“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
― Jack Kerouac
“Travel abroad!” seems to be a nearly omnipresent meme in our era—a viral buzz-topic associated with ‘free-spiritedness’, adventure, ‘soul-searching’, alternative living, and cultural exploration.
With great regularity are listicles, op-eds, blog-posties, and raving testimonials penned and shared across the web (see here & here), all encouraging the young-adult-without-a-clue-type to snatch up the next plane ticket and blast off to Myanmar or Slovakia or Burma or . . . any-f***ing-place-not-in-your-hemisphere.
The world has never been more accessible, they tell us. Travel will change you, they croon.
And, well, they’re right, sort of. In the age of 757s and Trip Advisor and oceans of international opportunities, traveling planet Earth has become (for a sizable segment of the global population) so relatively simple and feasible that uncle Magellan probably turns barrel rolls in his grave.
And unless you are one seriously stubborn snozberry, travel will of course change you, in all of the vague-yet-alluring ways that are advertised: broaden your small perspective, teach you about ‘who you are’, make you appreciate other ways of life, etc., etc. (yawn. oops, no, I mean, those things are valuable).
A problem with all of this Internet travel-proselytizing is that it so often seems to be a regurgitation or shallow variation on the same ambiguous themes with a twist of misty-eyed you-just-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing attitude. This is unsexy and results in many why-you-should-travel pieces that feel elitist and canned (sort of like this one that a less-experienced me once wrote).
I’m not sure this is anyone’s fault. I think perhaps it’s like this: there are only so many things you can write or say about the beauty of traveling because the whole point (for anyone concerned) is to really go do it. Yet, droves of country-hoppers (many of them writers), like myself, continue to see the world and feel genuinely and giddily compelled to let everyone else know that they JUST HAVE TO DO IT BECAUSE IT’S SO WORTH IT AND I CAN’T EVEN TELL YOU.
With pure intentions we may have unknowingly become a cacophonous (and easily ignored) choir of rabble-rousers, hailing Travel as the best thing since Gandhi, subtly decrying the “normal” people who would rather watch Lost than actually go get lost.
I say all this to indicate that I am aware of the veritable travel-circle-jerk taking place on the Internet and would prefer not to contribute to it. And yet, as you can guess from the title, this piece will discuss changes in perspective and understanding that can result from traveling. A bit of a conundrum.
My hope is that you, kind reader, know that while I think traveling would be a lovely thing for you to do, there are ten million other worthwhile (or silly) things you might do instead, and I will viciously defend your right to do any of those things. Traveling probably isn’t for everyone, and I don’t put myself above you if you don’t have a compass tattoo and inky passport. My other hope is that I have one or two share-worthy ideas. So, onward.
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This morning I returned to Busan (my current home in Korea) after spending 11 days backpacking around Cambodia. Here’s the part where I try not to sound like a smitten schoolgirl, but I gotta tell ya: Cambodia is splendid.
Bursting with history, aesthetic titillation, culinary allure, and affable people, Cambodia is certainly one of my favorite foreign countries (granted I haven’t seen too many). This post is supposed to focus on a pair of insights I had on the trip (and I’m getting there I promise!), but first, a few snapshot memories to give you an idea of the affair:
Alternatively traveling by tuk-tuk or bicycle for 3 days to explore the many ancient temples (including Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world) near Siem Reap. Being surrounded by probably 75 macaque monkeys on a remote jungle pathway. Cruising through Phnom Penh on tuk-tuk and soaking in the vibrant capital city. Voyaging by boat to spend several days in a bungalow on Koh Rong, a tiny, nearly untouched tropical island south of Cambodia. Hiking. Thai and Khmer cuisine. Massages. Skinny-dipping. Exotic wildlife. Hammocks. Ocean sunsets. No sense of time. Open people. And a few other things I’d best not mention here.
The trip was precisely what the proverbial psychotherapist prescribed: a rejuvenating and riveting escape from what had become a rather calcified routine in Korea. And, as tends to happen, fresh scenery provoked fresh thought. The trip was immersive yet reflective. I naturally found myself thinking a lot about traveling, novelty, and the like—how the backpacker lifestyle differs from that of 99% of the world; what is to be found there that may be difficult to find otherwise.
Two notable items that emerged: time and possibility.
The experience of time is fundamentally different when one does not have a schedule and alarm clock to adhere to. We all know what it’s like to forget what day of the week it is for a moment, but imagine not really having to ever know or care about such a thing.
That’s kind of what it felt like, roaming through the temples and lounging on the island: all routine stripped away, no sense of anticipation for some upcoming event on the calendar. Just now.
And what, at various points, did I observe happening in the present? . . . The constant death of every scene I beheld.
Because everything I was experiencing was so novel, so previously unknown, I was much more aware of the changes happening before me—the days waxing and waning; the sights moving toward me then receding, each second being consumed by the next.
This might seem a depressing idea—seeing everything in a state of constant decomposition. But, it wasn’t. To see clearly the finitude of everything before me was to be in touch with the constant rushing river of life, the ceaseless flux that bears us from point to point, irregardless of our will.
