sponges, monkeys, and masticated love notes

17 December 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s not the expensive food,  or the rude cab drivers that can make travel hard; it’s the loneliness. From the formers I’ve learned important things like when in doubt, be quiet around xenophobes, and always try first to communicate in the local language. Lessons like those feed my soul wisdom like finger food. And, as with any lesson, it’s up to us to take note and integrate, or not. We swim in the special sauce of ego and individuality all the time, but the viscosity is thicker when we’re off our turf, and don’t have our countrymen to mirror just how ‘right’ we are.

When all that surrounds me is the unknown, I turn spongelike: all of my senses work on overdrive. That’s why a day of simply walking around a city can be so exhausting. Never do I sleep better, or dream more vividly, than when I’m on a trip, mid-movement, taking in the sounds of new streets, the murmur of people who pursue happiness in different ways than me echoing between glass or bamboo buildings, and into my subconscious. I swear I’ve learned languages while falling asleep in hostel beds practicing how to ask where the bathroom is.

It’s been said many times that what shapes character is not what happens to you in life, but how you deal with it. Rarely is this more true than in simple exchanges; the kindness in saying ‘thank you’ gets you father than any airplane will.

It is the smallest, most important necessity to one who travels alone that he learns to be with himself for long periods of time, and to get along well, if not swimmingly, with his own personality. When I hitched across Europe in winter, I didn’t consciously mean to leave my monkeymind at home, but had a latent hope that it might opt out of the trip anyway. A thousand miles down the icy road, it caught up with me – tapped me on the shoulder, and said “hey, where’d’ya think you’re going?”

I felt it in my chest first. Then, the realization that I hadn’t actually escaped anything sunk from my stomach into my intestines, nuzzled in and got comfortable. If I was going to do anything on the trip from that moment on, I had to deal with myself first. My tendency to be anti-social led to missed buses and trips to airports and hospitals. For months before the trip, I waded through stagnant puddles of self-pity at home, and nothing had changed but the hemisphere. “This isn’t traveling,” my journal notes, “this is just being miserable in a different town.”

Indeed, one can feel the most intense loneliness in densely populated cities. What better cure for loneliness than seeing a bunch of people who seem to be perfectly normal, functioning humans? They’re in their element, taking care of business, going about their happiness en masse. It is never more clear to me than in Times Square, or on a busy street in Budapest, that I am alone in this, and that until I reach out, no one is going to know I exist. Even in the music shops and book shops I seek out in new places, I am just another customer. But the moment I step out of my shell (a well-protected hell), and ask a question, I have a chance at serenity.

When wilderness is my destination, whether at home or abroad, I consciously sign up for the solitude. The woods represent to me, especially in U.S. American culture, freedom, strength, and self-reliance. The rugged mountains are to me a romantic vicissitude from normal life. I thrive in them. Yet when I’m in the throes of a new culture, I like to play observer, and take on more of an “if it happens, it’s meant to” philosophy. I avoid the wild because I’m more familiar with my feelings for it. There, I know that solitude is what I will find, almost no matter what happens. In a city, the choice is mine. So in the absence of decisiveness or initiative, travel for me can be relaxed and relatively uneventful.

In the beginning, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I mean, it’s about the adventure, right? Adventure means flying upside down, rallying rental cars, and stilt-walkers in unicorn suits. How could there be time to do nothing? How can there be time to sit with one’s Self to see what comes up? There are experiences to have! the little boy in me tugs and begs, Come on, let’s go!

But sometimes the train doesn’t leave for hours. The roads get snowed in, or the snake museum is actually closed on Saturdays (damn you, Lonely Planet!). Trains are fascinating for the first couple of weeks, and then the 17-hour days (sleep, write, granola bar, sleep, go through photos, apple) start to blend whole nations together in a politically-cooked primordial soup. And occasionally there’s the great injustice in thinking I just got screwed by someone who may not make the twenty bucks he stole from me in a month of working a more honest job. I’ll come up with anything to keep from thinking of home.

To some, all travelers are rich. Because, if you can afford to travel around like that instead of working all the time, then you must be fabulously wealthy. And the truth is that the budgets of many backpackers, even the shoestringers, do equal great wealth in some places they travel through. (And we would argue things like I worked super hard for the money that I have and choose to spend it where I will, or the point is to Go to poorer countries, if not to live cheaper than we might at home, but to see how other people deal with poverty.) One point of acceptance I’ve reached is that there is a unique distinction between noticing the differences between someone I encounter and myself, and judging that difference.

I think I’m still not getting to my point, which is this: those who travel don’t “find themselves” in Scotland, Southeast Asia, or Patagonia, though they may look in those places. If they’re successful in their search, they’ll find what they’re looking for within themselves, in the midst of a conversation, or staring out a bus window at the Caspian Sea.

The stories we form while traveling are usually those we tell at home, but how often in our travels do we monologue tales of home? The fun thing for me has been in seeing in what situations my true self comes up: where I once thought I thrived alone (in the wilderness, for example), I have found that I’m much happier around people, and discovered truth in the proverb that talks about experiences being best shared with others.

The longer I denied that trait in myself, the more I wondered if I was just putting on a façade for others, and if that mysterious charisma I felt was narcissism, or worse, vanity. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know how to gauge my own honesty – which was in itself a bad sign.

I’m just learning to now – which says something, but doesn’t make travel any easier, or less desirable.

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