Why I travel

A tale of how grief inspired a journey of discovery

As I begin to type this, my eyes start welling up. Maybe it’s because I’m on my period. Or, maybe it’s because the words that are waiting to flow out are more raw than I realise. Answering the question ‘Why I travel’ is layered with emotional complexity. On different days I give different responses, tailored to whom I’m answering to. But today I’m writing for me.

At the start of the year, I penned a piece on the Meaning of Life and part of my journey to find the answer was being more conscious and honest about my motivations, desires and decisions.

You have to dig deep to speak your truth.

Here’s mine.

Why I didn’t travel

Travel doesn’t come naturally to me. As the child of working-class immigrants, I never went on holiday. No vacations, summer camps or gap year. Travel was something other people did.

Making up for lost time, travelling as an adult in the Crystal Valley Czech Republic

Other than one of my best friends in primary school going on holiday to Ibiza one year with her family I didn’t know anyone that travelled. Well, apart from Ruby. Her sister was a couple of years older than me and she was a couple of years younger. One summer her family went to their homeland of Turkey but Ruby never came back to school. She died in a lorry crash. I also knew a boy who was so enamoured by sport he never missed PE but it turned out that he didn’t know how to swim, and he too died on holiday by drowning.

Travel was something other people did

With these tragic tales and having no experience of going anywhere, I was as far removed from the travel bug as it gets. But I knew what the world looked like. Growing up, my parents covered our walls with photographs of far-flung locations – mountain regions, luscious lakes and other natural phenomena.

From what I could tell, the world was very different to our urban London existence. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to go to the local park for fear of boys/abduction/murder/general bad influences. The world outside the immediate walls of our home was already a mystery, never mind further afield. But those images were a window into new possibilities.

Why I travel in the UK

Every summer we went on a day trip organised by the local Bangladeshi Welfare Association. These seaside excursions were in the style of the classic Gurinder Chanda film Bhaji on The Beach. In that iconic movie women in sarees descend on Blackpool with tiffins filled with samosas and chilli powder to season their chips. The film is not fiction: it was a reality for many of us South Asians growing up in ‘90s Britain.

For those few hours, we could be whoever we wanted to be. Even experience a taste of freedom. My parents would mostly nap in the park while I would do the quintessential fun fair, slot machines, sand-castle building and rock-eating. At some point, they’d be biryani, lamb kebabs, tandoori chicken, the aforementioned chips and a Mr Whippy.

The coach ride home was bumpy and tiresome, but I’d be filled with excitement and amusement that my dad went on a fairground ride. The next morning it was back to normality until the following summer.

It was a reality for many South Asians growing up in ’90s Britain

Even today when I venture to any UK beach I’m reminded of these memories. Being in that group of brown people descending on an alien landscape and unashamedly taking up space. It still gives me the confidence to wander freely without fear now. Sure I’ve felt hostility. I’ve been in towns where I’ve been the only brown person in the pub, club and restaurant, but I don’t feel intimidated. I just think back to those childhood trips with aunties and uncles who though may have felt fear, never showed it to us youngsters, instilling pride where there was prejudice.

Why I travel – experiencing firsts

Being studious, I took every opportunity at school to earn top grades and partake in extra-curricular activities. On one occasion when I was around 14, I won a competition: four pairs of return train tickets to anywhere in the UK. When I phoned up to claim my prize I was told that I could even go to Scotland. I reported back to my family and it was decided that my three sisters and I would venture to Edinburgh without our parents. It was on this trip that the travel seeds were sown. For a start, it was my first time sightseeing.

We did’t have a camera when I was growing up so I can’t share any photos of those beach days so here’s another happy place

We witnessed Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, an Edinburgh Tattoo show, some fringe festival events and tried deep fried Mars bars. What I remembered most though was the smell. Edinburgh smelt different to London. Sure there were different accents, architecture and weather, but it was that deep sensory connection of being in a place that had such as distinctly different aroma that lit a spark in me, that turned into a flame and eventually fuelled a passion.

But let’s not get there too soon.

You’ve got to be in it to win it and the following year I won another competition, this time I was awarded a day trip to Calais with another young journalism enthusiast. We were tasked with writing about our experience for Youth Express, a weekend supplement that came with a tabloid. It was my first ever travel writing assignment.

newpaper clipping
My first travel writing assignment was a daytrip to Calais

I had a lot of firsts that trip like my first trip with strangers, first ever ferry, first trip to Europe, first taste of travel sickness. It dawned on me that travel provided an opportunity to do a lot of ‘firsts.’ Things that I could never do at home: the most eye-opening discovery I’d ever made.

