This post started percolating furiously about two hours after a phone call last Friday. Over the last week, I’ve regularly come back to a set of questions I’ve been asking myself:

  • Does travel have to be meaningful?
  • Does a trip always need to have a purpose?
  • Why do I want my travel to have more purpose than “I just wanted to go?”
  • Am I trying to force purpose into all areas of my life for a reason?
  • Do I need purpose in all areas of my life?

(What’s life like for people who don’t overthink everything?)

((Also, that last bulleted question envelopes travel, my career, my romantic relationships, and all sorts of other areas. That is a far longer discussion that would likely leave Tony Robbins annoyed and my therapist intrigued.))

About a year ago I called my mom about a trip I was thinking about taking to New Zealand. It was being led by a photographer there, and it would be 10 days of gorgeous scenery, photography, and fun. She said I should do it, then, without knowing the impact of what she was about to say, “And then you can come back and use what you’ve learned to make photography a more serious thing for you. You can start charging more and build a career around it.”

The conversation, from my point of view, went from happy travel excitement to a dead halt. It was like the colors of the conversation went from vibrant streaks of joy to grayscale.

She had a valid point: I’d be paying a lot for this photography workshop. I’d learn a ton. I’d work with a photographer I admired. If I didn’t want to go in order to take the lessons I learned and use them in a way that would improve my life somehow, why should I go?

But being a photographer isn’t my goal. I’m decent at it, I appreciate the artistry, and I admire and have learned from a number of photographers. But I don’t necessarily want to be one. I more want it to be a skill I have that I can use for good — y’know, like Superman with flying.

Why, then, should I go to New Zealand for a photography workshop? “It’s New Zealand! How awesome would it be?!” My mom quietly followed up with, “Hmm,” or something equally unconvinced. Maybe a sigh.

The thing is, my mom is one of my staunchest supporters when it comes to travel. She’s part of the reason I decided to move to Taiwan. I call her with crazy ideas all the time, and she either gives me the guts to follow through or stops me with a pregnant “Hmm.”

Now the conversation morphs and grows into a heavy, all-encompassing question I consider fairly often: Why do I travel? Does there need to be an underlying reason for it beyond I want to?

I’m like a pig in mud when it comes to travel. I don’t want to graze around and only see the stuff on the surface. Let me get in deep. Talk to locals. Get to know the culture. Get into the messiness of it.

This type of travel leads me to the feeling of how do I give back? How do I make sure my trip benefitted both me and the location I’m visiting? After all, this is just a trip for me, but people live in these locations. It’s home, for better or worse.

My first thought as I write that is Boracay in the Philippines. It is, or was, a tourism paradise. And tourists, mismanagement, and foreign investments are killing it. Many locals live in conditions that are appalling, and tourists largely treat the island like a dump. Drunken reverie and pollution that locals have to manage, live with, and clean up.

Tourism isn’t a bad thing. But it can do a lot of damage to a place, either out of stupidity, apathy, or a lack of education.

I want to be the opposite of that. I want my travels to be a good thing, even when it’s tough. Even when I see the hard stuff.

On Friday I had a call with Jacky, the founder of New Lens Travel, and what she’s doing is incredible. Visit Kenya, but see it through the eyes of storytellers and creatives who live there. Learn the reality, not the rich tourist, voluntourism, or white savior version of it. We talked at length, and Jacky understood my kind of travel better than a lot of people.

I want to go. Desperately. Financially, it mostly makes sense — for a ten-day trip to another continent, my total costs would likely be about $3,000.

I can’t go for a few reasons. But our conversation had me thinking. Overthinking.

What would I do with my feelings about Kenya, and what I’d just experienced, upon my return to the States? The people in Kenya would impact me, but beyond the financial impact of my trip (as some of the funds would go toward charitable efforts), how would I impact them? I don’t have a loud voice, and my social media feeds aren’t going to help people in Kenya. I’m no journalist or rich philanthropist or or or —

The thinking goes on.

So, even after I’d realized I couldn’t go to Kenya, I was still chewing on a buffet of thoughts.

Why go?

This whips us back to the beginning: if circumstances had worked out, why not go? Do I really need an ultimate purpose for my travels? Couldn’t I just go to Kenya, have beautiful interactions with people, and chalk it up to another incredible life experience?

I’ve felt the draw to do something major travel-wise. The draw is to go somewhere misunderstood, “unpopular,” “boring.” I filled out an application with Bob Goff’s organization Love Does and asked to go with them to Afghanistan. No response, which was fairly expected.

Then this call with Jacky about Kenya.

To clear the air, I’m no altruistic traveling saint, and I don’t want to be. But for some of the trips I take, I feel the need to have a purpose. Then I get discouraged that I have no way to truly help the places I visit. Then I feel like there’s no purpose. Then I feel like I shouldn’t go. And it’s all very… overwrought. I get to the point, like I just did, where I thin my lips into a flat line, roll my eyes, and think, “Calm down, Mandy.”

Exercising off the excess weight from the overthinking buffet, I guess it’s kind of obvious. Travel is, in the long run, for me, at least, about people. Commas and caveats aside, I want my travels to be about people. So, then, travel is meaningful when it helps me be a better person or allows me to show people love.

Not every trip needs to be meaningful, I guess. But I can try to make sure I don’t contribute to the negative effects of tourism. For now, or at least until I figure out how to be more than just a tourist, that’s enough.