I’m not sure when travel got popular. But I have some idea of how.
Ten, twenty years ago, people went to work, worked hard, came home, paid the necessary bills and general life expenses, and saved up for whatever thing they wanted next: a new TV, a state-of-the-art baby stroller, a fast car. It was a means of progression. It also let the neighbour know just exactly how well you're doing at work and how big your Christmas bonus was. Some years you might have a trip away.
Then at some point most of the production of these big items moved overseas and became a lot cheaper for the consumer, and then more readily available. So, we consumed more: if we can afford the TV, baby-stroller and the car, why not have all three? And we showed them off, because we’d worked hard for them and we were ‘successful’.
Then we became surrounded by lots of things, more things than we ever dreamed of. But some wise soul recognised that, as ever-evolving humans, lots of things don’t make us happy. They get old quickly. They lose their sparkle. And instead of looking within, we decided that it must be something else that makes us happy instead. It must be experiences.
We’d been doing it all wrong.
It suddenly became popular not to indulge. Not to fill your house up with items. But to invest in experiences instead of things.
This was good news for companies providing services not products. The experience ‘industry’ boomed. And what’s the biggest and best experience you can imagine? An overseas country, so foreign and complex, with a different language and currency, and a way of life like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Many businesses adapted and aided this new-found desire for people to visit other countries simply to see what they are like. The airlines that make weekend-getaways so affordable; the rise in accommodation in popular holiday spots; travel companies like Topdeck and Contiki offering pre-packaged and organised trips for young people to see half of Europe in their university holidays. The supply responded to the demand. And the abundance of competition has kept prices low. Suddenly travel wasn’t such a luxury anymore. It was something a lot of normal people could do.
Then came the rise of being able to work online. Then Instagram. Then the digital nomads.
Now look at us. There are people out here talking to lenses on sunny beachfronts being transported by technology live into your living room at home, telling you that to travel is to live; that working 9-5 for a living is old-fashioned; that if you haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower by the time you’re 30, you’re doing something wrong.
That the location they’re currently posting from is an absolute must for the bucket list.
And that’s where we have it.
The Bucket List.
So now, in your free time, instead of relaxing in the comfort of your home that you’ve spent time and money and effort in furnishing, you’ve got to be out chasing these places all over the world and return to your normal life exhausted.
You might have already seen the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Sydney Opera House on a holiday at some point in your life – these wonders have been iconic for quite some time. But that’s not good enough anymore. You have to travel deeper. So, okay, you go to some pretty out-there places – so different to your own home – that you wouldn’t usually think of. Like Gdansk, in Poland. Ljubljana, in Slovenia. Zadar, in Croatia. Malaga, in Spain.
But lots of people are also there, because the travel industry can build more hotels but it can’t create more land. Lots of people are leaving their own homes empty to go somewhere else and space has become an issue. Plus, people no longer want to have experiences, they want to have unique experiences. As would be inevitable, all these experience-hot-spots have become crowded, purely because other people are also there for the unique foreign experience.
So, naturally, we’ve had to branch out even further. To Sopot, near Gdansk. To Lake Bled, from Ljubljana. To Plitvice Lakes, in Croatia. To Ronda, from Malaga in Spain. Because the fact that everyone has been to the main cities and destinations supposedly devalues the experience for everyone else.
The next year, these places become the new ‘must visits’ – purely to get away from the crowds. Because that’s what everyone wants. A holiday without the crowds. “And here away from the main places, you can find it”, say the travel bloggers. Space issue solved.
Until these places become just as busy, if not busier. And when we get there, we are both surprised, frustrated, and betrayed that lots of other people are here too. They are ruining our little slice of private uniqueness that the magazine or website promised.
Indeed, at the small beach town called Sopot, near Gdansk, in the north of Poland, you actually have to pay to go onto the pier. You have to pay money to go on the pier.
And the craziest thing? People do it. We have enough disposable income that the concept of paying to go on a pier doesn’t put us off enough. But that’s probably why we have to pay in the first place: we clearly have enough spare to go around, and others are trying to get a slice of it. Who can blame them?
Can you imagine how a tiny place like that – that you might not have even heard of, heck, I hadn’t until the day before I went – became such a tourist magnet, transformed into uniform rows of ice cream stalls and souvenir shops lining the main street? Because somehow, somewhere, to some audience, it’s being promoted as the new Gdansk. The new destination. “Swimming in the Baltic Sea” desperately needs a tick next to it, and Sopot can give you that.
