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Be a traveler, not a tourist

Andrew McCarthy

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You probably know McCarthy as an actor (“Pretty in Pink,” “Weekend at Bernie’s”). Did you know that he’s also a travel writer? In this session, McCarthy addresses the power of leaving your comfort zone and the perspective adjustment that happens through travel — especially solo travel. He also shares how an awkward moment lead to a life-changing journey that helped him let go of fear and discover a new interest in the world around him.

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How many people here traveled more than 100 kilometers to get here? How many people traveled more than 1,000 kilometers to get here? 5,000 kilometers?

So what we just established in less than a minute is something that all of us have in common, something that has, I think, the power to change lives, the power to transform lives. All of us got up off our couch, left the safety of our home, and traveled to someplace that is, to many of us, unknown. And we left the safety of the harbor to go out into the world. To me, that has the power to change lives. That’s what changed my life.

In that very nice introduction that I received, it mentioned that I was an actor and then eventually I segued into being a travel writer. That’s a weird career trajectory, but I’d like to talk to you a little bit about how that happened. And we’ll get back into that, because travel changed my life. I think it has the power to change people’s lives.

You know, the great Mark Twain summed it up best when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I think we can kind of stop right there. I think that captures so much. I defy anyone to go out into the world and come back unchanged. Take a second now to take a snapshot of yourself in this instant and then another when you go back home, and see the distance—not only the physical but the emotional distance—that you’ve traveled.

The great American travel writer Paul Theroux said that “travel itself was a sort of optimism in action.” I think that’s a great phrase because we all set out from, like I said, the safety of our couches or wherever it is, the safety of somewhere known into the unknown with the hope of being received when we arrive. And to do that, we have to make ourselves vulnerable. To me, vulnerability gets a bad rap. I think one of the greatest things we can do for ourselves is to open ourselves up again. Sooner or later when we’re traveling, we’re going to be lost, we’re going to be hungry, we’re going to be tired, we’re going to need some assistance, and we’re going to have to stop some stranger and say, “Excuse me. Hi! Can you help me?” And the minute we do that, the minute we ask for help, the minute we open ourselves up, we’re brought back to what I like to call “right sized.” I just go, “Whoa.” I shrink back from all my bravado that I go through the world with, my controlled environment that I navigate through my house with, and everything playing big shot in my own life, and it all goes out the window, and I’m brought back to being just a simple person who needs help. And whenever I’ve asked for help when I’m out on the road, I’ve always been received. Everywhere I’ve gone, no one’s ever turned me down, except in New York City, of course. But I live in New York, so that’s OK. So there’s this whole notion of control at home. I’ve got my life. I’ve got it navigated. I’ve got my whole schedule everybody’s working around, and then when I get out on the road, everything is up for grabs. And I think that it takes courage to go do that.

Theroux also has another line I like: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” I think it’s a fun line, but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure exactly what it means. I’ll tell you what I think the difference is between a traveler and a tourist: absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. People who get up off the couch and leave the safety of their comfort zone have my undying admiration. But I do think there’s a difference between vacation and traveling. I love a good vacation; I’m just not very good at it. I go to the beach, I get my book and my towel, I get my hat and I’m all lotioned up, I get all comfy in the sand, and I sit back and say, “Ahhh.” Then I look around in a few minutes and say, “Now what do I do for the next six and a half days?”

But when I’m traveling—say I’m in Rome. I’m walking in Italy. I’m in Rome, and I’m trudging around trying to find that darn Trevi Fountain. I’m going through this warren of narrow streets, and I’m looking at my map and I’m lost, and somebody’s trying to sell me trinkets of naked men and the Colosseum. It’s really hot and I’m really sweaty and irritated. My wife’s nagging at me because I can’t find it. We turn around the corner and suddenly it’s like, “Ahhh. Oh my God, look at that thing. There it is.” And that moment when I see that darn Trevi Fountain that I have been searching for, that moment of discovery, I turn to my wife, and I look and say, “Do you see that?” And she sees that and I see that look in her eyes and she sees that look in my eyes, and suddenly I’m that open-hearted, loving, generous, excited, gracious person that she fell in love with, not the disappointed, angry, bitter person that sometimes occupies the spot across the table from her. It’s that connection that we form and that connection that we reestablish. That instant is what can make travel so invaluable to me.

