Wanderlust is defined as “a strong desire to travel”.
It’s an insatiable need to getaway, a hunger for adventure. It’s itchy feet when you’re in one place for too long, and depression when you haven’t got any upcoming trips to look forward to. For anyone consumed by wanderlust, the only cure is to carry on travelling. Happiness is booking a flight, a hotel, a hostel; it’s packing a bag, a suitcase, a rucksack, and jetting off, driving off, walking off into the sunset, the distance, the unknown.
I have wanderlust.
Have I always had wanderlust? No, I don’t think so.
Up until 2015, before I accidentally embarked on my 12 countries in 12 months challenge, I hadn’t really been much of a traveller at all. Sure, I’d had the odd holiday here and there with family, friends and ex-partners, to standard tourist hotspots like France, Spain and Florida, but nowhere too exotic. They were holidays after all, not “trips”, I wasn’t “travelling”.
Then, towards the end of 2014 (when I went to The Gambia, one of the lesser-visited-by-Brits countries on my travel résumé) and the beginning of 2015, when I went on my first solo travel adventure, I began travelling more frequently, to more exciting (and less-mainstream) destinations.
However, whenever I was back in the UK, sat at my desk working a 9-5 job, my mind would wander (literally) – I daydreamed of my next trip and the experiences awaiting me. Where would I go? What would I discover? There is a big wide world out there, and I want to see it – not be stuck in one place staring at the same four walls.
After managing to visit 12 countries in a year, I set myself another challenge: to travel to 30 countries before my 30th birthday. With 18 months to complete it in, the challenge seemed more than achievable. But then life got in the way; I fell in love and moved to Yorkshire. I semi-gave up on my mission and concentrated on making my new relationship work instead. But my efforts were futile; for reasons I won’t go into now, my partner and I broke up and I had to move back down south. Taking some time out after my unexpected return to Reading, I decided to treat myself to a holiday in Cyprus. It was a chance to recover, recuperate, a trip to help me learn to love myself again.
After just a week away exploring foreign lands, my burning passion to travel was reignited. Within a week of being back, I was restless and my feet were itching. As I had no job to go to, I hastily booked trip after trip, managing to tick off the five remaining countries I needed to achieve my 30 before 30.
That was in July 2017. So am I done travelling now? Hell no.
I’m still trying to decide what my next travel challenge will be (so if you’ve got any suggestions, please pop them in the comments below), but until then, I’ll carry on travelling as much as I can, work commitments and budget permitting.
The need to travel is in my system, perhaps even in my blood. Which poses the question: are we genetically predisposed to be being bitten by the travel bug?
Psychologists and behavioural scientists have looked into why certain individuals, such as myself, have the inherent urge to travel. Though geneticists are quick to point out that no single gene determines a particular behavior, the findings do suggest that a penchant for breaking away from routine, throwing caution to the wind and going with the flow could be caused by a mutation in our genetic makeup.
According to experts, a strong desire to travel can be traced back to one gene – a derivative of the gene DRD4 – which is associated with dopamine levels in the brain, which prompts motivation and behavior. The mutation has been identified as DRD4-7R, and is dubbed the “wanderlust gene,” because of its correlation with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness, for the most part.
The gene is not all too common; in fact, it’s only possessed by about 20% of the population. Studies have found there is a much higher prevalence of this gene in regions of the globe where travel has been encouraged in the past, such as Europe.
A separate study done by David Dobbs of National Geographic supported the research – and provided reason not to just draw the link to curiosity and restlessness, but specifically a passion for travel. According to Dobbs, people who possess the DRD4-7R gene are typically “more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities.” He adds that bearers of this gene “generally embrace movement, change, and adventure.”
Do I have the gene? Quite possibly. I like to challenge myself, to push myself out of my comfort zone. On the other hand though, I don’t depend on drugs, don’t take financial risks or gamble, and I don’t have ADHD (at least I haven’t been diagnosed with it). So where has my love of travel evolved from? Is my wanderlust inherited?
Mum is undoubtedly a traveller – maybe not on the same scale as I (she loves her home comforts too much, especially a strong cup of British tea), but a traveller nevertheless. The daughter of an engineer in the airforce, she was born in Bahrain, living there for a year with my grandparents and aunt before moving back to the UK. Of course she doesn’t remember it, she was only a baby – but she does remember family holidays to Malta, as well as living in Cyprus for three years. Perhaps this was what spurred my natural affinity with the Mediterranean island when I visited it last April?
