On why I don’t have a bucket list

In 2008 I led a one-off tour that started in Cairo and then stretched west across North Africa, meandering all the way to Casablanca in Morocco. Back on a minibus, after an exhausting wait on Egypt’s Sallum border post into Libya, I overheard my elderly tour passenger crow to her husband, “number 66 and another one off the bucket list.”

“Hey Jess,” her husband shouted. “This is our 66th country. How many countries have you been to?”

Here’s a secret.

I don’t have a bucket list.

There. I’ve said it. I have committed the sin of the modern day traveller. I don’t have a top 50 things to do before I die or even a top 20 places to see before I turn 40. When I was 20 I didn’t have a top 100 destinations to tick off a list before I turned 30 either. And when I did turn 30 I wasn’t exactly sure how many countries or bucket-listy places I’d actually been to.

Not long after that tour finished, a friend got me to write down all the countries I’d visited to see who came out on top. After presenting him with the list he pointed out that despite the fact we were living in Cairo and my job had me constantly travelling across the Middle East and North Africa I had managed to forget to write down every single North African and Middle Eastern country, including the one I lived in. I guess I wasn’t made for tick box tourism.

The way my passenger couple had gloated that they’d now been to 66 countries when we’d only been in number 66 for a total of five minutes sums up the bucket list problem to me. It reduces the very act of travelling to a simple list of must-sees and must-dos that we can later brag about. Of course I want to see a country’s most famed monuments and attractions (and you can read more about my attitude towards the travel-snobs who avoid the major sites here) but it always seems to me that it’s the things in between all those must-sees that provide the best and most memorable travel experiences.

In 2004 I went to Libya for the first time (sans passengers) and yes, the grand Roman ruins of Leptis Magna blew me away and I thought the winding lanes of the Sahara Caravan city of Ghadarmes was one of the most enchanting place I’d ever seen but they are not the things that first spring to mind when someone asks me about Libya.

Instead I usually tell them about the shopkeeper in Khoms (the town beside the ruined Roman city) who was so gobsmacked at seeing an independent traveller that he wouldn’t let me pay for my groceries. Or I tell them about the oil engineer in Tobruq who bumped into me on the street and took the day off work to give me a private tour of the WWII cemeteries. His tour culminated in a tea drinking session with Tobruq’s Minister for Tourism who earnestly asked me how they could attract more travellers to town and then, jangling a set of keys before me, opened up Rommel’s operation bunker just for me. I tell them about being held in the Ghadarmes police station for hours because they knew I wasn’t supposed to be here (independent travel was illegal in Libya at this time) but they didn’t know what to do with me (they decided ignoring the issue was the best option and let me go). And I tell them about bizarre bus trips, about hitching rides in dodgy minibuses with even dodgier drivers, and getting lost everywhere because the guidebook maps were so out of date none of them made sense. Mostly though the things I remember from that trip are the people and you can’t put people on a bucket list.

It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.

On that same Cairo to Casablanca trip in 2008 we were held up for four hours on the Tunisia/Algeria border. By the time everyone was stamped through the Tunisian side the group were a bedraggled and tired mess who just wanted to get to a hotel with a clean-ish toilet. We entered the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Algeria (my passengers’ no 68) under one of those tour group black clouds that threaten to turn into a tour leader nightmare of in-group bickering. The no-man’s land between the frontier posts stretched on in a desolate plain of dirty desert sand for four kilometres up to the shack that served as Algeria’s immigration building. I had no idea about transport here and guessed we were going to have to walk. And then, out of the desert nothingness in the distance a plume of sand rose in the air. We watched and waited as the sound of the thrumping engine got closer until Muhammad pulled up beside us in his car and threw open the passenger door which then theatrically fell off the car body completely to land in the sand beside our feet.