There’s a line of poetry that I love that I came across once: “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” I found that a really poignant kind of line—it’s sad and melancholic and beautiful. I think it’s largely true except that I would add an addendum to say, “Except in travel.” Because in travel, I’m like that small child again. I’m wide-eyed. I’m open. I have an appetite. I’m interested. I’m vulnerable.

You know, I’m a big believer in solo travel. I think traveling alone and putting ourselves at the mercy of the world is a great, great thing for anybody. How many people here have taken solo trips? I’ll bet many of you here now came alone. And wasn’t there a moment when you said, “Who’s here alone?” that there was a slight sense of embarrassment, apprehension, and anxiety to admit, “I’m here alone. I’m vulnerable. I’m singular.” But in admitting that and setting out into the world alone like that, leaving this safe harbor alone and going out into the big, wide world into this big, wide room to be received by that, is a hugely courageous thing. And I think everybody should do that at least once in their life. I think that changes lives.

I have a friend, a travel writer named Don George, a wonderful travel writer, who says, “There’s one trip that changes every traveler’s life.” And I’d like to tell you about the trip that changed my life. It was a solo travel trip. It began when I was standing in a bookstore in New York City. And I’m an actor, right? So that means I’m unemployed much of the time. So I was in a bookstore just killing time, and there was a beautiful girl across the table from me at the books of new arrivals, and I was just staring at her, frankly. I was just admiring her beauty, and eventually she felt the eyes of some pervert upon her and she looked up. And instead of giving her my best Pretty in Pink “Hi,” I completely panicked. I looked down and grabbed the first book right in front of me and said, “Oh, there it is.” And I went running to the checkout counter, totally flustered and in a flop sweat suddenly because this lovely young lady had busted me staring at her. So I bought this book without even thinking. I got out on the street, and I was totally still embarrassed and totally felt called out. I looked at the book, and it was called Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain. I looked at that and I couldn’t care less. So I took the book home, I threw it on a shelf, and I forgot about it.

A couple of weeks later, I was going on a plane to Los Angeles, and I needed something to read, so I picked up the book and read it on the plane. It turned out to be about a guy who quit his job, sublet his apartment, and went to walk this old, ancient, Catholic pilgrimage route across the north of Spain. It was 500 miles across Santiago de Compostela where it said the bones of the Apostle Saint James were buried, and if one marched across the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, you would get half your time in purgatory knocked off, which was, granted, a pretty good deal, right? So thousands upon thousands of people walked across this route. It sort of fell out of favor in the last several centuries, and not too many people did it anymore, but this guy did.

Something in his journey triggered something in me, and by the time I landed in Los Angeles, I said, “I’m doing that. I’m going there.” I don’t know why, but the one gift I’ve had in life is to know when to recognize a moment when something important happens to me. And I said, “I need to do that.” If I have one gift, it’s that—to be able to recognize that little kernel. I thought, I’ve got to do that, and I did it. And this was back in the very early 1990s when the only one on the internet was Al Gore, and so there was nowhere to find information about this Camino de Santiago. I didn’t know anybody who had done it. I had never heard of it before. Anyway, I couldn’t find any information on it. On the back of the book it said that it was written by a guy named Jack Hitt. So I called up Jack. It said that he worked at Harper’s Magazine. So I called up Harper’s Magazine, and I said, “Hi. I’m looking for Jack Hitt,” and I was told, “Just one moment.” A few minutes later, a voice came on: “Hi. Jack Hitt.” I said, “Hi, Jack. Listen. I read your book.” And Jack Hitt said, “You read my book?” He was thrilled. I know the feeling. Anyway, I said to Jack, “Listen. I read your book. I want to do that. I don’t know how. Can you give me some pointers?” So Jack was gracious. He told me various things about how you do it, how you walk from village to village, and some practical advice. It was great. I hung up with him. I had more questions. I called Jack again the next day, and then I called him the next day. Finally, he said, “Andy, you know, I’m working here, so why don’t you call me at home.” Well, that was a mistake. So I started calling Jack at home at night because I was getting more and more anxious before I went. And, anyway, one night, Jack’s wife answered the phone and said, “Jack is out. Jack’s going to be out for a long time.”

