirated hard-copies of books by Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac and the entire works of Carlos Castaneda’s mind-bending journey. The Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers and Cat Stevens and Led Zeppelin still played in beach bars and flop houses.
An internet-free world compelled travellers to talk to each. Not just to learn how to get to the next town, but to understand ‘the world’ and its weird inhabitants.
Across the 80s and 90s in thatch-roofed bars along a well-worn travel trail, shabbily-dressed 20-somethings were throwing around ideas about religion and politics, morality and society, purpose and existence. Trying on new perspectives, discarding old views. Testing. Adapting, Reinventing.
Beating into shape the way they see the world and their life.
The Day the Music Died (Again)
Then the long years of affordable travel took its toll. The travel trail became a freeway, chicken buses were upgraded to tour buses, wifi eroded the need to connect to fellow travellers.
And the gentle art of travel was dead.
Or so I thought.
Surprising Self Help Benefits of Travel
The last few years, Maggie and I have taken our now teenage kids on trips abroad. We mostly holiday, but leave one part of the trip unplanned. No destination, no accommodation, no idea.
To give the kids a chance to experience travel. Real travel. To meet locals and to experience the way they live. And to figure out how to get from one place to the next.
These experiences have helped them grow.
They are more sympathetic to causes that don’t directly affect them; are more eager to learn about other cultures; have a better understanding of perennial global issues like poverty and extremism; and are more confident they can find their way around without a Contiki-Tour Fun Director spoon feeding them (T-shirt only $35 extra).
So perhaps travel’s not dead.
And maybe it still helps us grow.
How Travel Helps You Change
By ‘travel’ I don’t mean laying on a foreign beach having locals serve you drinks. That’s holidaying.
Don’t get me wrong, holidaying is great, but it’s too insular to challenge your perspectives or inspire you to grow.
By ‘travel’ I mean meeting the locals, eating diarrhea-inducing food and learning a little about life in that place.
Holidays are about pleasure, travel is about happiness.
Travel Challenges You
It must have been hilarious to watch us.
Two hick kids arriving in Bali in 1990.
We got lost in the airport, couldn’t work out how to change money, then spent the entire afternoon trying to procure a visa from the Department of Immigration.
After lining up for several hours, we were told by an eye-rolling immigration clerk, “You already have visas! That’s why they let you leave the airport.”
We looked dumbly at each other then asked the clerk “What should we do now?” Peering over her glasses, eyebrows raised, she said, “Go to the beach. You’re in Bali!”
After a few days at Kuta Beach, we adapted, gathered our summary courage and took our first tentative steps into the world of travel.
It’s only 50 kms from Kuta to Ubud, but in 1990 it was a world away. It was an idyllic village, nestled in contoured rice fields and monkey-filled forests. Life moved at walking pace.
In the evenings, locals gathered at the night market for a meal and socialising. Here, we met our first real travellers.
Most of them looked like they’d been dragged behind a bus.
They wore ratty, baggy cloths, had unkempt hair and were adorned with colourful trinkets.
But mostly, they stood out because they were so at home in this strange place. They knew the locals and spoke some of the language. Their travel stories slipped into conversations as if they were talking about the weather or football scores or the latest Depeche Mode album. We hung off every word.
Eventually, a Dutch couple took us under their wing and our travel apprenticeship began.
We took a local ferry from Bali to Lombok, where we learnt about Islam, then to Saba, where we learnt about poverty, then to Flores (and Komodo), where we learnt dragons still exist, then on to East Timor where we found ourselves with a decision to make: take the next boat back to Bali in time to make our return flight home. Or tear up the ticket, borrow some money and keep travelling.
We decided to have a few Bintang beers and think it over.
The next day, hungover and sweltering in a cheap hotel room, I swung my legs over the side of my bed and stepped onto a confetti of ripped up plane tickets.
Not for the last time in my life, would I find myself broke in Timor with no way home.
At last, we felt like travellers.
Travel pushes us into uncomfortable situations. It challenges our perceptions and biases, and it forces us to interact with people that come from a different world to one we live in.
Travel Broadens Your Perspective
Over the next three months, we travelled from East Timor to northern Thailand. By ferry, bus, train, even donkey cart at one stage, we travelled as cheaply as possible. We were rich in time, but poor in money. We rarely stayed anywhere costing more than $8 a night.
Eventually, having tapped every friend we had for cash, we returned home. Broke, but afire with the travel bug.
Within a year, we were cashed up again and set off on the ‘World Pub Crawl’ with three friends.
This trip was about travel, not destinations. Over the next 14 months, we became hardened travellers.
By the time I got to Bulgaria, I was mostly camping in forests and parks. I’d found some builders plastic, which I used for a ground sheet and had bought a second-hand hoochie (nylon sheet used by the army), which became a makeshift shelter.
When I eventually returned home, I was no longer a small-town tradesman. I knew things.
Why Travellers Seem Different
I’d seen 20-odd countries from the ground up, and had experiences you can only get when you sleep in the village elder’s hut or get off a chicken bus in the middle of nowhere or fight your way out of a mob or wake up among mountains so high they literally take your breath away.
And I met travellers that lived in faraway places and spoke languages and had been to university and had exciting careers. They’d read all manner of books and heard music other than AC-DC. They spoke precisely, using parts of the language I thought were reserved for news readers and rich people.
By the time I returned home, I was not just a traveller, I was a different person.
I had confidence. I understood people and the world better. And I understood how very much I didn’t know. My curiosity was on hyper-drive.
I knew exactly what to do next.
Travel is a Catalyst for Change
I went back to school, finished senior high and enrolled in university. The first in my family to go to university. The first to understand we could. Travel gave me that.
Over the five years I went to university, I spent a quarter of each year travelling. I chicken-bused my way through Southern Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Each trip complemented by studies, and became a catalyst for further change.
These trips provided time and distance to reflect.
I could see my life in Australia from afar and gain an objective view that allowed me to be critical. To see where I needed to grow.
And travel gave me the opportunity to change. Every time I left home, I could reinvent myself. I could be The Kind Guy or The Stoic Guy or The Left-Wing Guy. A fresh start every time.
Travel for Self Help
The first step in change is awareness. Travel gives us the distance to see our lives as others might see us.
And it gives us a blank sheet for reinvention. When that plane lands and it’s time to step off into a new place, we can step off a different person.
Then see how the next few steps go.
One foot in front of the other. Into a new place.
After all, isn’t that how travel works.
More on travel? Check out our Best 3 Travel Tips for Generation X.
Or for something different, we answer the ever-present question: Is Generation X Happy?
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