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Winter Editorial: Why Travel?
By Hilary Williamson (Jan 2008)

Asia BookIt's January, it's snowing outside, and I'm leafing through Lonely Planet's latest temptation for travelers, The Asia Book, gazing at images of warmer climes, while my imagination sniffs the spicy air and revels in its hot humidity. Which leads me to wonder, why do we travel? Lonely Planet co-founder Maureen Wheeler says in One People: many journeys that 'We travel because we are curious about people', yet 'travel teaches us that we are all essentially the same'. Perhaps we seek that reassurance, as well as better weather.

Travelers used to head off from some elite Explorer's Club to map remote regions of the world. Theodore Roosevelt himself made a daunting excursion into the dense Amazonian jungles, described in Candice Millard's River of Doubt. Ian Baker, who tells us in The Heart of the World of his more recent exploration of the 'Bermuda triangle of Tibet', probably speaks for all his predecessors when he muses about being lured by 'the perennial call of unknown, secret places'. But such secret places are dwindling fast.

Places in BetweenCertainly many travel to understand other cultures better - Rory Stewart describes his 2002 walk across Afghanistan in Places in Between; Jeremy Seal traversed Turkey researching the country's traditional hat in Fez of the Heart, his search an elegant device to understand the intersection of modern and traditional culture; and in In A Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson gives his witty impressions of Australia, a place subtly different from other Western countries, where 'there is such a lot to find in it, but such a lot of it to find it in'.

Others combine that desire to understand with a passion to help - for example, as described in Sarah Erdman's Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, an absorbing account of two years spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny Muslim village in West Africa. If this kind of travel appeals to you, then Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World is a handy resource.

Year of AdventuresMany journey seeking challenges. In American Shaolin, Matthew Polly describes his intense kungfu training regime (eating bitter six days a week) at the Shaolin Temple in China. Marcello Di Cintio (himself a varsity wrestler) tells of exploring the historical Persian passion for wrestling in Iran in Poets & Pahlevans. If you enjoy adrenaline raising trips, A Year of Adventures: A Guide to What, Where and When to Do has it all from bungy jumping to space tourism.

Others roam looking for some holy grail of the natural world. Scott Weidensaul describes his investigation of lost species around the globe in A Ghost with Trembling Wings, while Lynn Schooler tells the story of a decade long search for the rare glacier bear in Alaska in The Blue Bear. At the other extreme are those who travel on a whim, as described by Tony Hawks who hitchhiked Round Ireland with a Fridge on a bet, to prove it could be done and have fun along the way.

Geography of BlissOthers yearn for a special place to live and be happy. Frances Mayes tells us all about her haven in Cortona, Italy in Under the Tuscan Sun, while David Monagan relocated his family to seek 'adventure and renewal' in Hibernia. He describes their experiences in a place where people 'laugh louder and longer ... than any other place on earth' in Jaywalking with the Irish. And Eric Weiner takes a systematic approach to his search for joy in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, a must read for happiness seekers and armchair travelers alike.

So why travel? We might as well ask why read? To experience new things, get to know people from other cultures, gain different perspectives, enjoy an adrenaline rush, broaden our mental horizons, find happiness - and escape the blizzard raging outside my window. Any excuse will do.
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