Long term travel is like a marathon. Now I haven’t actually run any sort of race in my life (not even a 5K) so you know, take it at face value. But from what I’ve learned about exercise and how to push yourself, my take on it is that it is a mental challenge as much as it is a physical one.
I am reflecting on what it means to be traveling for a whole year (when it already feels like it’s been half a year) thanks to a video I first watched several years ago. Christophe Rehage, a German, documented a year of walking through China from Beijing to Urumqi on his camera, and stitched the scenes together with two lovely songs (“L’Aventurier” and “橄榄树/ The Olive Tree”) in French and Chinese.
As crazy as a year around the world sounds, I feel like our plan is a lot more tame than Christophe’s, because we’re not actually sleeping under the stars or trekking 30 km a day on foot. But the mental journey is similar. On his blog, he wrote about what pushed him to do this journey and why he stopped. He originally planned to trek from Beijing all the way to Bad Nenndorf, where he grew up in Germany, but he called it off a year in for personal reasons. He talked about how he looks so free and unfettered on the road, in the desert and under the sky, but how he was also just living by a set of rules that he had constructed about his trip. Occasionally, he felt like even taking a short bike ride and not walking every single step was cheating. Sometimes living under a different set of rules is freeing, and sometimes, you just have to put yourself into a really different environment or frame of mind to discover that there are elements of yourself or elements of life that you can’t escape.
Christophe’s video has reminded me that I find this trip selfish sometimes. It’s hard not to see ourselves in the blog Stuff White People Like — see Item #120 (Taking a year off) and Item #12 (Travel). Oof. Some of those adages hit a little close to home. Did we head out here to “find ourselves”? Doesn’t everyone struggle at some point in their youth (or throughout their lives) with their own identity and how to define themselves? Is it just upper-middle-class college-educated Americans who insist on burning $30K to go around the world to find themselves? Instinctively, I want to start spouting about how we are spending our own hard-earned savings on this trip, we already have pretty articulated career paths, we’re hardly 21 years old, and we’re not running away from our problems or a relationship so this ain’t no eat pray love, you know what I mean? But truth be told, I’ve wondered those things myself. Having the freedom to do what you want and spend your time how you want, even if it’s not for more than a year, is such a luxury. Why are we here?
To answer for myself, I need to start on a serious note. Yesterday, I found out that someone I had been to college with had passed away. It was a shock because we’re all very young, of course, but also because it was last March, more than a year and a half ago, and I had not heard. We weren’t close by any means but we lived in the same dorm and house for two years and had many friends in common. He passed away short of his 25th birthday. It’s hard to go back to looking at Facebook or funny photos after finding out about something like that. It is hard to deal with elements of our own mortality, like how I feel really sore today after a long bike ride yesterday, and that didn’t use to happen just a few years ago. It’s a small reminder, but it’s hard knowing that we, and our parents and everyone we know, are growing old, slowly but surely.
The question ‘Why travel?’ is not so different from ‘Why live?’ For me, the answer to both is: Do what you want to do. Don’t put things off. Do things intentionally. Always. I could spend more time worrying about how I have the money and time in my life to gallivant around the world, and I’m luckier than a lot of other people I know, or I could just try to live without regrets and make the best use of my lucky situation by wholeheartedly pursuing the things that are important to me. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not when we retire. Right now, and constantly. I have stumbled around and always come back to how much more fulfilled and happy I feel when I try not to waste time by clicking on Facebook by reflex, and do something I’ve been meaning to get around to instead, like writing this post! I have pursued applying for graduate school and in the process discovered that I’m also interested in career counseling and figuring out how I can blend direct service into my future career so I can keep working with youth. But I didn’t fully realize that until I started working on a personal project about creating career videos that I was so invested in something like that. (That project merits a whole other post.) I have always wanted to learn an instrument and instead of worrying about how we’re going to carry a guitar around Southeast Asia, I should just go buy one for 90 USD, because I would rather regret the money than regret the time lost never having learned. I’ve done the latter already, so I’ll risk the former.
Next time I feel tempted to just waste some time before bed reading about 28 Funny Reasons Why Dogs Are Awesome, I’ll watch some Taiwanese TV instead and try to learn a few new characters. I’ll write another letter to friends in Chicago on this cute Asian stationery paper we bought. I’ll read a few pages of the new translation of The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir), which I promised myself I would do. Because doing things intentionally is important. Spending time without thinking about it and reading celebrity gossip is fine, but I hate falling into doing it as a habit that takes over my daylight hours. What I’ve heard is that the real battle in life is usually between doing good or doing nothing at all. It’s hard to try to make use of every moment, but it’s not like a flat-out sprint anyway. You finish a marathon by just putting one foot in front of another, again and again, and you can only do it one little bit at a time. Always.
