“What? A great man? I always see only the actor of his own ideal.” — Friedrich Nietzsche.

Everyone has their own understanding of what travel is and debates are rife about what it should mean. Is it about living in a new city; Berlin or Bali? Learning calligraphy or yoga in an exotic destination? Drinking vodka or smoking opium with locals? If you don’t have a clear idea of your own, then there are endless blog posts or guidebooks offering you their version of how to travel. The truth is: there is no right or wrong.

In almost two years of travelling I’ve realised what travel isn’t about for me. It’s not about non-stop adventure, the tornado of which is ageing me by leaps and bounds; it’s not about making hundreds of new acquaintances, whose names I’ll fail to remember; it’s not about the search for myself, because I was never lost in the first place. But I knew from the start that to better understand myself and what I wanted to get out of travel would be tricky, and should become the focus of my own personal school.

Finding myself in situations where tourists are perceived as brainless cash cows pissed me off, so I began to avoid buying tourist packages and visiting touristy places with elevated prices to match. I realised that capital cities were rarely of interest to me. Swapping the metropolis for the fringes was more enthralling for me; I was curious to learn how people live, what they eat and drink, where and how they work. I found that visiting only two or three cities in the country wasn’t sufficient to answer these questions, so I began to travel more extensively.

As time passed I switched global for local. Golden beaches were replaced with volcanic beaches. Banana pancakes replaced with rice and pulses. Beer replaced with rice wine. I woke up early in order to see locals waking up early. I went to places no one else was interested in visiting. I continued driving, until I finally realised that, for me, the importance of my journey lay in the search for traditional local cultures.

Soon after, I adjusted my way of travel and in less than 24 hours every inch of space in my world was filled by locals. They were everywhere; from trains to restaurants, eating at my table, riding on the bus roof and sitting on my bed. For a while I worried I’d taken things too far, but I didn’t allow that to scare me. It was all cool and I was ready to learn. This was a school lesson that I didn’t want to skip.

I learned lessons in how salt and sulphur are gathered and how garbage is sorted and recycled. How tea and coffee is picked. How clothes are sewn and shoes fixed. How insects are exterminated and livestock slaughtered. How dogs and cows are left to die in gutters. How people live on the streets; brushing their teeth, washing and urinating, and walking kilometres to fetch water. Some places were without electricity and sanitation, far removed from travel agencies and Michelin starred hotels. And their coarse inhabitants too preoccupied to display any manners or etiquette.

Their curiosity fuelled an abundance of questions. Where do I come from and what do I do? Why do I sleep in a tent when I could sleep in a house? Where is my house? They stared at me, sometimes gathering around in small crowds. They are dressed in Adibas, drinking Coca-Cola and shouting “How are you?” They peer at strangers who, in their opinion, represent prosperity. Who will for a moment allow them into their world, will show them an iPhone or take a selfie with them. They idolise a person from a far-off land, because they think he is rich and his pale skin is beautiful. His world is the promised land, where he succeeds and prospers.

They aren’t aware of the side-effects that progress in these other cultures has caused, of the misery and suffering it can create. They may not realise that our modern diet is linked to a whole host of ailments, that personal greed is devastating the planet, and that selfie-culture is isolating us from one another. They might not know that some prosperous nations thrive thanks to constant war in other parts of the world, and that the wealth of a few depends on the poverty of many. They might not be aware that a hydrogen bomb could, in a mere moment, turn our homes and cities into ruins and us into dust.

Just when I had figured out my own motivations for travel, I realised that the people I was so interested in understanding, are actually striving to live the life I’d left behind. They are blindly following the same path many other cultures have already taken, and have no idea where this road is really leading them.