Travel expands everything

by measuringcoastlines
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There’s a good article on Matador Network that came out last month, titled “We need to stop pretending travel will fix all of our problems”, with some very valid points. The article looks at, first of all, the motivation behind world travel:

We Millennials grew during an explosion of American consumerism, and we saw that acquiring more and more things did not make people happier. So we decided instead to acquire experiences. There’s some research that this will, in fact, make us happier… But traveling more has not meant that millennials are not still consumers like their parents. It just means they consume different things. And while experiences do make you happier than things, consumption is ultimately driven by dissatisfaction, regardless of what you’re consuming.

As I’m a little over three weeks into a five-month stint of international travel, it’s worth taking a frank look at my own motivations and illusions. What exactly am I trying to accomplish by traveling like this? I had to cringe when someone pointed out that if I’d just add Italy into my itinerary on the way home, I’d be doing the “Eat, Pray, Love” trip in reverse. I don’t think I’m trying to be Julia Roberts (though I wouldn’t mind having teeth like hers, but I won’t find that in India). I don’t think I’m chasing peak experiences (see my earlier post) or having a mid-life crisis.

What am I doing?

My old home

My cozy living room, which did in fact have the most comfortable beanbag in the world.

So why am I traveling like this? It is a little uncharacteristic of the person I used to be. I’m a comfort-seeking missile. I will hunt down the coziest beanbag in the world, and park myself there for hours. I will treat myself to delightful snacks, and I insist on a solid eight hours of sleep. I like balance. I like knowing where things are. I like making my home feel like home. I like coming home after doing anything at all, and feeling grounded.

This article in The Tyee resonates strongly for me when I think of my relationship with the City of Vancouver. I moved there fifteen years ago and was absolutely in love with the place, exploring on my bike, awed by the artsy little nooks and crannies and all the creative possibilities, as well as how easy it was to dip into nature whenever I wanted. I rented a few years, bought when real estate was only just mildly high, and nested happily into Vancouver. I watched real estate go berserk all around me, watched some of my favourite nooks and crannies close down when the rent was too high, and shook my head as entirely new neighbourhoods suddenly emerged in the city, stuffed with sterile chain stores and generic restaurants.

Then I wasn’t enjoying my nest any more – neighbours changed over the years, there were increasing levies and water issues – and felt the push to leave. I sold my place, but all my efforts to settle down in a new nest were thwarted because of the way the market was. I had a few backup plans for staying in Vancouver, and somehow they all got nixed. A major shakeup was also happening simultaneously with Matthew, to the point where I had to seriously question the foundations of our relationship and who I was within it.

Circumstances conspired to the point where so much of the stability and security I’d clung to for years was swept away. I couldn’t stay in the same old patterns. Everything seemed to be squeezing me out of the city, and making travel the most viable option. I let go of my deathgrip on my old, comfortable life, and started making plans for Southeast Asia and India.

So I don’t feel I’m a seeker, traveling to try to find or gain something, even though I’m going to spiritual areas and will be spending the bulk of my time in India at an ashram. I’m traveling because this path is the one that presented itself. Is it strange that in some ways, uprooting my life and heading off to the other side of the world feels like the path of least resistance? I’m finally not resisting the necessity of change.

Travel shows you that other ways of living are possible, and I do have one eye on getting myself out of some old, passive habits while I’m out and about. Being in a totally different setting has highlighted for me just how automatic some of those habits are – habits of thinking, habits in how I perceive myself. I spend many hours each week at Hubud, the coworking space, where people are looking to start companies, shake up their lives, find new directions. There’s a kind of exploratory energy there, a buzz of people with plans and ideas and hopes and dreams. I see other people – who aren’t so different from me – taking leaps, and there is a blink of surprise within me; oh, I could do these sorts of things too. I may have been limiting myself all along. I might be more capable than I give myself credit for. Huh.

Easy to connect, hard to maintain

Vancouver is a notoriously difficult city in which to meet people. We all hide in our little cliques – which take us newcomers years to build – and avoid conversation with strangers, avoid bothering anybody, resent being bothered. We’re polite, but very closed.