Last week, in a single day-long sitting, I devoured the Divergent trilogy, which takes place in a dystopian Chicago and are thematically similarly to The Hunger Games. Without getting too specific, the story is set in a highly regulated society where castes and labels are very important, and generations live and die inside the city. No one has gone past the border, which is fenced off and patrolled, and the plot has a lot to do with what lies beyond and how important it is. After I finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about how many things in the books would have happened differently if people had been outside that city and seen things for themselves. (Of course, the plot wouldn’t have been as interesting, but you know, they should’ve.) Borders in our modern, 21st century universe aren’t as clearly marked or off-putting as they are in Divergent, but they are there nonetheless. We can know a lot about the world through stories and the Internet, but Steve and I have felt the strong, overwhelming desire to go see and touch and hear and taste these places for ourselves.
What I’ve experienced in my life just makes me so convinced that once you see the lives of common human beings and the problems that plague different nations for yourself, that knowledge and seeing the hundred thousand things you share in common with other people can counter-act and drive out every impulse that is destructive and evil. The rationale that you need to go to war with people who are different, who believe differently or act differently, is just so specious. If anything, we are all the same, and perhaps why we clash is because we all need and want the same things, and there’s not enough to go around. Once you can begin putting yourself in their environment and their frame of mind, then you start to identify with them and their priorities. At first, you find the clamor and crowdedness of the Beijing subway off-putting because everyone is so rude and so in your face, but you find yourself starting to do the same because you just want to get to work or get home and there’s a bajillion people in your way. Granted, it’s slightly horrifying to realize that you’re shoving old ladies out of the way, but I find myself trying to explain why there’s a reason behind it, and it’s not just that Chinese people are inherently crazy and rude.
Steve and I both read a great article last week about Ender’s Game, and why you should go see the movie even if you disagree with Orson Scott Card’s views. It cited some of Card’s own work, and what stuck with me was this quote from Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game:
‘Once you understand what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.’
I keep quoting that to people because I’m an ENFP and have made a career out of empathy and tolerance and helping others. But also because that’s why I find travel so, so great. It’s necessary to not just stand in someone else’s shoes but walk a few miles and spend a few days really trying to understand how you can live a different way. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree or how many zeros are in my bank account. Nothing is a substitute for living and experiencing things for yourself. I have a lot of assumptions and prejudices, but I’ve already been able to discard some, and I look forward to doing away with more of them. For example, we are getting by really well on our meager wardrobes and re-wearing clothing – I mostly rotate wearing four dresses and two pairs of leggings. We do a wash every three or four days (and not of everything either) and hang it up to dry. I’ve never been a big shopper, but this is sincerely eye-opening! If it was socially acceptable to just wear the same clothing to work three days in a row, I could reduce the size of my closet by 75%. Or to heck with what other people might think, I could try it anyway when I get back! When Steve first visited China, he met a woman in Yangshuo who ran a Western bar, and in discussing travel and the world, he realized viscerally that there are other people in the world would switch places with him in a heartbeat. Not everyone would, but the shock of that realization and the recognition of other perspectives has stuck with him and me like nothing else.
I hope this doesn’t come off as condescending, but in case it did, I in no way judge people who do not travel or have not traveled widely. Many people’s life circumstances don’t allow for this sort of trip, and everyone makes decisions according to their different priorities in life. I’m also going to try not to be “that woman who took a year off to travel around the world” when we get back, because I’m starting to realize how truthfully obnoxious it is and how the most important reward of traveling isn’t a moral high ground that you can sit comfortably on and critique others from.
What I think is most important is that we try in our own way to pursue things that are important to us and keep an open mind. This isn’t the answer to ‘why travel?’, and it may not even be Steve’s answer. He’ll have to write his own post about that. But my answer is that travel is the most effective way I have found to become a more knowledgeable and kinder person, to change my mindset and those of others, to count your blessings and live without regrets. So if the opportunity is open to you, I can guarantee that it will change you, but if it is not, you can have a rich, fulfilling life at home and work at the same things: Do things that are important to you. Don’t put them off. Be intentional.
This post is for my former college classmate. I did not know him very well, and we were not close. But we bonded a little through studying Chinese at college, and I know he would have thought this trip very exciting. He would have enjoyed visiting Taiwan and seeing Asia and many other corners of the world. I think he would also have liked this post and my resolution to learn guitar and the reference to Orson Scott Card. I find it difficult to write things on this blog just to say them, but it’s easier to write knowing it’s for other people out there, and I’m talking to friends I miss and friends I just made. So this post is for Jake.