Travel, harmless fun or psychological disorder?

Doctors used to consider a desire for travel a medical illness called ‘dromomania’, or ‘pathological tourism’. I’d never heard this term until it came up in the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast. This poses questions. Is the ‘ceaseless desire to travel’ truly a medical condition and, apart from the social and environmental harm air travel and mass tourism is causing across the globe, is it dangerous? If a desire to travel is an illness, is travel itself a cure or a symptom?

This prompted me to wonder about my own wanderlust (a German word with a similar meaning). My first experience of ‘foreign’ travel came on camping trips to Scotland as a child – definitely a different country, even for the other natives of the British Isles. The horrors of Scottish camping weren’t enough to put me off, and since then I’ve lived in five countries on three continents and travelled to another fifty-nine.

Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
Roman Τheater of Bosra, Syria
Children in Eastern Syria
Beehive buildings in Eastern Syria
Sunset over Jaffa, Israel

The end of communism in Europe ensured that four of these have the distinction of no longer existing. Thanks for the memories (mainly of bad food) East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Some countries, like Syria, have become war zones that no sane person would visit. Others, like Sri Lanka, have emerged out of a period of war. I’ve travelled for work, as a tourist, and as part of longer travels, backpacking for months at a time in Europe, India, the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Since this blog was born in Bolivia, I’ve written about 41 countries. Twenty-three remain unrecorded, except in old diaries, browning photos and fading memories. One day, I might add these past travels so that the memory doesn’t fade entirely. Along the way, I’ve met many good people willing to share their advice, hospitality, food and even money. I’ve tried to reciprocate. What goes around, comes around, as an old friend says (mainly about the ordering of beer).

Viewed through the global news cycle, the world may seem like a terrifying place. That has not been my experience. There was the time when a pickup truck screeched to a halt next to me in the darkness of early morning in the streets of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. I was lost looking for the railway station, the driver told me this was no place for a “stupid f**king gringo” to be if he wanted to live. He gave me a lift to the station.

A car accident in the Tunisian desert showed me the warmth and generosity of this North African nation. Where else would the strangers who pulled you from a car wreck show up the next day to check on your health? Once, still a teenager, I was broke and unable to get money until the banks reopened two days later. A young French woman shared her food, wine and cigarettes with me on an overnight train to Marseille. When we parted, she gave me some francs so that I didn’t go hungry.

Equally, there have been times when I’ve questioned my sanity for leaving the comfort of my own home. Once, I woke to find a big cat, possibly a leopard, in my bedroom on a houseboat in Indian Kashmir. I felt lucky to survive but, when I mentioned it, the father of the family I was staying with shrugged and said, “Yes, they come to the boats looking for food.” At night I heard gunfire in the surrounding hills. I may have been the only tourist in Kashmir.

There was that time when we were trapped on top of a ten-story building in Mendoza, Argentina, because the security guard, who was with us, had left his keys on his desk on the ground floor. We were on that rooftop under a fierce Andean sun for hours. Not to mention the time in a Catholic area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, when a British military patrol in full camouflage gear emerged from behind a house and trained their weapons on us. That would have been an ironic way to die.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
United States Capitol, Washington DC, United States
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC, United States
South Beach, Miami, Florida, United States
Talalla Beach, Sri Lanka

I won’t go into the diabolical stomach problems suffered in Bolivia, Nepal, India and Mexico. Let’s just say, there’s a 14-hour journey on a Bolivian bus without a working toilet that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Well, Boris Johnson, perhaps. Or the shared bathroom in a Katmandu hotel that I didn’t leave for 48 hours. If you were one of my unlucky fellow guests, I apologise. I took a dozen Imodium to survive the 20-hour bus ride to a village in western Nepal that I’d call home for the next several months.

Perhaps travel is a psychological disorder after all. Or perhaps people should just avoid bus travel when suffering with a dodgy stomach.

47 thoughts on “Travel, harmless fun or psychological disorder?

