Travel Is Not About Where You Go — It’s a Celebration of Life Itself

September 3, 2020

Maybe it’s a reaction to the slow continuing churn of lockdowns, travel restrictions and the imminent end of summer, but I’ve been on a Parts Unknown binge this week, the travel show hosted by the charismatic and tragically late Anthony Bourdain. Naturally I began my journey in my home away from home, and the iconic episode where Anthony Bourdain invites Barack Obama to eat bún chả on blue plastic stools in Hanoi, Vietnam. Riding waves of sentiment and nostalgia I continued on a Netflix hosted tour of South East Asia, visiting peaceful Laos, before heading north to Hong Kong, a place I made the briefest of visits to a few years ago.

Bourdain’s host in the city is Australian-Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle, someone who I’d never heard of but have instantly grown a fondness for. His approach to filmmaking intertwines with his outlook on life, and he loves Hong Kong for its celebration of life itself; its busy-ness encapsulating all that is truly beautiful about the world. His favourite place in the world is an escalator in the centre of Hong Kong, which surely makes it one if the busiest places in the world. For Doyle, escalators are the most human places of all, places that feature endless rolling shots of every facet of humanity.

His camerawork captures all unconventional and messy shots of people and cityscapes, in your face camera work, lingering on ordinary people doing strange things and of stranfe people doing ordinary things — it reminded me a lot of life in Hanoi.

There’s a beautiful exchange in the opening scenes of the episode on the nature of beauty, which the Doyle and Bourdain feel is epitomised perfectly and imperfectly in the chaos and noise of Hong Kong.

Anthony Bourdain: “Is there a value on, just, people and objects moving through time and space in beautiful ways?”

Christopher Doyle: “Is there a value to the colour of a pomegranate?”

AB: “Yeah…yeah!”

CD: “EXACTLY! This is our challenge: it’s to celebrate that. So-called beauty is not, ‘You know my makeup is so good, and then I lifted my face a bit’. No, beauty is the darkness, and the pleasure of embracing that, and that giving you something more of your experience of life.”

This struck a chord with me and summed up what travel is all about: it’s any experience which celebrates the everyday things and experiences of life.

It’s not about foreign experiences or holidays, it’s not about ticking things off lists or seeing what everyone else has. It’s not about seeing the best beaches or the most Instagram friendly dishes, or travelling to the furthest and most exotic places or ticking things off lists.

If anything, it’s the opposite.

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Hong Kong from below. Photo by Rikki Chan on Unsplash

Beauty tends to be perceived in people with symmetrical features. But according to Doyle, beauty isn’t necessarily in the made-up faces or the perfect bodies — it’s in seeing things that shape your understanding of the world.

People say travel is good for you because it opens your mind; it opens your mind because it exposes you to so much novelty in a short space of time. Coming from the 21st century Western world, that novelty is increasingly found in the form of rough edges, unreliable services, unpalatable dishes and uncomfortable lives — and that’s where the beauty lies.

For writer and philosopher Nassim Taleb, nature is made up of rough edges and asymmetries: compare how we see tall sleek buildings with perfect edges and materials in a newly-gentrified part of a city: “soulless”. They’re abominations that have taken the heart out of what was once a living place.

Then compare them to old buildings with their imperfections and rough edges and time-weathered materials, or the wild and rough side landscapes of nature: they are beautiful — and by universal consensus rugged nature is beautiful — because they are imperfect. We are shaped by evolution, and all the rough edges of our experiences are what shape who we are. For no experience is perfect, and our imperfect lives reflect the conditioning of nature’s evolution over millions of years.

Travel is not the experience of perfect places, or even foreign places, it’s the experience of novelty; the experience of novelty depends on your own existing projections, and you can choose what to project.

With the right mindset, you can walk around your hometown and every time see or feel something different. Everything in it reflects your life there. You can eat the same meal every day and every day you experience true joy and appreciation for it making its way to your plate. With this mindset, every moment can be a celebration.

In Hong Kong, we see lengthy interludes scenes of umbrella repairmen and elderly candle makers working in the old style. They speak about their work and their lives — presumably, as they’re shown without subtitles or narration. As viewers, we observe and watch and listen. Sometimes language can obscure what’s happening in front of us, and presenting them as they are is a celebration of their traditional ways of living and working.

Jenny Suen, a fellow director moviemaking collaborator of Doyle’s explains about her aims as a modern Hong Kong director:

“There’s something we all have in common: we’re trying to reinterpret Hong Kong culture in a way that makes sense to us.”

Replace Hong Kong with Ireland, or wherever you’re from, and it sums up all that anyone is trying to do in life really — and it’s beautiful.

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Featured Image: Life itself: A storefront in Hong Kong. Photo by on

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