We’ve internalised the idea of the bucket list to be some time-sensitive contract that we’re inescapably given at birth and that our progression on it equals our progression in life; that we are only fulfilled if our list-ticking is on track. The idea that we should try to complete it before we die, whilst all the time adding places to it, is outstandingly absurd. It’s not only ruining our holiday destinations, but our poor wee mental states.
Think about it. The original bucket list concept stretches the length of your life, not the length of your annual leave for the next year or even your twenties.
The sad reality is, you might work so damn hard to get to Rome to see the Colosseum – and while you’re there be completely dampened about how many people are in the queue in front of you, and distractedly thinking about how your trip doesn’t include Ibiza. How you won’t be able to scratch it off your travel scratch map when you get home, and that tiny speck of bronze on the picture of world domination hanging above your bed will stare at you for months to come, taking all the glory off the Colosseum. Which is in fact, one of the most historic and cool pieces of history in the world. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Seeing it didn’t make you happy. You know that now. You have to go to Ibiza.
Do you see something familiar here?
What the bucket list sells us is a promise of happiness, just like the first flashy expensive TV commercials promised us the image of success and endless happy nights with our families. But we’ve wired ourselves to always chase something else, to strive for bigger and better. If we aren’t getting anywhere in our rat race – if we realise we actually aren’t any happier after being awarded that big promotion – we don’t stop and look around and ask why, we just jump into a different rat race.
We are always trying to get to ‘the end’, to find that big glorious box of happiness that must be waiting for us in a hidden corner somewhere – and now we’re searching the world for it. Maybe it’s been pushed all the way down to the end of the pier at Sopot, so you feel as if you have no option but to pay to go on, just so you can say you looked there.
But what’s spectacular about the bucket list is we haven’t just replaced the rat race. We’ve created a new league of it: one that no one can win. Because even if you get close to the end of your list, someone else will always willingly offer up items to make you feel as if there’s more to be seen or you missed out on something.
What we need to realise is that we’ve collectively turned these potentially cool experiences into products. Products of places that we’re showing off to each other, through the Instagram photos, the tacky souvenir junk we bring back home, and the "oh, you should have gone to Ronda" conversations in the staff room.
It’s just another big competition.
Despite this incredibly complex social development leading to the blind list-ticking phenomenon we find ourselves in today, I believe the answer is quite simple: live in the moment.
The biggest thing we are doing wrong is expecting locations to equal good times. But mountains and beaches have stood for as long as time. They can’t suddenly be a mountain plus an undying source of happiness for all those that touch it.
We need to learn to separate experiences from places. (I’ve been to some places that I liked and had a really bad time. Equally I’ve been to some places I wouldn’t go back to but where I stumbled across excellent company and had a really good time anyway.)
We need to realise that what the bucket list equates to is ‘locations that other people had a good time in, so I might have a good time in too’, and then cross off all the locations and just write ‘have a good time’.
Don’t take a photo of yourself in every destination to prove you went there; no one cares. Don’t put your happiness in the reaction of others when you tell them about your holiday; it’ll never be as good as theirs. Don’t feel as though you need to justify it or validate it by showing it off. Enjoy it for what it is.
Don’t go to Plitvice Lakes if you’re just interested in art museums. Don’t book a trip to Europe in July if you hate hot, sweaty weather. And don’t pay to go to the end of the pier just because everyone else has.
After all, some people travel from the other side of the world to your home town, that you've forgotten is special and has a pull of its own to foreigners.
You could be anywhere in the world, anywhere in your life, anywhere through your year, and you could have a good time. A few good times. Plenty of smiles that touch your eyes, and moments that warm your heart. And ultimately, that’s what we're trying to achieve in life, what the original bucket list was all about before it got turned into a monstrous rat race that's making us unhappy. If you can switch off from every pressure and influence and just have a good time in the moment, that box of happiness that might be hiding under the pier of Sopot – or on top of Macchu Pichu– or underneath Niagara Falls – will find its own way to you.
It will stand in front of you in your living room, sit on your desk at work, and be the blanket you pull over yourself at night. It will follow you around and cling to you, because you’re the coolest person and it can’t bear to be apart from you. Everyone you interact with will interact with it, too. It holds your hand every day and becomes part of you.
You won’t be chasing it. It will have done the crazy world-running for you. It will have covered the whole planet to find you, because you are worthy of it. If we stop believing it’s so far away and focus on the here and now…
We might find what we’re looking for is not on a list after all. It might be right in front of us.