In today’s Why We Travel post, I interview Michael Jensen, author, editor, columnist, and one half of “Brent and Michael Are Going Places,” a blog about digital nomadism and LGBTQ travel. He’s married to Brent Hartinger, who is an author, screenwriter, columnist, and travel-blogger.
Describe your first transformative travel experience.
When I was seventeen, I was lucky enough to go to Australia as an exchange student. The experience was transformative, to say the least. First, it literally transformed me — I was a fat kid who lost forty pounds, because I was so much more active. But more important than the physical transformation, it showed me how amazing the world was outside of suburban Denver, Colorado. Being away from my friends and family allowed me the chance to really figure out who I was and what I wanted out of life. During my time in Australia, I not only got to experience Sydney, truly a world-class city, but I learned to snorkel and body surf, hiked in the Blue Mountains, and developed a lifelong passion for seeing and doing new things.
Why is travel important to you personally?
I travel because I have one life, and I want to see and experience as much of the world as I can. That’s why in 2017, my husband and I sold our home in Seattle, Washington, got rid of almost all of our belongings, and set out to see the world as digital nomads. We usually stay in one location for somewhere between two and three months, so almost every day I learn and discover something new about the latest place were calling home. It feels like I literally live and breathe travel every hour. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was bored or didn’t have something interesting to do. For example, here in Tbilisi, Georgia, where we’re currently living, we’re staying in an apartment building constructed in the 80s during the Soviet era. It’s a bit rough around the edges (okay, a lot rough), but it’s been interesting meeting our neighbors and actually experiencing how locals live. That never would’ve happened if we had just breezed through on vacation.
How would you describe your travel “style”?
Our style of travel is to be “slomads.” As I noted already, we move once every two to three months. Since we’re often living in places much less expensive to live in than Seattle, we live comfortably, but not extravagantly by any means. And by being slomads, we get to experience each location in a way that is much more profound than just being a tourist for a week or two. Sure, we see the main attractions, but then we get to some of the locals and learn about the more unusual, off-the-beaten track places to visit that most folks miss. We eat at the same restaurants as the locals do, shop at the same markets, get a sense of the ebb and flow of a place. That’s the part I love the most. For instance, we recently spent two months living in Hoi An, Vietnam, in a homestay literally surrounded by rice fields. And because we lived for two months, we saw an entire cycle of growing rice, from harvesting and drying the rice to plowing and replanting. It was fascinating and beautiful to see.
What tips do you have for travelers to make their experiences more meaningful?
My biggest travel tip is to forget about the most famous places in the world that everyone “has” to see. Or at least don’t think they are the only things that have to be seen. Honestly, between the crowds swarming around the Eiffel Tower, and the cost of visiting those places, I’ll be perfectly happy if I never see another “marquee” destination again. Instead, visit places like Matera, Italy, with its vast, ancient “stone city,” the most amazing place I’d never heard of before visiting. Or come to Tbilisi, Georgia, which sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Not only is it incredibly inexpensive, it’s a vibrant, dynamic setting changing right before our very eyes.
What are your favorite travel-related books, movies, paintings, poems, songs, etc.?
Favorite travel-related books? Can I say The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien? Because it was the first book I read that made me want to step outside my front door and see where the road would take me. And forgive my rather abstract answer when I saw it was the work of Claude Monet that also sparked my interest in travel. I found his impressionistic paintings of France to be so evocative and indelible, that not only did I desperately want to see those places for myself, but they also reinforced my belief in looking at the world with the freshest eyes possible.
Travel is so important because it takes us out of our bubbles and shows us two contradictory things: That people in the rest of the world are both dramatically different from ourselves, and yet the same. It’s good for everyone to see that contradiction, to understand that there are so many different ways of being – living in tiny rural areas and huge sprawling metroplexes; in conservative countries and liberal cities; believing in one god, dozens of gods, or no gods at all; living in the mountains and by the beach; by the equator where it never snows and by the poles where it can be dark for months at a time. And yet no matter where we live, people pretty much want the same things. Enough to eat, a roof over our heads, a better future for our children. To live in peace. And if you travel and meet different people, it becomes much harder to “other” them, to feel threatened by them, to not feel compassion for them. I think the world would probably be a much more peaceful place if more people got out of their own bubble and met the people we all share this planet with.
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