  1. Wonderful pictures, and I like that you also captured pictures of the locals. Thanks so much for posting this.

  2. I was just thinking the same when Corona lock down started and I saw every traveler and their mother panicking. I realised that for some, travelling really is a disease (pleasant one, so it’s hard to see it as such) where you constantly keep running away. For some, it’s just a way to enjoy life, and if they can’t travel, they are able to enjoy life at home. And for many many today on social media, it’s just a trend and a competition with all those bucket lists and travel tags. So, I’d say even a disease is better than the last one 😀 I loved your picks for travelling and the article.

    1. Thank you. I always liked the saying about the journey being more important than the destination – and it definitely felt that way when I was backpacking around Asia and Europe. It’s a luxury of having time, and mostly these days it’s all about arrival and not the journey. It’ll be interesting to see the long-term effects of corona on tourism and travel.

  3. emailsincerelygabby April 29, 2020 — 7:05 pm

    Travel is definitely not a psychological disorder. Rather, it enhances your psychological wellbeing because you gain experience and knowledge from traveling the world. Also, you understand yourself better.
    Great post!

    1. Thank you, much appreciated. Travel definitely broadens the mind, maybe that’s the problem?

  4. Beautiful set of photos, and what an amazing collection of memories! I have hardly travelled at all by comparison, but I can certainly empathise. I think I take some nugget of wisdom or new way of looking at life from each of my adventures 🙂

    1. I count myself lucky (mostly) to have had the opportunity to travel. As we grind through yet another week of lockdown, like everyone else I’m adjusting my world view to include just the local park and the supermarket

      1. Gosh yes, I never thought I’d be so excited to go to the supermarket! Looking forward to being able to venture a little further once the world returns to something resembling ‘normal’!

  5. Seeing how I (and a lot of other people) us traveling as an escape, it does not surprise me that that urge would be considered a mental illness. These days, a lot of things can be labeled. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Pingback: Travel, harmless fun or psychological disorder? — Notes from Camelid Country – Truth Troubles
  7. I’m a homebody. I don’t like to leave my house, except to travel. I have always wanted to go to new places & experience new things. If it’s a disorder, I am afflicted.

  8. Interesting idea, I enjoyed reading about your adventures (and misadventures)!

    1. Behind every misadventure is an adventure waiting to happen! Hope you’re enjoying Tokyo?

      1. I’ll enjoy it more when I can move around freely, haha but thank you I do love it here

  9. Loved reading this. Never heard of the term either, we learn everyday

  10. Hi! I love the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast! Do you know what episode dromomania was discussed? I don’t think I heard that one but it sounds super interesting!

    1. Glad you like No Such Thing as a Fish, it’s very entertaining. I couldn’t tell you which episode it was in. It was probably from the start of the year, but I tend to mix up new episodes with ones I missed but downloaded. Sorry.

  11. Great post!

  12. I do think travel expands the mind, or rather opens it to other possibilities and lives. And that is the allure for me. For whilst it is always unique to see breathtaking scenery, it is the interactions with people that predominates in my memory.

    1. I always like the saying about the journey being more important than the arriving, it’s the people and experiences along the way that are memorable. Planes have made that more difficult.

      1. Indeed. The journey is more than half the fun! Even though it can be harrowing at times.

  13. Fantastic post. Wanderlust is definietly an incurable pathology. Though not lethal in most cases…
    You really put everything in a nutshell. Perfect. Maybe one of your best posts ever? (I can’t bear to imagine the woes of Scottish camping. Though if you survived that, you’re probably good anywhere else.
    I do second the motion on Boris (Judas) Johnson though. Give him my worst regards next you meet.
    Mes compliments cher ami.
    (59 countries? You probably beat me there…) 😉

    1. Thanks Brian, much appreciated. Scottish camping can be summed up thus, half the year rain and cold, half the year ferocious biting insects known as midges or gnats. From memory, there are about two days of the year when these conditions don’t apply.
      I’m afraid the news from the UK just gets worse and worse … and this is just the beginning.
      Hope all’s well?

