ELISE HU, HOST:
You’re listening to IT’S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I’m Elise Hu. Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend already, the unofficial kickoff to summer, and I don’t know about y’all, but I have vacation on my mind. Whether you’re planning your first trip since the pandemic, or you’ve already been on planes and trains and automobiles for a while now, the packed airports, high gas prices and the hassle of travel also bring up bigger questions, like what is it about getting away and leaving home that’s so compelling? What is travel really for? So I wanted to share an episode I reported for NPR’s Life Kit. It’s about the art of travel, why we leave home and how we can make travel more meaningful. Here’s my conversation from 2019 with travel writer Torre DeRoche and artist Jenny Odell.
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HU: You can find so much on the internet about traveling better. Whether it’s trying to get more upgrades on your flights or minimizing your wait time for trains or packing hacks – guilty – travel guides often focus on the practical stuff. But traveling well isn’t just about getting from point A to point B. So this episode is about the art of travel, why we do it and how we can make it most meaningful.
TORRE DEROCHE: Meaningful experiences aren’t a good time or a bad time. You can go away and spend 30 days crying, and that can be meaningful to you. It can be meaningful to your life.
HU: Torre DeRoche is an Australian travel writer who began her life as an adventurer when she left her job as a graphic designer and set sail on a rinky-dink boat for more than two years with the man she was dating.
DEROCHE: It was a 1979 sailboat that was covered in these blisters ’cause it wasn’t – it was – it had an aesthetic problem that made it half price (laughter). My ex, he had been saving for years and years to do this dream of his. And it’s not terribly costly. And it leaked, and it had all kinds of issues. So it was anything but luxury.
HU: Before this point, DeRoche never went on vacations longer than a few weeks, and she was terrified of deep water. But she faced her fears.
DEROCHE: We spent two years, and we sailed from Los Angeles down to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. And that was hell (laughter). It was a hellish journey.
HU: Our high hopes for a great time can easily be dashed by the hassles or hellish experiences. But DeRoche says even those can be transformative because they force you to stretch yourself, as she did.
DEROCHE: So since then, I’ve kind of almost sought out adventures that seem challenging and beyond my reach to some degree. And I’ve done walking pilgrimages through Italy and through India, and I’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu in Borneo and yeah, done all – I’ve been all over the world doing all kinds of strange things since then.
HU: Her takeaway on meaningful travel is our first tip for you. Meaning is what you make it. A meaningful time isn’t necessarily a good time or a bad time. You bring the context and meaning to your experiences, even if it’s not the postcard version of a place.
DEROCHE: Don’t fight it. There’s – it’s a perfectly valid experience to cry in Italy (laughter) while eating gelato. So yeah, giving up this idea that travel has to look like something that – you know, that maybe you’re seeing on Instagram, that it has to be beautiful, that it has to be joyful, that it has to be social. It doesn’t have to be anything apart from what you make it.
HU: Go ahead, cry in Italy. You don’t have to perform your trip for anyone else. Tip No. 2 to find fulfilment and adventure – make yourself uncomfortable. Confront what scares you.
DEROCHE: For starters, because as every new country you go in, every new culture presents its own challenges. So I’m always kind of loosening up my fears every time I go somewhere.
HU: Torre did it by setting sail for years, something she never thought she would do. Traveling to new places is a way for us to stretch beyond our comfort zones. So engineer your travel so you’re doing things that scare you a little bit.
DEROCHE: It brings me closer to other cultures. It brings me closer to other countries and to the planet itself. Every time I go away, I feel strongly connected to the world and to other people in the world. And that in itself is empowering. When we live in a city, I think it – you can easily slip into this feeling of individualism where it’s us and them. We get surrounded by terrible media telling us to be afraid of other people. And when you travel, it breaks all of that down. You realize the world isn’t as scary as maybe you come to believe. And that just enriches my life and my experience of life.
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HU: A note here – while all this enrichment is uplifting, we have to remember that getting to travel at all is a pretty privileged situation. A lot of us can’t afford to get away.
