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In Defense of Bucket Lists

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Stephanie on August 20, 2014 at 7:02 am

    Enjoyed your Keeping Up Appearances Reference…I have to agree, lists are psychologically rewarding and just easier to interpret. There’s something exciting about them too that makes you feel hopeful and excited. But yea, as long as they’re not too prescriptive and contrive!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 20, 2014 at 7:32 am

      Glad to hear that. It seems almost ‘cool’ to look down on lists these days… I love narrative and write it as often as I can but sometimes, a list can just say it better, and will be more useful to the reader.

  2. Jennifer on August 20, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    I like lists and have a travel bucket list of my own. I know there are a lot of people that look down on them professing it’s no way to travel. But then, they also look down on any type of travel that isn’t exactly as they travel. So to hell with them!

    Like you, I like to keep a list as a set of travel goals – places I want to see, things I want to do, and the like. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I get to cross something off of that list.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 20, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      Jen – you’re traveling so much your list must be getting awfully short! 🙂

      Mine, on the other hand, seems to be getting longer… hmmm…

    • Robyn Metzger on November 7, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      I think goals is a very good word to use. Lists, goals….I think the main thing with travel is to have a PURPOSE, an aim. I find it is more rewarding if this involves other people and even more so if it helps other people.
      I mainly travel on my own and I try to engage with local people – especially women and do my best to help make their life a little easier and (hopefully) better by sharing some of the knowledge of the wider world I have gained with my travels. In developing countries I often find the women are behind the family run tourism ventures, trying to support their family. Some times a small thing like making a Feed back form, introducing them to Trip Advisor, organising a template for a Welcome to our Place print off …… In Samoa I have documented all the low cost accommodation and organised for an IT student to make a website….Lists, Goals, a sense of purpose, achievement, engaging with locals, they all make travel so much more rewarding

      • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 7, 2014 at 8:43 pm

        Like you I enjoy having a purpose to my travel. That said I have at times drifted aimlessly and been happy to do so. I love that you try to help promote small businesses run by women. Sometimes it takes so little and kudos on the imaginative ways in which you do it.

  3. Casey @ A Cruising Couple on August 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I have to agree, I love a good bucket list. I think it’s all about finding a balance. Lists are great to keep us motivated, to give us something to look forward to, to provide a bit of organization so we don’t just flounce around without any sort of guidance. That doesn’t mean you can’t still be spontaneous, too 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 22, 2014 at 5:57 pm

      Exactly! I enjoy both – the list, and the ability to throw it to the wind 🙂

  4. Laura on August 22, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    I love a good bucket list. We used to have one until we realized pretty much everything in the world was on it 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 23, 2014 at 6:52 am

      Know what you mean – there are few places I DON’T want to visit!

  5. […] always written. At six I wrote lists (I still do) and at 12 it was songs. I wrote for a newspaper and for radio and then back to Europe (where I […]

  6. Irene S Levine on September 5, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    What a great post~
    Lists are a way to organize all the rich possibilities we find in life.

    Best, Irene

  7. De'Jav on September 10, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Definitely like the fact of a bucket list just to keep us motivated but I’m like you spontaneous. I think those are the best adventures and travels we’ll have anyways. Glad we think a like.

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