Have Wanderlust Gene, Will Travel

Two summers ago, Jackie Meinen took a dingy plane to explore an island off the coast of Nicaragua. Last year, she drove along Australia’s eastern coast, stopping at secluded beach spots and suburban towns. In Brazil, she visited areas outside of Rio de Janeiro, which included a flight to the northern town of Natal and a rocky boat ride to an island off the coast of Salvador. In Peru, she hiked for 10 hours a day for five days straight, up the Salkantay trail toward Machu Picchu.

“I was on antibiotics for a week after visiting Peru, bedridden and just eating popsicles and chips,” said the 25-year-old graduate student, who lives in California’s Bay Area. “The doctor told me, ‘Usted tiene todo,’ because I had a parasite, blood, mucus … the works. But wandering around the ruins was pretty incredible, the ultimate camping trip.”

Meinen is used to challenges when it comes to traveling—in fact, she craves them. She describes it as part of a compulsion to see something new and get off a plane in a foreign place as often as possible. Recent research reports suggest that this addiction to traveling might literally be in her blood. Some geneticists and neuroscientists believe that a “wanderlust gene” may be behind risky and novelty-seeking behavior in travelers—the reason some people wake up in the middle of the night with a burning desire to visit Burma, while others just roll over and go back to sleep.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests in his book “American Mania” that this risk-seeing behavior may be able to be traced back to early migrants. While some Homo sapiens left their communities in the African savannas to explore new ground thousands of years ago, others were perfectly content to stay within their farming communities. Those who traveled had a higher percentage of the D-4 allele, the risk-taking gene, and those who stayed behind had less.

“Fundamentally, you will find that the risk-taking allele in the dopamine reward system is particularly prevalent in the ancients’ migrations of those who walked the farthest,” said Whybrow via e-mail.

In other words, a deep urge to travel is probably genetic. And while the genetic basis of behavior is difficult to determine for humans, it could explain why for people like Meinen, the need to travel is more than just an occasional itch; it’s a rash. She needs adventure the way the rest of us need coffee. And her friends share the same passion, which is probably not a coincidence.

Meinen and her close friend Mariam Danielyan lived at the International House dormitory during their undergraduate days at Berkeley. It wasn’t long before they started taking trips together, from Las Vegas, Nev., to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Danielyan, now a law student in San Francisco, is focusing on international law and has spent a few summers abroad during this time. She sought out—and was accepted into—law internships in Geneva; Prague, Czech Republic; and the Dominican Republic.

Originally Armenian, Danielyan’s family moved to California from Yerevan in 1989, when she was 5 years old.

Like Danielyan, Meinen inherited her penchant for travel mainly from her father, who moved from the Netherlands to Canada when he was 7. (He is the youngest of seven children.) On a road trip from Ontario to Los Angeles, he met Meinen’s mother and stayed in California for her.

“Many are motivated to strive to go atop mountains or skydive or visit Third World countries. For them, fear tends to be low, excitement high, anxiety low and risk tolerance high,” said Michael Brein, a psychologist who has done extensive research on travel and its effects on people. “If a genetic predisposition to travel exists, it’s going to be complemented by sociocultural complexity.”

Other risk-taking globe-trotters make a point of including travel in their work routine. When Sekhar Suryanarayanan, a corporate consultant from Texas, had a craving for a new experience, he accepted an offer for a project in Tanzania.

Suryanarayanan was so excited on the flight over that he couldn’t sleep and instead wrote entries to later post on his blog Shakes in Tanzania. He also entertained himself by reading the entire Lonely Planet guide, where he learned that Coco Beach is a dangerous area that should be avoided by nightfall. So, in keeping with his need to escape his comfort zone, the first thing he did after checking into his hotel at 8 a.m. was to head to Coco Beach with a friend.

Fifteen minutes into the walk, a knife-wielding man stole Suryanarayanan’s backpack. A crowd of people, drawn by the screams of his friend, came to his aid and ran after the thief. By midday, his backpack was returned, and he watched as a mob of about 50 people formed to taunt the thief. The man was then taken in the trunk of a car to the local police station and tried the following day. All in a day’s fun for Suryanarayanan.

Such exotic locations are not new for Suryanarayanan, whose parents love traveling even more than he does.  The family moved to Dallas from the Bihar region of India in 1983.

“It was kind of cool growing up when we would come back from summer vacation and others would say they had been to Oklahoma or Tennessee, and I would say I just got back from Sweden,” he said.

The feeling has stuck. In January, he went to Argentina, and this summer he is planning another trip abroad.

It’s not just about racking up frequent-flier miles. Packing, obtaining visas and getting vaccinations may be daunting enough to discourage some from traveling, but many crave it.

“They are rewarded by a sense of accomplishment,” said Brein. “The feeling that they can overcome what others might find dangerous.”

Today, both Suryanarayanan and Meinen have East Africa on their travel wish lists.

“In the meantime, I’ll just keep the Travel Channel on in the background and surf airline websites during downtime,” said Meinen. “I have a big thing for flight searches.”