This awareness, when it settled upon me, imbued the present with an ethereality, a precious delicacy that aroused in me a feeling of wonder and a sense of my own temporally limited existence. When this occurs, one sees that the only thing to do is to lose oneself there, soak in the beauty, lap up the changing landscapes, appreciate them before they disappear. It’s as Alan Watts wrote: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
Furthermore, to experience time in this way (a mode that seems quite similar to Kerouac’s notion of “knowing time”) kindled in me a tremendous sense of gratitude. To confront one’s finitude is to understand the senselessness in delaying the pursuit of one’s deepest longings. I felt especially fortunate to be doing just the opposite—pursuing my dream of traveling the world—and to know that I will only continue to pursue what is exciting and meaningful to me in the years to come.
I’ve tuned in to time, change, transience, or whatever you’d call it in this way before—many times and often actually—but it was all the more poignant and significant to feel that familiar silent crumbling of the world in a place that was, in many ways, so foreign to me.
Backpacking seems to me a nearly unparalleled avenue for realizing the vital necessity of cherishing what is before us and of creating the life we envisage. By contrast, routine seems to distance us from this awareness. In routine we create an illusion of permanence by replaying the same day, the same place, the same people, week after week.
The constant change still occurs, but we overlook it, and it builds up, pressurizes invisibly. Ultimately one reaches a point where the changes can no longer be ignored—perhaps a supposed “milestone”, a mid-life crisis, death of a loved one, etc.—and only then, when much time has passed, will one finally see how life has ceaselessly eroded before their eyes. Having waited so long to admit this, the despair may be substantial and difficult to overcome.
As suggested, traveling seems a fine way (though certainly not the only way) to come to “know time”: by repeatedly facing what is newly visible and watching attentively as it becomes old and unseen, we re-condition our minds to think in terms of what we want to do and enjoy now, rather than what we feel we have to do or will be able to do 40 years from now when we’re wrinkly and feeble.
Which brings me to my next, and as it turns out, very closely related point: traveling radically expands one’s notions of what life can look like, of what choices are possible.
When I was on the island of Koh Rong, I was mildly astounded to meet several people working at the small bars and restaurants who had just arrived 5-10 days ago, as well as a couple others that first showed up years before. These brave souls found themselves on a remote Cambodian island, decided it was magical, and thought, ‘What the hell. I think I’ll just stay here for a while.’
And just like that, they found work and now live on a tropical island paradise. In one of the rather bohemian shops, I saw a sign that said (probably paraphrasing): ‘Long live living if living can look like this.’ ‘Cheers to that,’ I thought.
For me, a small-town kid from the Midwestern United States, an island like Koh Rong was always the substance of fantasy, like a far-off unreachable planet. But then I found myself there, and it was as if I could immediately feel the wheels begin to turn: ‘If these people just live like this all the time, what’s stopping me from doing so? What else could I do?’
I shit you not: I thought very seriously about abandoning my life in Korea and moving to Cambodia for a few months. Ultimately, I decided to stay until my contract expires in August, but I plan on backpacking for a few months post-Korea, and Cambodia is now a must-return-to destination.
There’s something about stepping into an entirely new world: maybe you’d seen it in pictures or on TV, but when it’s all around you—when it rushes in through the five senses and fills you up, you begin to expand in ways that are difficult to articulate. The mind responds to visceral living in such a way as to quickly highlight the utter inadequacy of mere images and information.
‘This is really here. And I’m really here. And I could stay here. Or I could go anywhere.’ These are the sorts of feelings that begin to swell within you.
I am currently entirely uncertain about what my life will look like one year from now. As I said, I plan to travel for a few months after Korea, then I will return to the Midwest to see my family and friends for a couple months. After that, it’s wide open.
While some might see my situation as terrifying, I see a multitude of ripe possibilities. Maybe I’ll do the WWOOF Program for a few months in the Western US or South America to learn more about permaculture and sustainability. Or just go live on a commune (not necessarily a joke). Perhaps I’ll move to Colorado, find a bit of work, and do a whole bunch of skiing and/or snowboarding for a year. I know I’ll likely work on expanding my online endeavors. I might work more on this pesky novel of mine, or record some music, or do something entrepreneurial, or apply to a graduate program (eek). Or I could go teach abroad again in a different country, maybe Spain. I might think more about Peace Corps.
I don’t spend too much time considering what’s next: my head ends up ringing with ricocheting possibilities, and nothing is solved. It isn’t time yet, and when it is, I’ll know. One thing I can be sure of: I will do what seems significant and exciting, and I will not limit myself to traditional directions or lifestyles. Everything I can imagine doing now seems feasible to me, and I believe I have my travels, in part, to thank for that understanding.
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P.S. As you might have guessed by now, the recent hiatus on the blog was due to my being in Cambodia. I apologize for the gap in content and should now be back to my weekly posting. All the best.