Friday, January 6, 2012

Lessons of Travel

“Traveling turns places into people.” -Unknown

When I think back to my time in New Zealand, it is not the fields, mountains, food or towns that first come to mind. It is my host family and the friends I made. For Georgia, it is the 8 sloshed old men who called me off the street into their garage and stuffed me with bread and homemade wine. All while one of them furtively winked and flashed his nipple at me. For China, it is my friends cracking up as a way-too-stylish hair dresser, in a German soccer jersey, permed and bleached my thinning hair with what I still suspect was industrial waste. When I think about countries I haven’t yet visited, it's not the demographics, the name of the capital city or its current political situation, but rather it is the nationals whom I have encountered that first enter my thoughts.

This insight is nothing new. But what has struck me recently is the profundity and clarity which this idea of people and travel brings to our perception when it turned around. When it’s directed from abroad towards home.

“He who does not travel does not know the value of friends.” – Moorish proverb

Eric, one of my best friends and the Beloiter I lived with in Turkey, recently wrote to me, saying that the only time he felt I was truly centered was when I was traveling. When I first read this, I thought about it for a second and then dismissed it. I would hardly call the extreme emotional highs and lows I experience when on the road centered. But it nagged at me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, in a way, he was right. That this intensity of emotion actually comes from a far more acute awareness of it. That the power of the emotion is, paradoxically, matched by the clarity with which you can note its causes and understand its effects.

Though it happened two years before, his email made me realize that my relationship with Eric was defined by this idea.

Our decision to rent an apartment in Ankara did not have the best effect on our friendship, at least not in the short-term. By the second month we had almost completely different friend groups and really only saw each other in passing. I figured that when we got back to Beloit we would have the kind of relationship where you say hi before quickly passing on the street, maybe reminiscing about our diabolical Turkish toilet when we met at parties. It didn't work out like that. Over the summer I started to realize that it was where we were in life, not who we were, that threw a wrench into our roomie relationship. I was trying to walk on my own two feet and his presence, through no fault of his own, was like an umbilical cord that refused to break off. When we were together I felt inadvertently censored by him; because we were both white, from Beloit and living together, that my identity was intimately tied to and dependent on him.

It was the heightened emotional awareness of being somewhere foreign that allowed me to recognize the feelings for what they were. It didn’t make the feeling any less intense, but it did give me the perspective to deal with it without laying all the blame on Eric. It was, I now realize, largely this time apart that allowed us to develop into the friends we are today.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

A big reason that third-world travel is packed with such intense emotions is that the dichotomy between the place you are and the place you left is often such a slap in the face that it forces you to consciously evaluate everything. Very little can be done instinctively because there is no basis for a reflex. It can be both affirming and very uncomfortable. Affirming in that you often find strength you didn’t know had. Uncomfortable because it can show you parts of yourself you don’t really like.

Trying to learn Chinese by immersion was just such an experience. After harassing the Beloit international exchange office into letting me go to China with just one year of language classes, I had a big chip on my shoulder to show them what I could do. The only problem was that when I arrived, I was too worried about making mistakes to really put myself out there and talk with the people on the street. What if they couldn’t understand me? What if they thought I was bad at Chinese? What if, heaven forbid, they laughed at me? Then the exchange office would be right in saying I wasn’t ready, wouldn’t they?

Well, guess what? I was bad at Chinese! And I soon realized that angst and academic study weren’t going to get me better in a hurry. Why was I in China if the only Mandarin I was going to learn outside of class were the names of dishes and how to ask for the bill? It definitely wasn’t easy at first, but by the time I left I was shooting the breeze with my banana lady, telling street salesmen that if I paid what they asked “my children would starve,” and how could I possibly spend twenty extra cents when the boxers didn’t even match my eyes. I may have gone too far; what little shame I have completely disappears when I start mumbling in Mandarin.

Though I'm far from fluent in Chinese, by the time I left I think I had learned more than anyone else on my program, and I certainly didn’t have anymore problems with taking myself too seriously.

It was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but I learned it is during times like these that we are given a rare and fleeting opportunity to knowingly reinvent ourselves. Fleeting in the sense that our incredible adaptability quickly makes these choices habit and, as such, much more difficult to change.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of great men, but rather seek what they sought.” -Matsuo Basho

The mindset that this displacement puts us in can also, if we let it, overflow our new reality and start to mix with the old. It puts our past in a perspective that, barring a traumatic event, is very difficult to otherwise get. All the background noise starts to fade away as the distance allows us to start seeing our life from a broader angle. One which we were previously too close to see. Without stepping out of our comfort zone, trying to understand life is like trying to see the shape of a whole building by just standing in one room. Sure, you can hear all about it from other people, but the only way to really understand it is to experience it; and to do that you need to step outside.

And what do we get from this new perspective? For me, the biggest thing is a new found appreciation for the stuff that I took for granted. Stuff that is so basic you don’t even think about what life would be like without it. Yes, that can include burgers, hot showers and English, but much more so it’s the people that you leave behind. Their conversation, their ridiculous- and at times infuriating- idiosyncrasies, everything that makes them them. Not in the depressive, you-wish-you-had-never-left sense, but in the sense that you start to really appreciate the time that you had with them and what you learned. Of course, you do meet new and amazing people everywhere you go. People that enrich your life in ways you never expected and give it new meaning, but they are additions, not replacements.

Though many things, including perspective, are changed by distance, real, genuine affection is not. Too often it’s only after someone is gone that we can see just how big a space they filled. At the end of the day, I believe it is the love and people that fill those spaces that, more than any other single factor, have the greatest and most lasting impact on the people we become.

When it comes to travel, to paraphrase Henry Miller’s famous quote, perhaps one’s destination shouldn’t be a place, but a new way of seeing things.


  1. great post travis! living illegally is a great way to tell who/what 'true' friends are too; it's finding out the hard way that sucks. i've been thinking a lot about these ideas lately. i really enjoy the blog man, this post manifests the expats outlook brilliantly!

  2. Awesome! I can see why this blog post was your favorite. Well-phrased, and I completely agree with you about how it's the people you meet, the personal connections to the places, etc.
    -your erstwhile roommate