Why I travel – the fuse

Though studious, I wasn’t academic. Geography was one of those subjects that was a bit of everything; not as taxing as history, not as serious as science, not as hard as maths, but more structured than art. It also involved travel, an educational subject that required you to not sit at a desk.

Because I was one of the poor students who were eligible for every benefit going (free school dinners, free school uniform etc) it meant my trips were free or subsidised. As my parents didn’t need to worry about the costs, they agreed to my escapades.

I had found my calling

A’Level Geography fieldwork in Cardiff soon turned into Geography degree fieldwork in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. I was awarded the only first I ever got at university thanks to a dissertation I wrote exploring whether or not Vegas is a 24-hour city.

I had found my calling, writing and travel. Travel and writing. This is what I was destined to do. Before I knew it, I was writing for student press and even landed an events listing gig on a local radio station. But a few days later, everything changed.

My mum was given the weekend to live.

Why I travel – the flame

Doctors are not always right. She survived an extra year. When life gives you lemons like that and you’re already not a fan of sharp flavours, everything bubbles up. All those tiny insecurities, fears and worries intensify and just when you think you’ve got a lid on it, the can of pop explodes.

Following my mum’s death I clammed up. I continued to go about my days, but heavy clouds loomed. The weight of loneliness crept up on my dad and within a few years, he joined her. It was for the best because he wasn’t a fan of anyone’s cooking but hers.

All that was left were the photos on the walls. The waterfalls, forests, botanical gardens, deserts, and wonders of the world: places my parents had dreamt of visiting but never made it to.

And here was I. I felt like a weird orphan, socially awkward at the best of times, too alternatively minded to fit in, I only had a few friends as I lost many after I dropped out of university to care for my mum, and sporadic colleagues as I was flitting between temping jobs.

Am I letting them down?

My parents moved to the UK from Bangladesh to have a better quality of life for themselves and their family. The immigrant dream they sold my dad wasn’t true – he was never employed as an engineer but beavered away working nightshift in a light bulb factory for most of his working-class career.

My mum found informal work as a cash-in-hand seamstress and sent nearly every penny she earned back home to her siblings, with a few coins left so she could buy me 10p Tangy Toms crisps after school. I still remember the chime of the newsagent door and the longing for pastel fruit bonbon sweets from the jars of penny treats but settling for crisps and the occasional cup drink instead.

Thinking about the struggles they faced and the sacrifices they made it was clear that they were driven by a purpose to give my sisters and I the best quality of life they could. But what was my purpose? Here I was. A tiny dot on planet Earth. I thought of the pictures on the wall and decided if they couldn’t see them, this dot will.

Why I travel – finding my independence

Going from being a non-traveller to a newbie felt surprisingly natural. I became a seasoned traveller not from reading guidebooks or blogs, but from going out and learning. I travelled with friends and in groups but nothing ever came close to the freedom and deep satisfaction that comes from solo travel.

Momtaz leaping in the air in front of the white temple in Thailand
The freedom of solo travelling

Figuring things out like how to book an overnight train in India and navigating the night markets of Thailand, understanding how much money to take out, getting intuitive with what I can carry and need, where to go if I felt unsafe – all things that need to be worked out yourself.

Once you’ve experienced this level of independence you can’t be put back in a box. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent the best part of my career freelancing? I’ve never fit in the box employers have tried to put me in. Eventually, just like my hamster Berol, I chew through a hole in the cardboard and escape.

blach headed hamster popping head out of her wooden home
Meet Berol Longtail. After mentioning my hamster I had to include a photo right?

Why I travel – escapism

I want to dig deep. Talking about losing my parents is deep but those wounds surface in a different way to how deep I need to go to uncover what’s really going on inside my brain.

Travel is escapism. On one hand this gives it an air of adventure and romance. No shade on anyone who aspires to escape for escaping’s sake, it’s a natural human condition. But the truth is when we feel a strong desire to ‘escape’; there are deeper emotions at play.

legs on a boat on a lake passing through by river plants
Having a breather on a weekend away in Valencia in March

I’ve felt myself booking trips to avoid facing up to certain realities. And yes travel provides a short-term fix, a plaster that reduces pain and prevents irritation. But no plaster can stick forever.

You can escape for months and even years and all that happens is the root cause of the problem gets buried. Over time it gets watered and the seeds of it get dispersed into different areas of your life. Before you know it you’re faced with a triffid.

I’ve travelled to ‘escape’ my life and my circumstances on many occasions but recently I’ve sat with that concept. I decided that I don’t want to travel to escape myself anymore. I want to escape British weather at the best of times and that type of escape I fully advocate. I also whole-heartedly encourage everyone who gets it, to put their ‘annual leave’ to good use by escaping to see the world on all their days off.