DEROCHE: Marcel Proust has a really great quote, which is, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. So even if you’re in a state of grief and you’re struggling with your life, go somewhere new and try to see it with new eyes. Try to be there in that moment with that experience right there, and see what you find.
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HU: Coming up, artist Jenny Odell on balancing structure and spontaneity in travel. Stick with us.
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HU: This whole idea of going away without going very far at all is why I called up Jenny Odell. Odell is an artist and author. She lives in Oakland and loves nature. She wrote a book called “How To Do Nothing.” And we caught her in her favorite rose garden.
JENNY ODELL: I’m usually here at least a couple of times a week. I live in an apartment building, so I don’t have a yard. So I kind of consider this my backyard.
HU: She’s going to help us dig into the why of travel because understanding the purpose and being true to that can bring us more satisfaction. That’s takeaway number three – remember the why.
Why? Why should we go? Why should we get away?
ODELL: Yeah. Oh, are you asking me that?
HU: Yeah. Yeah. It might be different for you, but try on this framing. We travel for perspective and surprise.
ODELL: You know, if you live with a pretty solid schedule or routine, there’s certain things that you can start to take for granted. And just simply removing yourself from those circumstances, wherever you might end up removing yourself to is really helpful for getting some kind of new perspective on yourself and your life.
HU: You said perspective but also surprise.
ODELL: Yeah. I mean, I think the other thing that comes with routine is that you kind of expect things or you kind of maybe don’t perceive things outside of what you’re expecting. And I think, you know, the experience of traveling is, for a lot of people, opening yourself up to being surprised. Like, you’re willing to be surprised. You’re expecting to be surprised. I think that’s a very different mentality than you have in your everyday life.
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HU: For Odell, her approach is to strike a balance between a little structure and a lot of room for surprises.
ODELL: Like, I’m sitting in the middle of a garden right now. It’s a perfect example also of, like, there’s a lot of work that goes into this garden. It’s designed in a way to let you spend time here, and that’s not arbitrary. Like, if this were just a random field, you know, there wouldn’t be all these places to sit. You have to strike this balance between sort of designing something and researching something but also just understanding that the actual life of it is going to come from the place, not from the design. The design is just there to make that accessible to you.
HU: So strike a balance between structure and nature.
ODELL: Yeah. And by nature, I just mean like kind of what is already there, like preexisting processes and things and beings.
HU: For example, you can see the volcano at sunrise but spend another few hours exploring the natural world of the national park. Be open to a sign that could take you down a new path. Remember that why. Travel is meaningful if it helps us expand our perspective and if we can be surprised.
And why do you think these two values or objectives are important?
ODELL: I equate them with feeling alive. If you take routine to its logical extreme, you’re just sort of an automaton, right? Like, you’re going through the motions. Like, you’re doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing for the reasons you’re supposed to be doing them, maybe without a lot of room for questioning or thinking about something else you might rather be doing. And so being surprised and getting a perspective, I think, are two different ways of kind of, like, shaking free of that framework and continuing to change as a person.
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HU: Takeaway number four is about really going somewhere when you leave home. Is your travel about exploring a place, or is it about checking off a box? To get somewhere and be open, treat travel as an experience and not as a product.
ODELL: It’s almost like people go to the Grand Canyon expecting to, like, consume a postcard or something, that it’s not an actual physical space with physical characteristics. There was one Tripadvisor review of the Grand Canyon where he said – it was, like, a three-star review. And he said, once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, which is just, like, a really interesting description of the Grand Canyon, which was, like, formed over so long. And it’s such an amazing – I mean, like, it just goes to show – right? – this kind of image-based idea of travel where it’s like, I saw a photo. I want to go possibly take that photo myself or be in it, and then I will leave.
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HU: You can do more than just see it. To go somewhere, really go somewhere, treat yourself to travel that is an experience, not a product to be consumed.
ODELL: Even in those kind of, you know, difficult or, like, logistically annoying moments, just recognizing that you’re somewhere new, and it’s something you haven’t experienced before.
