Travel and The Present Tense

I was exhausted when I arrived in Hpa-An, Myanmar, coming off a gauntlet of night bus, to day bus, to motorcycle taxi. I checked into one of two places in town licensed to house foreigners and went to sleep at dusk, depleted. I woke up at 4am to faint screams and panicked scurrying in the attic. Disoriented, my mind still cobwebbed from sleep, it didn’t register that the air was thick with smoke. I tumbled out of bed and stumbled down the three flights of stairs and into the street. Several buildings were on fire. Given that much of the town was made of wood and that it had no fire station, people assumed the worst.

Next door to the hotel was a doctor’s clinic and women ferried in and out carrying supplies to waiting trucks. They grabbed the most expensive equipment they could find. A microscope, medication, laboratory equipment. They hoped to save what they could. One longyi-clad woman stopped to catch her breath, and through my hotel owner’s translations, explained that if her clinic went down, so did everything she had.

I jumped in with the few other tourists in town to help how we could. The fire did not spread as thoroughly as we feared. Throughout the night and as dawn broke, I told myself to remember that evening and the perspective it gave me. It wasn’t about the adrenaline rush, but the reminder of my own privilege and the stories of people whose lives were different from mine.

Hpa-an was on the route of a very accidental change in career. A former corporate lawyer, I decided to quit my job to travel for a sabbatical in 2008. I had long wanted to see Siberia and had saved up while lawyering to visit, starting a blog called Legal Nomads for my family to follow along.

The blog slowly turned into a business and one year turned into seven. I have not had a home base since I began, something I didn’t intend but was instead a byproduct of this new career built around living where I wanted to eat and write. Nowadays I focus on longform stories about the foods we eat and the lives of the people who make them.

My visit to Hpa-An was in 2010, but I remember the stories I learned there often. We all tend to, because stories are what etch so easily into familiar patterns in our minds. These stories serve as a reminder that while it is easy to get caught up in the striving for material things, there is more to life than ‘stuff’. The weight of expectation and appearances is a worldwide phenomenon, not simply a Western one, but by taking ourselves out of what is comfortable even temporarily, we are forced to challenge the assumptions that society has placed on us.

By writing about this memory I am not trying to romanticize a village in Myanmar. I am simply saying that for me, that evening jarred me into thinking about what it meant to be human. About privilege and empathy and perspective. And the stories that each of us can tell.

This is one of the many gifts that travel gives us: an ability to see humans as more connected, and to wrench us out of our own inner restlessness. It forces us into the present tense, and to maintain perspective in a fast-paced society where it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Travel itself is not an answer. It can’t save you from yourself, or the demons that you have. You will bring them along with you as you roam. You can’t absolve yourself of your responsibilities or the monotony of routines that will reappear the minute you stop moving. And if you travel to escape darkness, it will eventually find you.

One of the hardest things I have done is to take a 10-day silent meditation course, a Vipassana retreat in New Zealand. It wasn’t the silence that made the course so intimidating, but rather the extraordinary shift my modern mind needed to make in order to get through it. There were no distractions, no webpages, no news, no messaging. It was 16-hours a day of pure not-thinking, something that does not come naturally to many of us.

The Vipassana was a highly-concentrated version of what travel can do. If you can learn as much as you can about a place and its people, and look past the shiny magazine pieces to dig deeper for the difficulties people have on a day-to-day basis, it is that much more difficult to get mired in the inconsequential. As with meditation, by shifting your attention to a more present tense concern, you alleviate your impatience.

It’s not the long-term travel that matters. I happen to have built a new career this way, but it is not for everyone. The important part is the perspective, and the way that travel with an open mind can bend even the most stubborn of attitudes into a more understanding place.

I would argue that by doing so and forcing your attention onto the present tense, you are better equipped to effect positive change. By disrupting inner restlessness through exposure to new stories, places and people, you can refocus that energy onto specific, productive goals.

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