“The compulsive urge to travel is a registered medical condition… It has its own word, dromomania, and I’m glad to say I suffer from it.” – Michael Palin.
“Isn’t dromomania a Rihanna song?” – Mike Richards.
Only kidding. I knew exactly what legendary comic and explorer Michael Palin meant. For the uninitiated, dromomania is usually described as “an exaggerated desire to wander”. Judging by my behaviour over the past decade or so, it would appear that I too suffer from this affliction and am battling a nasty addiction to travel. Of all the things to be addicted to in this world – and there are many – being addicted to travel doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Right?
At least this was the case, until Covid-19. Like many people, I’d spent months in the run up to the virus travelling. I lived in Australia for a few months, visited five of the Pacific Islands, had a little vacation in Iraq, chilled out in Bali, and spent time in Japan, among other jaunts here or there (mostly there). And then suddenly, there was nothing. For over a year, I spent almost all of my time in London, rarely leaving the city (or indeed my flat). It gave me a lot of time to think. Isn’t travel a strange pastime? What’s so alluring about leaving one’s own country? Why was I compelled to visit so many countries? And crucially, why had I got into the habit of asking myself rhetorical questions?
Fortunately, I’m not alone. There are plenty of other addicts out there, too. And you can find many of them on a website called NomadMania, a directory for the best-travelled people on Earth. It’s a place where many of my travel exploits are largely put to shame. At the time of writing, I was ranked a lowly 300th in terms of UN countries visited. Not bad, you might say. And I agree; I feel privileged to have seen so much of the world.
My exploits, however, pale into insignificance compared to others’. None more so than Londoner Harry Mitsidis, the best-travelled person on Earth (something he modestly denies). The 49-year-old Englishman has visited every UN country (193), along with around 100 other people. He has also set foot in 1,233 of the world’s 1,301 regions, which include places like states and counties. He also founded NomadMania. So, who better to talk to about “crazed travellers” (his wording, not mine) than the world’s biggest dromomaniac? For starters, I got his thoughts on what similarities there are between NomadMania’s members and why they travel so much:
“In terms of age, nationality, socioeconomic situation, or even education, it’s hard to find commonalities other than the sheer love of travel. Naturally ‘love of travel’ for our members is not what it means to most of the world – two or three holidays a year. This is a way of life, where travel is the centre of life rather than a complement to it. Perhaps what does link all the core members is restlessness, an inability to stay still and find joy in the everyday things that carry most people’s lives.”
The Darker Side Of Travel
Harry and I both agree that travelling isn’t always a bed of roses, as many people make it seem on Instagram. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, expensive, and requires huge amounts of planning, particularly if you’re travelling to some of the world’s more ‘off-piste’ travel destinations. Organising a ‘holiday’ to war-torn destinations isn’t straightforward. Not only this, but in devoting yourself so fully to visiting ‘everywhere’, other aspects of your life face compromises, as Harry explained:
“I’ve had to forgo a semblance of ‘normal’ life and everything that goes with it. For the past ten years I haven’t really had a ‘normal’ job (managing NomadMania takes loads of time but provides no income) and it would be very hard to travel the way I do and work at the same time. I am not of the digital nomad generation and would not enjoy making travel my professional life.
More importantly though, I have had to limit some of the things I truly enjoy a lot, simple things like watching a film with friends, going to the theatre, playing board games, everyday things that a quieter, more settled side of me would wish to be a centre of my life. Though I am married, and have also managed to maintain some key friendships over time without losing touch, I would say that to be a global traveller one has to somewhat sever ties with ‘normal’ life and routine. I often find I don’t belong anywhere anymore, and this sometimes creeps up on me existentially. Though soon enough I forget all that with the next adventure.”
Harry isn’t the first person who I’ve heard things like this from. In 2019, I went to Iraq with a group of travel addicts. At dinner on the first night, I nonchalantly wheeled out the fact that I’d been to North Korea, expecting to soak up their collective adulation (in my mind at least). All 12 of them matter-of-factly said they’d been there as well. People discussed visiting North Korea as if they’d popped over to Mykonos for a long weekend.
Everyone on the tour had been to over 100 countries. The compulsion to travel hadn’t always had positive consequences for many of them, not least the fact they’d all decided to go on holiday to Iraq. One man in his mid-70s had been to 185 countries. Sounds amazing, right? Perhaps not. All he did was moan about travel. “All I want to do is relax with a coffee on the Champs Elysées. But I have Syria next, and then a trip to one of the unstable countries in Central Africa. I can’t wait to finish the lot so I can enjoy my holidays again.” His goal was his burden.
Like other addictions, is it possible that dromomania starts to dominate every facet of the addict’s life, with not always positive consequences? Are we crazed travellers blindly stumbling around the world, unable to resist the lure of subconscious thought patterns and neural pathways compelling us to move around the rock we’re all stuck on?
In Defence Of Dromomaniacs
Not so fast. As someone who is still in the grips of his addiction, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if travel is an addiction, it’s a good one to have (shock). And at minimum, it’s probably better than being addicted to crack. For me, memories of my travels are among my fondest. My experiences travelling the world have all been formative in some way. And over time, seeing so much of the world has profoundly changed me as a person. Before you think I’m going to go full woo woo here, hear me out. I’m not the only one.
Legendary author Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of man and thing cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all of one’s lifetime.” Or, in layman’s terms, if you travel you become less prone to thinking where you happen to live is the best place in the world (a feeling commonly described as ‘patriotism’). This usually comes hand-in-hand with less charitable views on other human beings, who had the audacity not to be born in the same clump of land as you. Harry, like most other travellers I spoke to, broadly agrees that travel makes you value humanity more:
“I’ve always believed that human beings are inherently good and intense international travel has only strengthened my belief given that almost everywhere I have been, I have found helpful, open people who are as curious about me as I am about them. Though it may sound very clichéd, I think the greatest lesson is that we truly are more or less the same, with almost identical needs and desires, no matter the obvious differences in lifestyle, material conditions, or beliefs about the world.”
These views are oft dismissed. They are sneered at as being hippie nonsense, from people who believe that wanting to leave your own country is a deeply unpatriotic act. But scientists also agree. Several studies have shown that travel breeds more open attitudes to new experiences. They’ve also found that the more countries you travel to, the more it increases your trust in the benevolence of humanity.
So if you do choose to travel, be prepared to change (and mostly for the better). Travel changes your view on humanity, to a much more positive one. When you look beyond the stream of negativity spewed at us by news organisations and the human cesspit of social media (Instagram handle @thetravellingape, hit me up!), you realise that the world is full of mostly good people. However ‘dangerous’ the country I’ve chosen to visit is perceived to be, I’ve left each one noticing our common goodness and humanity. Rather than focusing on the fact we speak different languages, wear different clothes, and have different views on how the world came to be, I’m instead always struck by our underlying sameness. Given that we are the same breed of animal, this shouldn’t really surprise us. But because of our nationalist divisions, it often does.
For all its flaws – and there are indeed many – I’ve been left with the overwhelming belief that the world is much better than we give it credit for. Humanity is not a “plague on Earth”, as naturalist David Attenborough has described us. It’s the richness of the societies and cultures we’ve created which make so much of the world amazing to visit, and indeed to have the privilege to live on, ever so fleetingly. If you can look beyond the hate that the media peddles so effectively, and see the world for yourself, you’ll no doubt come to the same conclusions. This planet is incredible. We have so much to celebrate about humanity and its achievements. And it would pay to remember this sometimes.
So, if you choose only one thing to get addicted to in 2021, let it be travel. Allow dromomania into your life. You’ll be all the richer for it.