How I learned about the true value of travel: We got to the field late, an hour or so before the sun was to go down, and the expanse filled with golden-hour light. I could see the tomb in the distance, its jagged rocks slanting toward the earth, a Pi-like edifice of ancient rock. We walked a bit closer, cautious, quiet.
There were only two other people nearby when I visited the historic Poulnabrone Dolmen tomb in the Burren in western Ireland, in County Clare. Thousands of years ago, this farmland had in fact been a seabed, and remnants of this history lay under each step: Limestone slabs jutted up from the ground in a pell-mell grid, small flowers peeking up from the grass shoots between the gaps in stone. The tomb itself dates back to 3800 B.C. My husband and I stepped gingerly across the stones as we approached it.
Years ago, my ancestors had left from this very same county to make their way to America and a new, unknown adventure. I gazed around the field, wondering if they had also been here. It seemed almost certain that they, too, would have been drawn to this sacred, awe-inspiring place.
I stood before the monolith, feeling at once incredibly small in the world, and simultaneously deeply connected to my forebears, the land, and our shared history. I pictured a great-great-great aunt or uncle stepping across the field to take in Poulnabrone from the same vantage point from where I now stood. I gazed all around me, tried to imagine their lives. If I turned away from the parking lot, away from the paved yet winding road, I could imagine myself at any point in time, really. A gentle breeze rustled the grasses, lifting the hair off my brow. It was intensely still, cows lowing in the field the only sound.
A few days earlier, I had a similar experience in Cobh, a port town in County Cork from where more than a million people had emigrated in the 1800s, during the potato famine and times of economic hardship. Most likely, this town had been the final glimpse of the homeland my ancestors had seen as they departed for New York. I pictured them entering the cathedral at the top of the hill, as I did, taking in the gorgeous vistas overlooking the town and sea. I wondered if the church had been their final stopping place before boarding the boat, the last stop to say a few prayers for a safe journey. Being in that place, walking its streets and taking in its vistas, offered an unparalleled connection with those who came before me.
In America is No Vacation Nation, Alternet reporter Jodie Gummow notes that “the majority of Americans hold the view that taking a vacation is just not practical, affordable, or realistic … Work culture prevents us from taking long vacations abroad and instills within us a sense of guilt for seeking the simple pleasure of time away from the office.”
It’s true that travel isn’t exactly practical. It can be pricey and disruptive. I’m reminded of the old adage of travel being expensive, but that it is also not a frivolous expenditure. And as for a disruption – for me, at least, that’s part of the appeal: The thrill of travel is precisely the shaking up of the routine, the ability to see things anew, and to escape (albeit temporarily) the confines of a cubicle. It is the joy of discovery, especially in the connections made among the unfamiliar.
We have the bulk of our lives to work, but our leisure time, and our time to explore – regardless of where we visit – is precious. Whether we use our travel dollars to reconnect with old friends, visit with long-unseen relatives, return to our ancestral lands, or strike out for someplace entirely new, the potential for knowledge—both self- and globally oriented—is immense.
On our last night in Ireland, we chatted with several friendly locals over pints of Guinness at a small pub in northern Dublin. They wanted to know about our trip, what we had seen, what we enjoyed, and we swapped stories about our favorite experiences, both home and abroad. Our new Irish friends then expressed dismay that we had to leave the next day, after only a week in country.
“Yes, we would have loved to have stayed longer,” I explained. “But unfortunately we can’t take a lot of time off—extended time off, especially—in America.”
Our new friend clucked his tongue. “Tis a shame,” he said, downing his pint and signaling to the bartender for another. He leaned over on his elbows, as if to share a secret. “You know, if you really want to see Ireland properly, you need eight to 10 weeks.”
We started to laugh at first—long-term travel seemed like such an impossibility, unfathomable to my American husband and me—but quickly stopped when we saw our new friend was absolutely serious. I thought of how I had felt in the Burren and in Cobh, how I usually feel on any new trip, for that matter–how travel was like nothing else, always reintroducing me to awe, wonder, and appreciation. It was an interesting and unexpected cultural lesson: Why not try to achieve what the rest of the world seems to inherently already understand? Travel is good for us, and good for others.
We raised our glasses as a toast to our friend’s words of wisdom, as a vow to come back, and as a promise to devote more time to the value of travel.
Photo courtesy Sarah Pascarella
Related on Ecosalon:
No Ifs or Buts About It: Why We Have to Disconnect
The Story of Stuff: A Conversation with Annie Leonard
Wearing of the Green Green on St. Patrick’s Day