It can be a real joy to meet other travellers in a place like Bali or India. People are simply more open, more curious, more available, and often wanting for connection and companionship. There’s always easy topics of conversation, where you’re from or what you’re here for, tips about places to eat or visit or avoid, and you can quickly get a sense of how well you’ll get along with the other.

And yet at the same time, because we’re all so transient, lasting connections are harder to make. You can resonate with another traveller, know you’ll get on great, and also know that they’re only around for two days and you’ll likely never see them again. Sure, you can trade email addresses or WhatsApp numbers, but more likely than not you’ve had your window of time, and you let it go.

It’s not an escape

The Matador article also takes a frank look at the reality of whether all those great new life experiences through travel actually make you happier or sadder:

Many people talk about how magnificent a place the world is, and this is true — but there’s also a lot of poverty, suffering, and pain in it. It is easy to distance yourself from a hurricane, a war, or a massacre when it’s on TV — it is harder when you’ve been to the place it happened and have met the people it happened to.

Matthew and I were in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu two years ago – where we’re headed next week. Much of Tamil Nadu has been in terrible, terrible drought since then, to the point where we weren’t sure it would even be viable to return this year – the last thing the area would need is another couple of sweaty Westerners wanting showers multiple times a day. The monsoons seem to have returned this year and at least Tiru is in better shape, but much of Tamil Nadu is still suffering and becoming uninhabitable. I’ve been wondering about the rice-farming family in the little hut near the apartment where we lived two years ago, and whether they’re okay. I’m looking forward to visiting but also nervous.

I never would have given a moment’s thought to droughts in southern India before that last trip, much as I don’t register anything about what happens in Africa since I’ve never been there. But there you go, now it matters to me. And just because Mount Agung seems to be settling down now doesn’t mean I won’t be affected if it does erupt after I leave Bali. Far from it.

Cow statue in Bali

Balinese villagers setting up a really, really big cow.

No matter where you go, there you are

All that start-up energy here has a flip side as well. My month here has been in stark contrast to my meditative, introspective month in nature on Vancouver Island. There, I started every day with at least an hour of meditation, and my options for the day were relatively limited; walk on the property, read, work on my computer, watch something, or maybe take a brief drive into town for groceries.

Weird store in Bali

The possibilities here in Bali are… dizzying?

Here, I’m in tourist central, surrounded by choices which are broadcast at me from every tourist info booth. I have to start my day dealing with client issues for the brief window when our time zones align. And then, there’s such a world of choice and possibility – and “shoulds”. I should put in a few hours of work. Or maybe I should meditate first. No, I should explore Ubud. Or not just Ubud – I should be experiencing more of the “real” Bali – let me figure out where I should go this weekend and how to get there. Hmmm, first I should figure out a good place for lunch. Oh shit, I wanted to go snorkelling and time is running out – I should research the best companies for that. Damn, I shouldn’t spend all this time planning, I should just relax by the pool, that’s what it’s for. Alright, after I finish this blog post.

This is running as a sort of background process in my head. I can see the wheel spinning and choose to stop feeding its momentum, but it takes far more effort and concentration to do so than it did in a quiet, remote space. The mind is receiving so much more new input than usual, and it wants to just use that as fuel to keep itself humming along all day and night.

I’m curious to see what’ll happen when we get to Tiruvannamalai next week, and spend our first week at Sri Ramanasramam, mostly meditating. There’ll be fewer options and possibilities, I’m taking the week off work so I can have a full, proper retreat, and I expect to be able to focus more inwardly again. But India is also dizzying and chaotic, and the ashram is hardly silent – it’s bustling with people, dramatically coloured saris sweeping in and out of the meditation hall, while peacocks sound their calls throughout the grounds and monkeys fight for food and territory. The constant honking of traffic drifts up from the main road. Twice a day, Vedas are chanted loudly at the shrine. It’s as different from the Krishnamurti Centre as you can get, as far as meditational spaces go.

Let go of expectations

It’s all grist for the mill, anyway. If you head out for world travel with a plan about who you’re going to become and how those amazing experiences are going to change you, then yes, you are going to be dissatisfied. I am trying not to have major expectations, but one thing I expect is I will discover some hidden assumptions and expectations that I didn’t know I had. I’ll be disappointed at some point, and I’ll adapt. And I’ll keep following whatever path this is that I’m on.

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