What is traveling?

Firstly, I’ll answer this in terms of what it’s not. It’s not just taking photos and ‘finding yourself’ through amazing and unique experiences. Changing your environment can indeed attain a shift in perspective, whether it’s a humbling encounter when you realize just how safe and closeted your life has been or learning to smile and appreciate the little things you never noticed before. Perhaps you’ll even feel guilty for all the comforts you have at home, and get motivated to close the gaps between travelers and the people they encounter. Taking pictures from these experiences and encounters can spread this message and might inspire others, but without sounding too cynical, in most cases your impact is going to be very small. You’re probably not going to be heard on a large scale, and the song will remain the same.

Our space already has an endless stream of would-be influencers sharing these kinds of experiences, and often the genuine intention to inspire and inform is beset with advertising, ego and self-gain, not always through any fault of their own. You can find yourself fighting an algorithm just to get noticed on social media. Or even worse, you can find yourself wanting to get noticed more than just enjoying the moment. The pursuit of finding yourself through travel in itself means you’re basically seeking external gratification. You’re looking for the world to give you an answer.

This Earth day is as good a time as any to start thinking if the world actually owes you one.

tall rocks in coastal waters
Australia’s Twelve Apostles.

I’m definitely guilty of this way of thinking, and perhaps now more than ever I need to start listening to myself. At the time of this writing, I should have been in Australia as a cruise ship photographer. Instead, all major cruise lines have suspended operations until at least the 16th of May, and I’m on the other side of the world in the UK. 

Perhaps you’re in a similar position, where COVID-19 has ruined your travel plans or your vision for 2020. It can be frustrating to have circumstances outside of your control dictate your life, especially when you might have grown accustomed to the intoxicating way of constantly changing your environment. For myself, living and working at sea means being surrounded by many different nationalities, and I can find myself literally waking up in a new country every day. I’ve sometimes believed this is therefore ‘finding myself,’ just through sheer attrition, that the odds are in my favor and eventually the confusion around ‘who am I?’ and ‘what should I do with my life?’ will fall away when I meet the right person in the right place… Surely?

No.

I’ve come to find that when nothing is permanent, there’s no real resolution to these feelings. So let’s maybe now address what traveling actually is.

winding section of a train
Winding through the Yukon route’s White Pass.
cruise ship queen mary 2
The Queen Mary 2 entering port.

It’s watching the Northern Lights for the first time with complete strangers, or returning to Times Square and recognizing a commuter you’ll never actually know. It’s spending 10 minutes alone petting a stray dog in a secluded Norwegian port, or climbing to the top of Table Mountain and looking down at beautiful Cape Town below. It’s the little moments of introspection inside your big adventures that no one will ever know about, not the big adventures themselves. You can gaze down at the towns and cities and revel in your imagined omnipotence as the people look like ants. 

You can stand amongst a crowd of people, but find your mind wandering elsewhere. You can look people in the eye but only ever see the world through your own. In these little moments you become all too keenly aware that no matter how many people you meet or places you go, you will only have yourself and your own perspective. If anything, traveling is the realization that the next big adventure doesn’t necessarily require your passport. There’s an entire world inside your own head.

This kind of clarity can be accentuated by proximity to new experiences and people, but it can be achieved anywhere and at any time. You don’t need to be standing at the steps of the Sydney Opera House or quad biking through the Namib Desert — you can decide to go for a walk through the park you used to play in as a child, or just sit in your yard. If spending this Earth Day in lockdown can teach us anything, it’s that we can turn this disruption to our lives into a positive force for cultivating a relationship with ourselves and our immediate surroundings. We might never have an opportunity like this again.

man sitting on a mountain overlooking city
Table Mountain, overlooking Cape Town.

And as we all stay at home, and lay our travel plans to rest for a while, it’s remarkable the little changes to the world we can observe, too. Can you ever remember a time when you looked up at the sky and didn’t see a single jet stream? Or went out for a walk around the block and saw the main road completely quiet? As we all stay home, the cumulative impact on our planet has started to reveal many little instances of nature bouncing back, and having worked on cruise ships for the past two years, I’ve come to realize the detrimental impact our year round wanderlust can have. It’s been a hard thing to reconcile, as I’ve cruised around the globe in order to satisfy my travel bug, but in some ways I’ve been contributing to a wider problem. 

As I was fortunate enough to sail right up beside the Hubbard Glacier, I was meanwhile reminded that Carnival cruise ships had been caught subsequently dumping grey water into the beautiful waters surrounding Glacier Bay. It’s horrible to imagine something so unspoiled being treated in this way. No matter how desperate you might be to go on holiday, it should never mean polluting the environment, and living on board a giant floating town shouldering its way into some of the most secluded places on Earth has caught me wondering. I’ve had many introspective moments where I’ve looked up at the billowing red funnel and felt a degree of culpability; perhaps cruising might not necessarily be as harmless as it purports to be.

So maybe, as we use this Earth Day to change our perspective on travel, we can begin to realize that searching for white sandy beaches or that killer Instagram photo isn’t a direct route to happiness. With the right outlook, learning to appreciate the little things we have and our immediate environment can make us just as worldly and fulfilled. And maybe, as all planes and cruise ships are docked and grounded, and as our cars sit in our driveways, when we are able to return to life as normal we can all be more mindful of the personal wake we leave or the jet stream we create, and not feel the need to see all the world has to offer.

Our planet might thank us for it, and you might be all the more grateful on the occasions where you do go and get stamps in your passport.

During Earth Week, Passion Passport invites you to imagine a fairer future after this pandemic, one with more compassion for our planet and for each other. As how and where we travel comes under scrutiny for its effect on the environment, we’re committed to raising awareness for more sustainable travel practices and sharing stories that document how our relationship to the world around us is changing. 

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Sam Klein
Originally from Crewe in the UK, Sam graduated in Screenwriting from Bournemouth University before going on to work for two years as a global photographer and videographer on cruise lines. He's been to nearly 40 countries so far capturing unique images in studio and on location.