I squeezed people and luggage into the car. Muhammad threw open the bonnet and fixed something with a rubber band. He pushed me into the passenger seat and handed me the door to hang on to. We broke down three times on the short trip between the border posts making what should have been a five minute drive into a half hour circus which starred a hammer, a piece of rope and a copious number of rubber bands (which I began to have a whole new respect for afterwards). In a cloud of dust we arrived in front of Algerian immigration. As we climbed out, the car gave an audible sigh and something exploded in the engine. We entered Algeria laughing hysterically all signs of grumpiness gone.

You can’t put Muhammad and his border transport on a bucket list. It’s just one of those odd moments that can occur on a journey and make you love travelling even more. While bucket lists would have us condense travel to a simple series of tick box sights, it’s moments like these that remind us that travel is more than a wish list of things we must see. It’s also about the bonkers shit that happens along the way. So much of modern life is buried under lists with career goals and five year plans and achievements we should aim for. Let’s not spoil our travel time the same way.

112 thoughts on “On why I don’t have a bucket list

  1. There’s nothing like getting lost on purpose – all of my best memories come from the unplanned and unknown. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • This quote really hit me:

      “It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.”

      It flawlessly provides a deep perspective about traveling and experiencing life in general. We should always be conscious of whether we are letting our thinking mind blur and dull our moment to moment experience.

      http://toknowistochange.wordpress.com/

  2. I agree completely. I’m off to Paris with a friend this year and she wants everything planned to the second, taking the metro everywhere to save time. But what about the spaces in between the attractions? What might we miss?
    Great post x

  3. Absolutely agree that ticking off a list of exotic places/countries irritates me at times when I hear such folks. And I don’t care for blogs that have a menu selection, my bucket list of destinations. It’s like a kid collecting marbles or something.

  4. So well written. I love your describing how it’s the people (and fully-experienced moments) that make living (traveling or not) what it’s all about.

  5. Hip, hip…. Good on you! Whoever came up with the bucket list idea anyway? It takes away the spontaneity and enjoyment when you have to remember to carry a pen to tick the boxes and then you lose the pen… (?)

  6. Good points about the pitfalls of travel bucket lists. I agree that travel should not be limited to a tick box list of things to see and do. That might seem a strange thing to say when you see my website address but I am passionate about travel and I know very well that some of the most memorable travel experiences are had in the journey and not the destination. That said I would think that most people have in their head places that they would love to visit. That to me is a travel bucket list, even if it is not something conciously written down, and if it inspires you to get out and travel it is only a good thing as you will discover more than you can imagine along the way.

  7. I think the same issue surrounds our social media obsession with capturing the perfect Instagram or Tweeting the cool experience of the day. Sometimes the best moments are unplanned and best left to be savored as memories alone.

  8. Loved it, I totally agree that it’s the funny stuff happening to you while traveling makes the whole trip worthwile. Nobody can tell a Muhammad story when the most important thing is taking a photo in front of some sight.

  9. I’m going to get lost in the noise that is the comment list to your post so will keep this short. I too Love travelling through a country’s people, bucket lists belong in buckets and laughter is to the soul what water is to our bodies – essential – a post well written. :-) stay safe though (carry a rubber band!)

  10. Great article. I hate lists, I’m the most unorganised person. I just want to see the world. In no particular order.Turkey is no exception, I came here last minute to escape with no expectations, I’ve done the touristy stuff but its the crazy day to day goings on that are the most moving!

  11. Thanks for this! I had wondered if I should be thinking about a bucket list when I overheard my mum encouraging my auntie to make a list of ‘things you want to do before you kick the bucket!’ I knew instantly I was all about taking life’s adventures as they come and bucket lists, as you so rightly point out, are basically the opposite of that.

    I have no ideas how many countries I have ‘been to’ 10? 20? Who cares? I’ve been to Antigua 5 times and never left the airport – do I count that? 9/10 it’s the people who make my travel experiences magical but I still remember cringing when someone said ‘I just have to play soccer with some local kids everywhere I go’…

  12. I really enjoyed your blog! I actually have a bucket list which I am constantly chopping and changing, maybe I should take a leaf out of your blog and live beyond restriction :) thank you for a great read!