HU: Which gets us to the next tip – takeaway five, for finding fulfillment and getting away – seek out what makes the place you’re in truly different from the last place you were in. Focus on what makes the place unique.
ODELL: Just kind of doing enough research ahead of time to find things that are specific to a place that you can’t just experience somewhere else.
HU: Volunteer while on a trip, so you’re not spending time in tourist traps. Give back to the local communities while learning about them at the same time. Forge friendships in a foreign place. Odell grounds herself in a sense of place by seeking out nature.
ODELL: I think you have a vague sense – right? – like, if you go somewhere new. Oh, like, these are new trees. Or I don’t know what kind of bird that is that I’m hearing or something like that.
HU: She keeps an app called iNaturalist on her phone. It helps identify the creatures and plants wherever she goes. Each place you travel has its own unique ecology, so you can take it in.
ODELL: This kind of gives me, like, some traction. Like, I can start to, like, learn, you know, the names of things or just get, like, a little more detail about the ecological communities that live somewhere, that are native to a place. And personally, I’ve started to feel like if – before I’ve done that, I haven’t truly arrived in a place. Especially if you’re, you know, spending a lot of time in kind of sterilized, commercial spaces that look the same as everywhere else. Like, I like to kind of try to find things to latch on to that are truly different about a place.
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HU: Part of the reason I went to the artist who wrote “How To Do Nothing” about finding meaning in travel is because she went on a year-and-a-half-long road trip across America without even leaving her home.
ODELL: I did this project that honestly started out as kind of a gimmick.
HU: She called it Travel by Approximation.
ODELL: It was a virtual road trip across the U.S. via Google Street View that I took. And it basically – the fictional travel narrative is two months, but it took me a year and a half to do because I used Street View to navigate and find stuff. And then once I found things that way, I would look them up on Tripadvisor, Yelp, YouTube. I’d just kind of try to get the overall picture of, you know, how this thing shows up online and all the experiences people had had of it. It’s called Travel by Approximation because I tried to really approximate real travel.
HU: She would pick actual restaurants where she would eat if she went and calculate the drive time to them and how much gas it would take.
ODELL: I would order off the menu if possible. I was really trying to ask this question of, when do you actually know a place? Or like, when – how – like, what does it mean to actually have been to a place and to know it?
HU: In doing the project, she was also making a statement – overplanning your vacations means, in some ways, you’ve already gone on them in your head. The trip itself then becomes just executing it and not being transformed by new surroundings.
How do you do more than just see a place? Like, how do you go somewhere and actually go there and be there?
ODELL: I think that it – you know, it has to do – some of it has to do with just observation.
HU: Don’t just snap a photo. Observe. Take in the space and your surroundings. You can do that by talking to locals, the people who live there.
ODELL: It takes humility. And also, if you’re a person who loves to plan everything in advance, it probably sounds a little bit scary.
HU: The locals can guide you to good places that you didn’t plan for.
ODELL: For me, like, talking to strangers is a really big part of it. Asking people – you know, asking strangers for recommendations is so different than having things recommended to you algorithmically because people have personal reasons for enjoying things. They have context around that. Leaving enough unplanned space to acknowledge that the meaning is going to come from the place, not from you ahead of time planning your trip. Like, that’s impossible.
HU: Coming up – travel writer Torre DeRoche on going away without going too far. Stick around.
Both our experts, Torre DeRoche and Jenny Odell emphasize shifting our mindset to experience the newness and surprise you can get from travel.
ODELL: We are sort of, like, culturally used to applying one type of mindset in one situation, and then we kind of have a different mindset that we apply at home. And I think, like, very quickly, you will be humbled by the things that you don’t know about that are sort of right in your backyard.
HU: What is it about our mindset that changes when we go very, very far away? And how would you recommend we take that mindset from far away and apply it in our own rose gardens or in our own backyards?
ODELL: I think it has just a lot to do with what you’re looking for. And what you’re looking for has to do with what you think you’re doing.
