Like Mrs Bucket in the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances – she insists her name be pronounced ‘Bouquet’ – I don’t like the word or the way it sounds.
I do love the concept of a bucket list, however.
I’m a Taurean list-maker. Not only do I make them but I often color code them, annotate them, and draw things around them.
To me lists are a way of organizing my thoughts and my goals. In travel, they are my aspirations, neatly laid out for me to pick at and deconstruct. Lists of places to visit. Not to visit. Restaurants to try. Long-distance train journeys. Churches. Best season to travel. Pretty much everything. They contain my dreams.
1000 Places: the birth of a travel list
When Patricia Schultz first wrote 1000 Places to See Before You Die, the main thing I disliked about it… was that I hadn’t written it first.
I don’t use it as the ultimate map for my travels, nor do I decide to visit every compelling destination she suggests.
And I don’t think for a moment that 1000 Places – or its many spinoffs – was meant to be prescriptive, to guide every single step on a journey. On the contrary, I found it eye-opening, suggestive, inspirational.
I have a dog-eared copy, and I leaf through it often. It gives me ideas. It makes me wander. And wonder. It opens up my thoughts to places I never would have considered otherwise. It tantalizes and tempts me.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because this innocent book is making waves in the travel world. A recent article by the respected Robert Reid, National Geographic Travel’s Offbeat Observer, says it “reduces travel to a pass/fail proposition.”
“A more rewarding approach to travel, at least for me, is less clinical–where the aim is to find reward from unplanned, spontaneous encounters,” Reid writes. His goal, “if it exists at all, is the open-ended exploration of a neighborhood, not simply an acquisitive hunt to check something off a list.”
Comments have been coming in fast and furious as a result because he does have a point – several in fact.
I fully agree that a reductionist approach to travel is superficial and that travel as contest is no way to see the world.
Not black or white
It is not, however, an either/or situation: Can’t you be a traveler who enjoys checking off experiences on a list, while taking the time to get under a society’s skin?
Of course you can. There’s no reason to think structured planning and whimsy and spontaneity can’t coexist. And why blame the list?
When I decided to travel to Africa in 1996 I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town with the intention of ‘traveling up the Eastern backbone’. I had a list: I knew exactly which countries I would visit. But that’s where the planning stopped.
I would choose my route based on which seats were available from the local minibus station. I traveled at a leisurely pace for a year. I stayed in South Africa for two months, in Eritrea for six weeks, and even spent a full 30 days in tiny Malawi.
So I’m fairly familiar with evolving, slow, spontaneous travel – call it what you will.
It isn’t about the list.
It’s about what happens as a result of the list.
Fear of heights has always kept me from mountaintops but in my effort to scratch this one from my list, I spent an entire winter taking every cable car I could. I lived in Switzerland – a lot of cable cars. That’s how I met Isfan, a nice Iranian man who was so shocked at my pallid face at the top of a mountain that he marched me to the bar and spent the rest of the afternoon telling me how Iran was ‘not like everyone says’.
Or the list of cities I decided to see in Albania, most of which I’d never heard of. In each city I made it a point to meet a local woman and talk about her life, providing me with insights I would have gone without otherwise.
Or the list of local foods I decided to try when I moved to Thailand, forcing me well beyond my comfort zone.
I could go on but then I’d have… another list.
It is fashionable to criticize lists as the lowest common denominator of writing, the so-called easy way out when you can’t think of anything else to say. It is not. On the contrary, a well-written list is at least as difficult to write as narrative – it needs to be tight, interesting, and convey information with punch.
I think it’s clear by now that I love lists and judging by the sheer quantity of list posts and books out there, I’m not the only one.
- In an article in the venerable New Yorker, author Maria Konnikova believes “a list is perfectly designed for our brain. We are drawn to it intuitively, we process it more efficiently, and we retain it with little effort.” In other words, it’s easy to digest.
- A list provides instant gratification. By crossing things off or ticking a box, we get a sense of achievement, of completion, a feeling that is increasingly hard to find in our busy world.
- We tend to suffer from what the French so aptly call the embarras du choix, being spoilt for choice. What to visit on a one-week trip to Germany? A glance through 1000 Places will help me narrow it down. And reduce my stress level. Lists help us focus – especially those of us who have left our younger years behind and know that we have less time than we once did.
- Lists can be cathartic and can change – even save – lives. In this piece for BBC Travel’s new long-form magazine, Amy Gigi Alexander credits a bucket list with saving hers.
It will take much more than a bucket list to destroy my spontaneity or curiosity when I travel so I will continue updating mine as often as I need to.
But maybe, like Mrs Bucket, I’ll change its name. I’ll call it my List of Dreams. Because that’s exactly what it is.