But I’m no longer that person that travels to escape difficult decisions. I want my vacations to have adventurous purposes, to break up the monotony, but not to break me.

Why I travel – friendship and experience

It’s a fact that when you meet someone away from home, your connection with them is different. There’s no ego. You are equals because you don’t know each other’s past.

Experiences are amplified when you travel. A picnic in your local park versus alfresco eating abroad hits differently.

Those who don’t travel will never know that inner vibration that awakens in your soul when you journey to new places, when curiosity leads you to seeing things beyond your wildest imagination and then sharing it with strangers. 

momtaz sat on floor working a backstap loom weaving a bag
One of my favourite travel photos and travel memories, on a textile tour in Thailand

From learning how to do indigenous embroidery techniques in Mexico to visiting some of the most creative museums in the world, experiences have been at the heart of my travels and even inspired the title of this very blog, Craft and Travel. Travelling to see and learn about handmade crafts (and shop for them!) is one of my main motivations for choosing a destination.

Travelling when you have a purpose like this is not escapism, it’s a way of life: a lifestyle that’s richer than a billionaire staying in the world’s grandest hotel. Sit on that for a minute. It’s pretty mind-blowing.

Why I travel – the next chapter

In December 2022, I visited my 57th country.

Sheesh. Let me repeat that. 57 Countries. I am proud. My mum only stepped foot in three countries in her lifetime and my dad around four. They came from villages in Bangladesh where no one else left so it’s safe to say I’ve done more travelling than most of my family and ancestors put together.

When I reached country 57 (Albania) I felt an overwhelming desire that my next life goal was getting to country 60. It wasn’t a question of where to go but when?

momtaz standing with kach looking into mirror
With my pal Kach whose visited 184 countries

The urge was amplified by the friend who drove me to my 57th country. Her country count is a staggering 184. I was in awe and admiration.

Cut to seven months since that trip and as yet I haven’t stepped foot into country 59 let alone 60. It turns out my plan had its own plans.

Sure I’ve searched for flights, applied for opportunities, daydreamed about unchartered territories, but I also found myself desiring escapism, the type I said I wouldn’t give in to.

Take a break

I’ve had to question why I want to go away and each time it’s boiled down to ‘life is going badly I want to escape.’ But I don’t want my next two countries to carry that weight, they deserve better. They should be fully appreciated, explored and enjoyed, not fill in a gap or tick box.

So I’ve pressed pause on my quest to travel the world for now. And that’s ok.

I’ve felt strangely flat and burnt out for most of 2023. I’ve dug deeper than I’ve ever dug before to accept that right now it doesn’t matter if I don’t have my next trip in my diary. Instead, I’ve been finding pleasure and joy in travel memories.

In my quest to tick off The List, I’d started losing the sensations and joy I felt when I backpacked to places like Central America and South Asia and when I think of them I feel energised again. I want to savour these memories and let them fuel me while I focus on another priority: healing and health. I’ve been on the hamster wheel of life for too long without stopping to heal from the traumas I’ve been through.

Momtaz sat crossed legging hands in prayer position meditation in front of a lake
Gently does it. Taking a breather in the UK countryside

Right now, I’m enjoying travelling  into my mind and memories, healing and growing and will come back to physical travelling when the stars realign and call me to come back out to play.

Accepting this has been the most powerful discovery I’ve made about myself this year. 2023 may not have been a year of jet-setting expeditions to new places but I have revisited old ones, repeat trips to places I love – Poland and Tenerife, trips that were deeply reassuring and comforting.  

I’ve also found alternatives by focusing on local experiences, things that I can do closer to home that give me the same satisfaction as travel that still allow me to meet people or are ‘firsts’ of things I’ve never done before.

windy pandas dragon boat team lined up after a session
Finding new experiences closer to home joining the Windy Pandas dragon boat team

I joined a dragon boat racing team and a women’s boxing club, I go to weekly yoga and meditation classes, tried and loved kayaking, chi gong and breathwork and played squash. These new experiences have given me just as much joy as travel, they’re not a replacement, but they are a positive alternative.

And I’m enthused about future adventures. Where I go, who I meet and what experience awaits me is a mystery that I look forward to unfolding. I can’t wait to be free, flexible and in that flow again. But until then I am still me, still a travel lover, still a wanderer, fascinated by what’s out there, taking my time to ponder and re-evaluate why I travel.

Finding the answer has been one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve ever completed.  

Photo of Do wearing  a yellow cap and t shirt

This blog post is dedicated to my dear friend Dom who I met on my travels and whose own travel adventures were cut too short. Miss you Dom xx