Is it just me or have Travel Bucket Lists been getting a really bad rap lately?
Maybe it’s a causality of being too entrenched in the travel writing community but I can’t help but notice the substantial uptick in articles belittling bucket lists and similar practices commonly referred to as country counting.
Said articles argue that travelers who visit destinations in order to cross it off their list miss out on any so-called ‘”real” experiences since their only interest is to say I’ve been there or to brag about whose country notch on the belt is higher.
Frankly, I think it’s a crock of s***.
It’s almost as if travelers nowadays have become (dare I say it) too good or too seasoned or too jaded to remember the excitement of their first ‘must visit destination’ list.
Are you really going to tell me that the first time you ever thought about travelling, I wanna spend 3 months with the tribes in Guinea-Bissau was the first thing that popped into your head? I don’t think so. More likely it started with wanting to see the crop of usual suspects – the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza, the Grand Canyon, or the Sydney Opera House.
And honestly – there is nothing wrong with that.
After all, wanderlust doesn’t just inexplicably happen.
Akin to the age old conundrum of the chicken or the egg, the precise moment the feeling rouses can’t accurately be measured. Maybe the initial stirrings appeared at age 6, when flipping through storybook kingdoms invoked dreams of faraway lands and giant stonewalled towers. Or maybe an all-night Russell Crowe marathon led to visions of gladiators and the Roman Coliseum. Or perhaps it stemmed from being grounded by an annoying set of parents, leaving you with longings for the far reaches of Timbuktu.
For me, it happened my junior year of high school.
I had one of those way-too-smart-to-be-teaching-high-school-history teachers who mentally blanked on the fact that she was teaching a bunch of hormonal 16 year olds. Instead, we were treated like college graduate students embarking on our thesis when in actuality our only thoughts centered on whether or not Betsy could convince her mom to spend the night out so we could throw a party and get drunk off Smirnoff Ice or some other similarly disgusting alcoholic beverage.
The bell would shrill (as would our souls) as we entered the classroom to find the entire chalkboard illegibly scribbled wall to wall with an unbearable amount of notes. Mrs P would spend the next 50 minutes lecturing without so much as a pause for an opportunity to use the bathroom hall pass. Once, she even lost her voice and came in fully equipped with a microphone to teach us that day’s lesson with (forget nails on a chalkboard – nothing compares to a scratchy, barely there whisper being projected twenty-fold over a loudspeaker).
Yet despite these somewhat questionable teaching practices, one thing was undeniable.
She was passionate about history.
While most students rolled their eyes and complained about the class where time stands still, I became enraptured with her enthusiasm and her sheer vastness of knowledge. She knew everything. I found myself risking my self-imposed “cool kid” persona by seeking her out after hours so I could hear more stories about Mary Queen of Scots and Rommel and the French Revolution.
She had me daydreaming of walking the beaches of Normandy, touring the dungeons of the Tower of London, and gawking at the palaces in Austria.
Aside from trips to Disney World and unintentional tours of all the youth baseball fields throughout Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi with my little brother’s competitive baseball team, I had never really been anywhere (though one could argue the southern delta is a separate country in and of itself).
Yet upon my teacher’s recommendation, I found myself pleading with my parents to drive the whole family to New Orleans, Louisiana so I could attend an exhibit on the Egyptian tomb of King Tut.
My persistent begging proved victorious and soon I was off on the first trip I ever planned.
It wasn’t long after that I purchased my first travel book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
It became my bible.
I took it with me everywhere, dog-eared pages, memorized passages, and highlighted places I had been. It unintentionally went on to become my first travel bucket list and at the age of 19 I made it my life’s mission to see all 1000.
I started vigorously arranging excursions around the various entries but found myself quickly labeled and shunned as a “tourist”. You’re not a real traveler backpackers would say to me. In their eyes I was a cliché. Another American doing the quick in-and-out tour of Europe and only hitting the famous landmarks.
But so what? Where’s the harm in that? These “touristy” places are what made me fall in love with travel in the first place. They were the stepping stones that would inevitably lead to a fulfilling nomadic lifestyle spent discovering as many countries and cultures as possible.
Because of the touristy canals of Amsterdam, the lights of Paris, and the accents of Australia, travel is now something so inexplicably entrenched in my very soul. It’s who I am. I feel lost and suffocated without it. It’s the hardest feeling to convey and for others to understand but I would never wish it away.
Though my travel practices have evolved in the 9 years since I first went wheels up and I now prefer to dawdle on the outskirts of town or explore lesser-known villages, I still choose to honor my very first bucket list by making the trek to all 1000 places listed in the book.
Experiencing these places has shaped me into the traveler and writer that I am today and the pursuit has led to some unforgettable memories.
Like the time a friend and I attempted to take the train to Superdawg in Chicago – only to realize the last stop was nowhere near the place. Upon disembarking, we couldn’t figure out how to actually get there so we ended up getting lost and hitchhiking (this was before the convenient days of Uber). When we finally arrived around 11pm, the owner had shown up to say hello to everyone in the establishment. He even personally shared his architectural plans for a new location with us.
Or that time we deliriously showed up (in completely inappropriate attire) to the two star Michelin restaurant, Patrick Guilbaud, in Ireland after a red-eye flight from NYC. Our sleep-deprived brains proceeded to say yes to all the sommeliers champagne recommendations for each course; we indulged in dessert adorned with edible gold leaf; met a diplomat who was BFF’s with Bill Clinton; and walked out having just dropped 400 Euros on lunch before continuing on to an epically fabulous (yet utterly s***faced) day in Dublin.
The book even facilitated my first solo travel leap while studying abroad in Spain.
On a free weekend when all my roommates headed off to Amsterdam (a place I had already visited 3 times), I opened my book for inspiration and found myself alone on a train to Seville two hours later. It’s hard to believe that that timid girl now effortlessly slips into solo travel like it’s a second skin.
So who cares why and where people travel?
Or whether or not they have a bucket list or like to count countries? Shouldn’t it be good enough that they’re out there trying it out in the first place?
After all, you never know where it will lead or how it will change you!
UPDATE 10/24/2016 – Recently, I hit numbers 73, 74, and 75 on my list (you can read about them here)! I was also inspired by a few reader comments to dedicate a full page to my Bucket List Quest. You can track my full progress here and read further posts on the destinations and sites I’ve crossed off the list. Only 925 more to go!
What’s on your list? Let me know in the comments below.
Why Suffer From FOMO When You Don’t Have To?
Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!