      1. Your summary of Scottish camping sounds accurate. I promise I won’t camp whenever I go. 🙂
        All well in a country sinking into surrealism and violence every day more.
        News? I’d managed to cut off all news since july. recently “fell off the wagon” as our American friends say. The first declarations of the new UK Brexit “negotiator” are not heart warming. I understand there will an immigration permit with points? Like a driver’s licence? (Politico creativity at its best) So if jaywalk in the street you will lose N points?) LOL.
        If you’re a Frog, you start with minus ten points? “My grandmother was English.”
        “Then you get 3 points to your credit, Sir.”
        Re-LOL.

        1. It’s appallingly xenophobic, appealing to the lowest common denominator-style politics. I can’t imagine what it must be like being an EU citizen in the UK right now, I’m just glad the German authorities have not taken such a cruel and unnecessary approach to the many thousands of Brits living here. It’s shaming to be British right now.

        2. Well, don’t take it personally. You are not responsible of the actions taken by a government you did not vote for. And I’m sure your german acquaintances know you…
          Chin up.

        3. True, Brian, I shouldn’t take it personally, but it’s pretty hard to let it go!

        4. I understand. To be honest, I can’t read news about the deteriorating state of France without getting pissed. (American meaning not the English one…)

  14. I had to travel a lot going on lecture tours worldwide and as I was active in Arctic exploration. But nowadays I have the feeling that travelling is wrong. My ecological consciousness stopped me travelling. Travelling is polluting and not at all sustainable, but not only this wherever I go nowadays it’s touristy. And then the way of travelling is mostly horrible. When travelling lost its exclusivity it became not worth it anymore. It destroyed places and societies. I started to travel to other continents with my grandparents when I was a little child. Then travelling was exciting. I loved it. As a student a travelled to some places I visited then 15 years later and was shocked. They had changed for the worse especially in Africa and Asia. Today I am happy to stay at home or do little trips in my car.
    Is travelling really worth it today? I don’t think so.
    All the best
    Klausbernd 🙂

    1. It’s true, the joy of travel is much reduced these days. The old adage that it’s the journey that’s important not arrival, is totally lost in an era of mass tourism and cheap airlines. Travel is definitely more egalitarian, but the consequence is environmental harm and communities damaged to the point where cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona are deploying tourism reduction strategies. We really have messed things up.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this although you have raised some questions in my mind as well… why do I want to travel? Because I’m endlessly curious about what life is like elsewhere. I blame my parents; they sent me to Germany on my own when I was 7.

    1. That seems as good a reason as any. It’s funny, but I can’t imagine life lived only in one place, but maybe that’s a generational thing as well. We have endless opportunities for travel, I think the navy was just about the only way to see the world for my grandparents generation.

  16. Great post, It’s nice to read the thoughts of a like-minded person. I don’t question my need to travel, but my family does. Maggie

    1. There’s a Philip Larkin poem with the line, “And saying so to some means nothing; others it leaves nothing to be said.” Maybe that sums up the desire to travel?

  17. I regard you as a travel you as a traveller, not a tourist, for a start.
    No, I don’t agree with constant plane travel, nor with massive tour ships, due to the environmental impact, but it’s about moderation.
    Naturally I’m biased, as I’ve lived the past three years nomadically and have no plans to stop any day soon.
    Going walkabout is the term used by Aboriginals, and I reckon they had plenty of wisdom till they got invaded. It’s still there, just more hidden.
    Love your writing😀👍

    1. Thank you. I was reading about travelling on commercial ships, you can book a cabin and sail most anywhere. Slower, more environmentally friendly and not having to set foot in an airport really has an appeal. If I ever have time again, that’s the option for me.
      I admire your nomadic life, I imagine it’s not always easy, and it’s certainly not something most people could (or would) do.
      All the best, Paul

      1. No problem 🙂 check out my blog when you get the chance 😁

  18. Great read. I too have questioned my need to travel. My theory is it is some ancient Internal migratory instinct. No different than that of whales, birds, and wildebeests. Who n knows, but it is a craving hard to get a hold of.

    1. Thanks. I agree, humans would have migrated along with their food supply for hundreds of generations. I guess it’s in our DNA as much as it is for other species – just that we do it in planes these days!

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