Anyway, today, aged 55, Mum’s travelled to a grand total of 17 countries, the most recent being our all-inclusive holiday in the Dominican Republic. Along with my dad and brothers, we’ve also been to Portugal and Florida. And then separately, Mum and I have been to Majorca in the Canary Islands, The Gambia, Tunisia and Puerto Rico. She’s even been to countries I’ve yet to visit, including Sierre Leone and Kenya.
Travelling certainly runs in the family on my mum’s side. My maternal grandparents love it too.
In April 2016 I arranged a trip to India for Grandma and I. It’s somewhere that had been on my bucket list since I first watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Enamoured by the colourful, cultural country that the film portrayed, when I mentioned it to Grandma, she too said she’d loved the film and wanted to go to India, but as Grandpa “didn’t fancy it”, she’d never had the chance.
So when a deal came up on Travelzoo for a cheap tour package for the Golden Triangle, I sent details to Grandma and asked if I should book it. I was in Colombia at the time, but an email came back almost immediately: “Yes” followed by a thumbs up emoji.
The trip didn’t disappoint. We spent seven days touring India’s infamous Golden Triangle, visiting the biggest temples and palaces in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, including the Taj Mahal, of course – somewhere that’d been on my bucket list for years.
But there was more to this trip than just the historical places our little group was chaperoned around by our tour guide Dilip; we learnt about modern day culture, too. We had an Indian cookery lesson in a family home, were shown how carpets and textiles are made in a “traditional factory”, we risked our lives on a rickshaw ride in Old Delhi and got caught up in the traffic in New Delhi. It was a series of experiences, rather than just a holiday – and I got to share all that with Grandma, creating memories I’ll cherish forever.
Now both retired, my maternal grandparents try to get away as often as they can, on trips they affectionately call “SKI holidays”. These aren’t actually skiing getaways, oh no – instead they’re Spending Kids’ Inheritance on cruises and long haul flights to exotic destinations. And why not? Both now in their late 70s, they’ve earnt it.
They’ve been on three different Caribbean cruises, and taken a cruise to the Far East, with stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Alaska. They’ve explored Malaysia several times too, as well as Thailand, Kenya and the Philippines. And up until the summer of 2016, Grandpa regularly scuba dived off the coasts of Malta and Canada – two very different places. Unfortunately due to medical problems, he’s unable to dive anymore. However that doesn’t stop him travelling with his diving buddies wherever they go, helping them with their underwater photography (something he’s rather an expert in).
With all that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that travelling runs in the blood on Mum’s side of the family. But what about my paternal side? Are the Talbots also consumed by wanderlust?
Nope, not so much actually.
Our first family holiday abroad – a fortnight in Florida – was the first proper flight Dad ever boarded. Though he’d been in a plane when he was a teenager, apparently the whole experience had scared him so much he’d not wanted to fly since. It was only our relentless pestering to go to Walt Disney World, and tickets to the Daytona 500 Nascar race, that eventually made him change his mind in 2001.
I remember the holiday – and the flight – well. Though I’d been on flights before, it was my brothers’ first flight as well as my dad’s. Needless to say, aged 8 and 11, they were both super excited about boarding the plane – perhaps even more excited than they were about Disney or Nascar. Dad, on the other hand, aged 39, was a nervous wreck, with white knuckles gripping the seat and eyes screwed tightly closed.
Last Sunday, when I told Dad I was writing this post, I asked him about his fear of flying, what caused it, what was so bad about his “first” flight…
He corrects me: it’s not a fear of flying, it’s a fear of dying.
A bit dramatic, I think as I try not to laugh. He’s straight-faced and serious as he tells me about his “near death” experience on the maiden voyage of a friend’s father’s homemade biplane, when he was 15. “The whole thing was held together with tape and string… I could see the grass beneath my feet…” The plane made it just metres down the runway and a foot off the ground before my dad started screaming to get out. He hadn’t been in a plane since – until 2001.
Instead, whenever he went abroad, he would drive. This sounds limiting, but he’s still managed trips to France, Belgium (via Luxembourg) and Italy (via France and Switzerland). Adding to this a work trip to Ireland and our family holidays to Portugal and Florida, Dad’s made it to a total of six countries. Not quite a travel résumé as long as mine or Mum’s, but not bad for someone with a fear of flying.
So, has my wanderlust stemmed from genetics? Is my need to travel innate, or incidental? Condé Nast asked its readers the same question, to which it received mixed replies. Some favoured nature over nuture, while others believed their passion for adventure came from congenital habits picked up from immediate family members.
It would explain a lot if a geneticist were to find that I do possess the DRD4-7R mutation. But on the other hand, perhaps it’s the inherited balance of my Dad’s dislike of travel and my Mum’s love of it that keeps me coming home after every trip…