Travel is a funny thing. We think of ourselves as a thing, a person, a set of ideas and ideals, a single point in space time. I am here. I am this now and was that then. I come from here and I will go there.
But the concept of “I” is a side effect. We eat the food and speak the language of our family when we are children. As we get older, we eat the food and speak the language of the people around us. We ingest more information, digest new theories, and excrete fresh ideas in symbiosis with the people around us. We respond to the changes in the world through the lens of the media we consume and those we consume it with.
We are a side effect of the people around us.
(If that sounds a little like hippie-talk, ask yourself a simple question. If ‘green’ was not in the language your parents spoke, how would you describe that color? Well, before the Heian period, the Japanese called it blue.)
Through travel, we extract this thing we call a self and transplant it to a new environment. In a way, how we transplant the self can illustrate things about the self.
Do you prefer a prepackaged vacation? Where your flight, your hotel, your itinerary, are all planned out for you? Do you prefer to make your own plans, researching places online, hunting and finding the best deals? Do you prefer something else entirely?
For some people, it’s easier to try and transplant their environment with themselves. If you never traveled outside your hometown before, another country might as well be the moon. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a hermit crab dragging its home down the beach is not changing their environment.
To get a better sense of what you are, throw yourself into the new environment. Take the ones you love along with you. Rush headlong into the strange, weird, wonderful world we inhabit and be ready to learn more about yourself.
Here are some suggestions for the next time you find yourself in a new place:
- Go to the local version of a corner shop and pretend you are a broke student with a craving for junk food. Buy junk food, eat junk food, feel a little sick, and understand that city a little more.
- Go to a farmer’s market, bazaar, or local version of street market and ask for something that is in season. Eat it, especially if it’s something you’re pretty sure you don’t like. A fresh, in season, tomato is nothing like an out of season one.
- Make use of the internet to find out what the local delicacy is. Then, find a lowbrow version and a highbrow version. Eat both and make your own decision. (In NYC, a $1 slice can be better than a $5 slice)
- Go to the city center and walk to its outskirts. Every city has a point where buildings give way to parks or highways or long stretches of road. And walking from the center of the city to that point will show you how the city transitions, how it grew, what it did along the way.
- Follow bodies of water. Especially in older cities built before we could divert rivers easily. Walk along the banks of the river or hop on a ferry or riverboat if that’s an option. See how the old piers where merchant ships would dock have turned into a trendy string of bars or a tourist trap. See where barges used to bring in supplies have turned into nightclubs on the water.
- If you drive at home, rent a car and drive the street. If you ride a bike at home, ride a bike here. If you ride mass transit, hop on their version. Get a little lost, feel a little confused, ask for directions, ask for help.
- Use jet lag and time differences to your advantage. If you happen to be awake during the predawn hours, stay awake and watch the city wake up. See the bakers roll up their shutters. Watch the early morning deliveries roll into the kitchens. If you sleep in and wake up in the afternoon, stay awake and watch the city go to sleep. See the bartenders go home. See the lights dim and the streets empty. Hear the cats’ serenade.
- You do you, but do it there. If you listen to the radio on your commute, listen to the radio there. If you read the local newspaper at home, read their version. If your ideal weekend involves grabbing a beer at the local bar and watching the game, do that there. If your ideal weekend is a pickup game of basketball or soccer, see what their local version is and do it there. It might be basketball or soccer!
Share what you learned
- Make a shopping list before you go. Not a list of things you want to buy, but a list of people you want to shop for. Neighbors, children, those who have never left their hometown, fellow travelers, your family and friends. The people around you who have made you who you are.
- Talk about what you saw, what was different, what was the same. Talk about what you learned, what you were surprised by, and what was not surprising at all.
We do not leave to escape. We leave to gain perspective. And if we do not share that perspective, it is wasted.
As I write this, the world is in the grips of a viral pandemic. Right now, travel is not a joyful exploration of the world. It is a selfish act that jeopardizes the infirm. But it won’t always be this way.
Amid the drumbeat of fear and panic, listen for the strains of sanity and calm. The whisper of the future that waits. We will get through this. And when we do, we will travel again. We will learn more about who we are, and about how we became ourselves. We will see a changed world, and through it, be changed.
And we will return home to share what we learned.