So, anyway, I had nothing to do anymore. I had no one to talk to, so I went to Spain, and I started walking across Spain, and it was awful! It was the worst two weeks of my life so far. I was miserable. Every day was worse than the day before. I had blisters. I was lonely. I was depressed. I felt like a complete failure and a fraud. All my inner demons kept working their way to the surface. I was completely miserable. And one day, halfway into the walk, there was a field of wheat that went on for a couple days. And in this field of wheat, I suddenly dropped to my knees, and I began sobbing. I don’t know where it came from, but I was sobbing, and then suddenly I was cursing to the heavens, cursing what had happened to my life. And then my limousine did not come to pick me up. I was left to trudge on to the next little village.

The next morning, I woke up and set out walking again, and I felt suddenly like I was forgetting something. I didn’t know what it was. I had my pack. I had my water. I had my shoes. I had my walking stick. But I felt like I was forgetting something. I didn’t have something. And so I was walking, and I walked for a couple hours in the morning, and then I took a break by the side of a barn—my morning break. I had my water and my cheese, and I was sitting there and was aware that I could see really clearly, like the colors. The barn was red, and the earth was a burnt amber, and everything was very sharp. I could remember hearing very acutely. I could hear birds call and answer. And, suddenly, I began to have this realization—it was almost a visual one as if coming from far off across the horizon. Something began to well up inside of me, and I started to become aware that what I didn’t have, what I had forgotten that morning, was something I’d always had, and it was fear. Suddenly, fear was absent from me. I never knew that I carried so much fear or lived in so much fear until that moment of its first absence. And there was suddenly space for me. My wife is Irish, and she has a lot of wonderful Irish sayings. One of them is “I felt like myself from the toes up.” Suddenly, I felt like myself from the toes up, like the person I’d always wanted to be, like the person I knew that I was and just somehow couldn’t be up to that point. I skipped across the rest of Spain. I met extraordinary people. I was suddenly interested in history that I had cared nothing about before. It was fascinating. I felt like myself from the toes up every day as I raced across Spain. That day changed my life, and I’ve never looked back.

That led me to travel all over the world because I wanted more of that feeling, and so I kept traveling. Eventually, I became a travel writer because I was so impassioned by this. And I became very successful at travel writing quickly for one simple reason. Well, two reasons. One is, and I knew this as an actor: Tell me a story. Don’t sell me a destination. Tell me something. Share with me. Don’t sell me. And, two is, I knew that underneath every story that I told was the feeling that travel has the power to transform us, to change us, to open us and make us the best version of ourselves. And that is what I would wish for every one of you who’s traveled from all over the world to get here from however far or from however many countries you came—that you came here for this week, and may you find your personal caminos. For some of you, particularly those of you who traveled alone, perhaps even this week might be your personal camino. So, I wish you a great conference.


Andrew McCarthy is a successful actor and director who is also a noted writer and editor for National Geographic Traveler. Best known for his starring roles in “St. Elmo's Fire,” “Pretty in Pink,” and “Weekend at Bernie's,” he has branched out with a flourishing Broadway career. U.S. television projects include “Orange is the New Black,” “Turn” and “The Blacklist.” His debut novel for young readers, “Just Fly Away,” was published in March 2017.


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