I’ve been continuously traveling now for 2 years. The coronavirus really threw us a curve but I think we adjusted the best we could with a bit of schedule shuffle. As soon as Portugal opened back up we started traveling internationally again and have been in Europe for the past 4 months.
We’ve slowed our original pace a bit. You need to balance reach with durability. Plus I prefer spending a bit longer in each location. It helps you experience the culture more. If you’re only in a place for a few days, your impressions are ghostly. You tend to fill in all the gaps with preconceptions. And usually those preconceptions aren’t even based on anything real. I like to sit and listen to the rhythms of the traffic. You can get a good sense of how a culture treats itself by observing traffic etiquette. I like to go a bit deeper in exploring food than the top 5 local dishes. It often takes a while to find the stuff tourists typically won’t eat. Or old world dishes lost to the frenetic churn of the modern world. Or pick a few favorites and track down the best sampling across different local’s favorites. I like to see the same places at different times of the day and week. Watching them change with the light and the crowds that inhabit them. There’s a different magic in hazy afternoons as dusk approaches than the magic you find at 3am scuffling the streets silently and making faces with the stray kittens. You learn when different birds gather and socialize. Mundane rhythms like trash collecting and street cleaning. When and where the neighborhood stray cats get fed. I like the way wet street bricks spread the colors of signs and signals across the ground in bright streaks and then come back to see the same scenes but in muted dry mattes and softer reflected colors. I like when the neighborhood taberna chef learns my name and knows what desserts I’m tempted by. Having the same gesticulating interaction with an ancient neighbor as she passes by on the street and needs to enter her apartment behind me. Listening to the rhythms of laughter in a bar and becoming familiar with the pace and velocity of humor and conversation. Learning the names of the breads and pastries. Knowing a place is like an old familiar record. You can’t just skip to the popular song and say you understand it.
On the down side, most of Asia is still closed to travel. So following through on our third year goals seems unlikely. Thailand has a gateway program that allows visitors to enter and stay in Phuket before transitioning to mainland destinations. So in lieu of broad travel in the region we might stay in Chiang Mai for a month or two and go deep there. Perhaps other nations will open more but it’s looking like 2022 will be the better year for it. Maybe a hop to South America which wasn’t on our original scope. Maybe a bit of island hopping in the Caribbean.
Regardless, the desperation I was feeling to return to international travel has abated a bit. I feel like I’ve seen more. I don’t feel as cheated. And so, more satisfied if we have to return before the end of three years.
It’s such an interesting question. There’s a vacation, jam packed with new sites and smells and everything is new, a full-blast escape from the grind of what we’re told life is supposed to be like. A bit of cheese at the end of the maze sometimes. A reason to splurge. To become a new person for a few weeks. If only to define who we’re obligated to be.
When you travel for longer, you have to start to sit with yourself. The part of yourself that isn’t defined by work or routines or places or even culture. You have to become someone, while shifting through the world. This sort of nomadic self that surfs on ingenuity and flexibility. This sort of burning away of who you think you are. Most of the stuff we fluff ourselves up with only exists in very narrow channels of reality. Defining yourself by profession or social status starts to hollow out. You don’t even really get a chance to loose yourself in hobbies. You just become a processor for constant change.
But if you do it long enough, everyone seems to arrive at the same conclusion. It’s obvious. And you think you know it. But it takes a long time before it really becomes apparent. That is: everyone is basically the same. The exotic is a monkey-brain tribal projection. The differences permeate all of humanity no matter where you are. Which I can get my head around by thinking about a single place over a period of time. When you’re young, what’s current is all there is. Look at photos from the 60’s it’s like another planet. But as you age, and you see the same shit become popular over and over again, you look at a photo from another time, and you realize the people then are exactly the same as they are now. You can intellectualize it when you’re young but it doesn’t really settle in until over half your life is spent. And that’s when you understand the nature of what is changing and what isn’t. There’s flux. And underneath that, there’s humanity. (Granted only within a different timeline of flux, but I think you get my point.)
It’s very difficult to understand the universality of what humanity is without experiencing its manifestations both across space and time. All cultures are spinning in their own temporal loops, large and small. When you travel you get to see each like skipping a record around. There are endless records playing all over the world. And no two records are exactly synced up. You arrive in a place 20 years after a war. You arrive in another during an economic boom. You arrive in another during a conservative upsurge. You arrive in another in the depressing valley following the fall of an empire. It’s a bit like time traveling through your own hometown timeline. And between all of this unknowable unfathomable flux, underneath it all, you start to see the tones and notes of what doesn’t change. Deep cello drones and bright chaotic high notes. And you get to say, I see you. You start to get it in a different way. You see the endless struggle. The hard won victories. Which inevitably churn back into struggle. You see just heartbreaking cruelty and ignorance and manipulation. You see resilience and kindness. You see love and sacrifice for family. You see passion and desire and conflict. You see that there really is never a place where it stops. Everything is happening all of the time. And will continue to happen. Like ants excavating an anthill. And we seem to all be doomed to never be truly conscious of our role or effect on the mechanism. It’s so diluted and generational and for the most part unconscious.
Which really is an existential bummer. You’re left with a sort of zen truth. Be as kind as you’re able. Be as present as you can. Treat every other soul as if it were you living a different life. Learn to love yourself, as you are, not as what you should, could, or need to be, and by extension, others. Everything is contained in the singular. All of humanity is an organism. You are that organism. You are a blood cell flowing through an endless vein of the world, you just don’t know what you’re carrying. It’s all a fucking mystery. Take pride that you’re a part of the chaos. Enjoy yourself. There is no conclusion. I know nothing.
The answer is that there is no answer. And that can be fucking depressing if you’re the kind of person that needs an answer. And let’s be honest, the kind of person who commits their life to endless painful searching, they’re kind of looking for an answer.
Those driven by passion rarely find comfort.