HU: Jenny reminds us that you don’t have to pack a bag at all to see a place with new eyes. And that’s our last tip – take that fresh-eyes mindset home. You can take a different way to work. Find a new jogging route. Or just take a moment to appreciate the view from your own porch a little longer.
ODELL: If you think you’re on vacation, then you are basically setting out to experience leisure time, right? Like that’s your goal. I mean, people travel in different ways. It depends on your job. But you’re probably working. Like, you have a routine where you get up at a certain time, and you maybe take the same train, and you go to the same place.
It’s like, you know, maybe you haven’t had a day in a long time where you were in your own neighborhood, but you weren’t trying to work, and so you didn’t have that kind of framework. So I just think I – I mean, I’ve just been surprised in my own experience where if you take what you you’re trying to do on vacation, which is to not work and experience new things, and you just do that at home, it will completely change the things that you notice and that you perceive.
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HU: Just go outside and walk around. Walk aimlessly, like Jenny Odell does.
ODELL: You go outside, and you’re like, I don’t even know what I’m looking for. I’m looking for anything. Then you will see anything. Like, you’ll see all of these things outside of the categories of what you’re usually looking for.
HU: What kind of value have you derived from just observing your surroundings, whether you’re far away or close to home?
ODELL: I think that it’s just enlarged my capacity to be surprised. I think that’s almost like a faculty that you exercise. And it can be narrow, or it can be wide, and I think you can widen it on purpose.
HU: Curiosity can open up new worlds to us.
ODELL: It just becomes very quickly evident that I will never really get to the bottom of things that I’m observing. And that is such a delightful feeling, and it’s so different from consuming a product. It’s also different from looking things up online where the answer is yes or no. It’s kind of the opposite of that. It’s like a seemingly simple point that opens onto a kind of infinity as long as you’re willing to go down that path. I’m sort of addicted to the feeling of curiosity, and so it’s been really wonderful for me to find out that I can have that anywhere.
HU: This was a heady episode packed with meaning. So let’s review the takeaways from Torre, who sailed around the world for a few years, and Jenny, who gets the soul-boosting benefits of travel without leaving home. Takeaway one – meaning is what you make it. A meaningful time isn’t necessarily a good time or a bad time. You bring the context to your experiences, and that might not be the postcard version of a place.
DEROCHE: It doesn’t have to be anything apart from what you make it.
HU: Tip number two to finding fulfillment – never stop being slightly afraid.
DEROCHE: You realize the world isn’t as scary as maybe you come to believe. And that just enriches my life and my experience of life.
HU: So engineer your travel so that you’re doing things that scare you a little. Three, remember the why. Being open to perspective and surprise is a good frame. Takeaway four is treat your travel as an experience, not as a product to simply snap some pictures of.
ODELL: Leaving enough unplanned space to acknowledge that the meaning is going to come from the place, not from you ahead of time planning your trip.
HU: Takeaway five – seek out what makes the place you’re in truly different from the last place you were in.
ODELL: Some of it has to do with just observation.
HU: Do more than just see a place. Be there. And finally, you don’t have to leave home to be transformed. Bring the open perspective you have on a trip to your daily experiences.
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HU: Thanks so much to travel writer Torre DeRoche and artist Jenny Odell for speaking with me. And that was back in 2019.
Before I go, we have to say goodbye to our beloved news assistant, Aja Drain. Aja is a ray of sunshine. She’s been such a ray of sunshine consistently on this team since she started as an intern in January. She is persistent. She is kind. Her enthusiasm is infectious. I love her ideas. We share an appreciation for all things fast food – like the return of the Mexican pizza that we were able to celebrate together recently. The good news about Aja is she’s staying in the public radio family, so we’re not really losing her completely. She’s just going to become a cousin over at member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. But we are going to miss her so much on this team. Good luck, Aja.
This episode was produced by Janet Woojeong Lee and edited by Tamar Charney. Our director of programming is Yolanda Sangweni. And our big boss is NPR’s senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann. So until next time, take care, y’all. I’m Elise Hu. We’ll talk soon.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.