  13. Couldn’t agree more, travelling isn’t a true experience if you have a strict itinerary of things to see or do. Its about the adventure that leads you to these places, and this is quite often the way in which you find some hidden gems that are off the beaten track and certainly not on some bucket list. It’s a shame how many people claim to be travelling enthusiast when they never quite leave the close proximity of a coach tour or hotel.

  14. I see bucket lists differently. My blog is a “backwards” bucketlist, so it made me feel good to see other people see it this way too. I think they are a way of living backwards, and looking inside. I think many bucket lists are focused on the exterior and on amassing a list of places or things we did. Rather my bucket list is about how we feel on the inside-what we accomplish emotionally or spiritually-Please read it and tell me what you think! Mrsbucketlist.wordpress.com

  15. I thought about making a bucket list…but I simply couldn’t limit myself to following a To-Do list. I’m one of those people that both my ex’s hated….someone who doesn’t have a clear life plan or purpose. I tend to go and do what I feel like doing on the spur of the moment. Life is far too short to miss out on pulling off the side of the road to watch a blue jay feed her babies.

  16. I agree. I, too, don’t have a bucket list. There are places that I want to go, things I want to see/experience, but not at the expense of the journey. While I have an idea, maybe an ongoing list, it’s not all consuming, and I would never consider it a bucket list.

  17. Great post – I totally agree, much better to get to know the country, its personality, its citizens than to rush through countries with only enough time to see the top 5 sights! Much better to follow your whimsy and see where you end up!

  18. I enjoyed this very much – insightful and well-written. There are things I want to do before I get older but I never want to limit myself to a list. I think a lot of people misinterpret checking something off a list with a true experience. Have you heard about the Brit who supposedly has visited every single country in the past five years?

  19. This is awesome and it totally resonates with me. My own blog is about much of the same. I am such a wanderluster, however seeing a city/place for 10 minutes and checking it off a list is not “seeing” it. I travel for the experiences and the people. While we may not get to everywhere, we do come away richer :)

  20. I enjoyed this post but I must admit that I have a bucket list, one which I am constantly updating as I read about cool things/see cool photos. I feel that a bucket list helps you plan your next trip–for exxample, I just went to Morocco and I looked back at my bucket list to see what sites I had listed for Morocco. I couldn’t go to all of them obviously but it was kind of cool to experience something I’d seen in a photo before, of course along with all those funny little moments like giggling with my mother at a donkey digging into a roadside dumpster. :P

  21. Spot on. So many times I ended up in places that I’d have never considered visiting and then they turned out to provide some of the most excititng travel experiences. Of course, we all have some places we’d love t visit some day but people all too often become prisoners of their ”bucket list”.

  22. Thank you for finally saying it! No bucket list! You have given me the courage to say it too- I have no bucket list! I really enjoyed your post. Your insight is right on with travel (and pretty much with life too.) Look forward to reading you in the future and Congratualtions on Freshly Pressed!

  23. I just happened across your post on “Freshly Pressed” and couldn’t help but comment. I agree with your comment about ticking boxes and how country-counting steels something away from the hidden adventures within the act of travel. My husband and I had rented a moto in rural central Turkey a couple of years ago. We happened across a hand-painted sign advertising a tour of a lesser known underground city. We shrugged and said, “why not?” It turned out to be a private hour long tour of an unbelievable network of underground tunnels complete with more tales and facts than we could have ever gotten from a large commercial tour. After, we were treated to tea and lunch made fresh by our guide’s wife who served it piping hot. It was an amazing experience and one I often tell friends and family about when asked about our time in Turkey.

  24. Spot on mate. I’ve been riding my motorcycle around the world for going on two years now and this is the perfect response to the ubiquitous list-tickers on the road challenging one another to see more places without actually seeing them.

  25. I agree and loved you post. We don’t have a bucket list either but when the opportunity presents itself we visit other states. Taking a few pictures is nice, but being present to the surroundings is more important.

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