By Daniel Phillips
Lately I’ve been trying to figure it out. Or at least, I’ve been thinking about it. About why we travel, and what it’s supposed to mean — what it’s supposed to do. As I write, it’s the summer of 2019, I’m in the south of India, where my wife and I (both Americans) are shuddering off the last throes of Dengue fever, sweating through mango colored sheets, drinking thick black spoonfuls of papaya leaf syrup and popping Paracetamol like Pez candy. Amid severe constipation and fever dreams, moments of clarity and insight on these questions seem to be punching through in ways that beg to be recorded, and so I can’t resist. Mention of this is not a cheap plea for sympathy, nor to set the tone for a cautionary tale, but merely to beg certain latitude to what will unfold, as some of it may ultimately seem (even to me in a week’s time) to be nothing more than the nonsensical ramblings of a man in a sick bed.
But I have to write a few thoughts down on it. Travel that is. And the shocks to the system that travel sometimes subjects us to. I’ve been thinking about what Yvon Chouinard said of it once, speaking of the real possibility that you could be an asshole when you leave, and still be an asshole when you get back home. About what Home is, and what it means to leave it for a while. About diving drunk into that old fountain on the highest hill in Rome during a full moon, watching that sunrise slowly burn away the morning haze over Machu Picchu, dropping acid in that Indian cloud forest, the one with the purple leeches. I’ve been thinking about how you can do all these things, and how they can change you, and also how they can’t.
Is travel searching? Is home what’s been found? Should we understand either of these states as a necessity? As a luxury? It was Albert Camus who observed in an essay entitled “Love of Life” that it may be precisely the element of fear that gives travel its value, as “It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office.” If the purpose of vacation is to seek comfort and stimulation in a novel setting, the purpose of travel — if there is one — might be to seek a sense of comfort in the uncomfortable. To plunge yourself into situations that you can never fully prepare for. Situations which challenge your entrenched world-views, test your physical and mental limits, and open up dimensions to the spirit that may have eluded your notice. To be sure, vacation is a wonderful thing, but it should never be confused or conflated with travel. Travel involves risk — risk to the body, risk to the mind, and risk to the spirit. Nor should we reduce travel to the accumulation of peak experiences and glittering “image-able” moments — all that which can be easily consumed and narrativized in a way that suits our narrow sense of vanity.
If home is a place, then home is also a mindset, a cognitive routine, perhaps even an extension of the ego itself. And maybe it’s the ego that wants a tidy story. An ordered sequence to things we’ve done or that have happened to us that makes perfect sense. Maybe it fuels that impulse to reduce the world of experience to checklists; Checklists stored in an elaborate chest of drawers collectively called the “self.” Longing for a heroic story (or at least a coherent narrative), you reduce the teeming chaos of human existence to things done, and things not done. In the things not done drawer, you strive to deposit a familiar checklist: killed, lied, stolen, cheated, and so on. With some sense of conviction, you might speak of religious tenets, of morality, or of ethics, in whatever particular recipe serves you. In the things done drawer, you compose your achievements, your milestones, and your experiences like shiny baubles: The marriage, the career, the family, the 30 year faucets, the dual overhead cam, the trips to the beach and so on. You imagine they really matter. Not just to you, but to the world. That they represent a significant and unique manifestation of your best possible self. Or maybe, at least in your better moments, you fancy yourself as the type of person who can see through the bullshit. But even this belief becomes something you feel is squarely within your power and possession. And you find yourself clinging to it. And that’s precisely when you realize that Home has become an ideology that robs you of your capacity for wonder. One that petrifies and rusts itself shut, parading as some hard-won clarity about the nature of the world, and your place within it. It shines with the dull brilliance of all that which is taken for granted — a luxury you cease to question, or really enjoy.
So you realize it might be time to travel. Only this time you go far. Really far. You go until the people you encounter no longer talk like you. And then you keep going. You go until the people you meet don’t eat what you’re used to eating. And further still. Until they no longer dress like you dress; sleep like you sleep; Worship like you worship. Shit like you shit. And you feel as if born into this new world like a helpless child or as someone recently awoken from a long coma. You realize the awe of first sight, wherein even the banal is rendered extraordinary. And you must re-learn that which you’ve taken for granted and that which comes to easily to those around you: The cost of a coffee and the shape of a coin, the meaning of a particular head nod, the culture of the crosswalk, and so on. As you inevitably fumble, you worry that you look like a fool, and that’s because you do. As the novelty of it all subsides and simmers, you realize what you thought was a process of better knowing the world, has also become a process of unknowing it. Of laying waste to your familiar biases and routines. As the specter of home grows more distant, you begin to revisit and re-examine that chest of drawers called the self. You discover hidden notes wedged in the woodwork, and contorted compartments in drawers that you never noticed until now. They contain a new set of labels: “Things that terrify you that you never realized”, “Things you cling to for lack of imagination”, “Ways of being you never knew existed.” These scare you, and they should.
