Today’s column will be quite different from my regular tourism subjects. At this time last week I was freshly returned from Myanmar and Thailand, wandering through the produce section of the grocery store in a jetlagged daze, and considering the mangos in a whole different light. Days earlier I had seen them growing on trees in plantations along a canal system outside of Bangkok. I had an odd sense of my city’s own foreignness – of how visitors from other countries might perceive elements of our daily life and surroundings. It left me pondering the ways in which travel leaves imprints on our souls, and of why humans are driven to travel in the first place. Let me back up.
My destination in Myanmar wasn’t one of its cities. It was an archipelago of 800 islands along the south coast of the country in the Andaman Sea. Only five of these islands are inhabited by people. Dense jungle and jungle wildlife abound. Monkeys on the beaches, giant lizards, Burmese Pythons, that sort of thing. The coral reefs were astounding and magnificent. A seafaring tribe called Moken fishes in these waters and has been dubbed “Sea Gypsies”. They approached our vessel on a few occasions in their hollowed-out canoes with unique cross ores; sometimes it was children, other times adults with fresh catch of the day for trade.
During the nine days we sailed these waters, I was completely off the grid. I mean completely. No phones, no wifi, no cell reception, nada. Knowledge of the area was through our captain, who gained it through his person-to-person interactions with locals. To put it in perspective, there are likely more people in the world who have been to Everest than who have come to this archipelago in Myanmar. Even if we had access to the Internet, information on this destination is sparse, at best. We had several discussions about the importance of not imposing our own values or ways of seeing the world on the people who live here, on this undisturbed paradise. We talked about the sensitivity required of those of us who are among the early travelers here, who are entrusted with a glimpse into this unique worldview and culture.
Travelers to Kelowna are also looking for person-to-person interactions with locals, and a sense that they have glimpsed more than a prescribed experience. Online research, GPS technology, apps and data are all just frosting on the periphery of what makes travel special and important in our lives: human connection. Did you know that Kelowna has very high satisfaction ratings from our visitors, year after year? I’ll bet those high satisfaction ratings have less to do with how much information they amassed on Kelowna before their trip, or whether wifi was fast, and more to do with the connections they made with Kelowna residents along the way. That’s the stuff that travel memories are made of.
In this way, travel fulfills a search for connection, a belonging to a community that is greater than the one we live in day-to-day. It’s a belonging to a global community. And when this itch is scratched, we can carve out a place for ourselves in that mosaic. I want to share two very insightful quotes that I’ve come across on this topic. The first is by Pico Iyer, who opens his beautifully written essay on why we travel with the line, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” The other quote came from the Captain of the boat that we sailed on, who remarked, “The heart is like a parachute – it only works when it’s open.” And that’s just the thing, travel has a power to open the heart by presenting to us places, people, and situations that are new and different for us.
The result? A sense that there is an elemental link in this chain of humanity and that we each have a place in it. Ultimately, a strengthened connection within our own selves. And perhaps a new appreciation for mangos, in my case… and for cherries, for travelers who come here.