But then you stay a while. You stay a while and try to take it in. You stay longer than is reasonable, longer than you planned. Certainly longer than you can afford to stay comfortably. You stay until the common pleasantries — all the please’s and hello’s thank you’s — start to flow out of you with ease in a foreign language you’ll never fully grasp. You stay long enough to take better notice of all that which happens between the peak experiences you thought you were there to have. You stay until your lungs are singed with the same shade of street soot as the humble rickshaw driver. You stay until the guy on the corner selling tender coconuts from a makeshift shelter, the one near the open drain, knows you by name. You stay until he finally starts to charge you the local price. You stay until you can trace the nightly rhythms of the sly alley cat, the pregnant one with matted orange fur and the green eyes that penetrate your gaze like a grisled shaman. You watch as she swiftly steals away stray scraps of shawarma — still steaming — which fall from the sloppy street sandwiches served above her. You watch the beggar with leather hands and leather feet crouch ironically beneath a glimmering billboard advertising 24 karat gold facials “for new age queens” as he grins twice as large as the models in the ad. And you want to cry, to bear witness to a world capable of containing such opposites. But you laugh instead.
You realize the experience of travel is not something you possess, but something that possesses you. A state of occupancy that is distinct from, and incompatible with any notion of ownership.
Embracing fear and discomfort as a catalyst, you expand your notions of Home to include territories outside its previous range. You become more at home in the world. Yet, importantly, you retain the basis of self. You don’t dismantle it completely. That was never the point. The point was to empty the drawers and reorder their contents. To discard that which no longer serves you, and add some new stuff that might. And it’s rarely immediate. Sometimes it requires a sense of return. A return to the places and people you left behind. The ability to see it all again from a slightly oblique angle. And you wonder if your family and friends think you somewhat strange, and maybe they worry you think the same of them. And you realize you can’t escape yourself, you can’t escape the slings and arrows of existence. And you realize the experience of travel is not something you possess, but something that possesses you. A state of occupancy that is distinct from, and incompatible with any notion of ownership. It continues to possess you somewhere behind the veil of conscious perception, even as the shapes and colors of the stamps in your passport, like the names of the places and people you thought you’d never forget, inevitably start to fade. And your attempts to capture the process — in photos, or in phonemes — fall flat. And you realize that this is why you do it, and why you must continue. And you see how it’s possible to feel so empty, and to feel so full.
Lately I’ve been trying to figure it out. And I’m not sure if I’m any closer. It took 10 years and 14 countries to realize something basic about travel: that it doesn’t always require the capacity to move, so much as it involves the capacity to yield. To concede your comforts, your flaws and biases with grace and humour. To realize you are a single speck in a collective colony of billions, each with a unique and valid story to tell. But travel, or the act of travelling isn’t enough. It can’t make you a better or more interesting person. It offers no shortcuts, no cheat codes. What the process reveals means little without the ability to cultivate a personal capacity to remain open to it, to metabolize its lessons (however obscure) in a way that can be integrated into the soul rather than consumed by the ego. And that’s a much harder prospect. One that happens not amongst the colonnades of St. Peter’s square, but inside the architecture of the self. But if the capacity to be open to experience is among the only prerequisites to a life of travel, then something even more basic begs our recognition: That wherever we happen to find ourselves, we are surrounded by boundless travel opportunities, calling out to us if we care to listen. Opportunities to unsee and re-examine or challenge our hard-won mental rigidities.
Maybe travel in this sense is already the salve we seek for healing in a time marked by increasingly closed-down, clingy, self-righteous modes of moral, political and social expression.
If a sense of wonder really is the product of first sight, then perhaps we should continue this process of unseeing, of unknowing the world around us, turning it on our sense of Home, at Home, in even the smallest of ways. Perhaps it’s about taking that scenic route back from the office, even if you don’t “have the time.” Maybe it’s about stopping a while to have an (initially uncomfortable) conversation with that neighbor, the one down the street that everyone thinks is weird because he doesn’t mow his lawn on the same schedule as everyone else. Or the one with the faded Trump sticker on her car. Or the one with a skin color much different than your own. Maybe travel in this sense is already the salve we seek for healing in a time marked by increasingly closed-down, clingy, self-righteous modes of moral, political and social expression. If it can be ventured, along with the fears it evokes, travel, in this broadest sense, becomes a central and necessary part of a world worth living in. It might be the closest thing to life itself. So can we commit ourselves to it? Will we travel today? Where will it take us?