In this Instagram epoch, more and more people want to travel so that they can post their photos from their journey and thus gain more likes and followers. They try to master the art of photography, buy a smartphone with killer snappers or action cameras or Leicas, and learn about the hottest traveling-related hashtags.
Ah, maybe that’s just me.
Millennial shallowness aside, I really admire people who travel, going to (Instagram-friendly) places unknown to them, getting lost in sort of way that it changes them, or better, transcends them, thus making them a better person (or so they claim).
But lately I felt that the desire to travel became more urgent to the point that it turned itself into a problem to be solved and therefore it caused anxiety.
I really want to travel but I can’t seem to find the time. Now, what if I couldn’t travel? What would my life be if I don’t travel? Would it make me a bad person? Would it make me less cool? Oh god, I hate my life!
This is, in my self-righteous (haha) opinion, partly because the Internet is inundated with beautiful travel pictures and blog posts ramming down your throat as to why you should travel and why it’s good for you.
While I wholeheartedly believe that traveling places, to some extent, is life-changing, I’m also bugged with a question: is it the only way to change your life, to be enlightened, to leave your comfort zone, to get lost, to find yourself and to be a better person?
I, too, want the experience, the insights, the sense of self-transcendence, of getting lost, of being someone new, someone better. But it’s not that easy to drop everything and go traveling, not as easy as they claim to be, at least for me.
Then, in the most serendipitous way, I bumped into Pico Iyer’s TED talk on one ordinary January day at work. Weeks later, my girlfriend got me Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost as my birthday present. This almost felt like the universe conspired to provide me some kind of answers.
Going nowhere and getting lost anywhere
The experience you get from traveling beautiful places, Iyer believes, can bring clarity to your life; you can turn sights into insights. Perhaps this is what people mean by “traveling can make you a better person.” But Iyer noted that “nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. You take an angry man to the Himalayas, he just starts complaining about the food.” To Iyer, it’s not about the place. It’s how you see the place.
You can master this turning-sights-into-insights business by developing “more attentive and more appreciative eyes.” And this set of right eyes can be acquired by–drum roll, please–going nowhere, you know, like sitting still and doing nothing. Yes, that’s what he said.
I found that going nowhere was at least as exciting as going to Tibet or to Cuba. And by going nowhere, I mean nothing more intimidating than taking a few minutes out of every day or a few days out of every season, or even, as some people do, a few years out of a life in order to sit still long enough to find out what moves you most, to recall where your truest happiness lies and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.
Considering that Iyer is one of the most celebrated travel writers, this particular account came as quite a surprise to me. Yet it hits home, and in a way it’s kind of soothing. While most travelers urge people to pack their bags and suitcases and book flight to some strange exotic place, Iyer does the opposite: “Yo, sit still and think about all the things that bring you joy.”
To me, this is an antidote to the aforementioned anxiety. And thus, this becomes one of the things to prepare before I embark on the actual travel.
Meanwhile in A Field Guide, Solnit pointed out to me many ways to get lost. It turns out getting lost is not always about dislocation. It also happens in your head. It’s about the “immersion where everything else falls away.”
Lost was … mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.
In one chapter, Solnit talked about a short passage from Virginia Woolf’s essay, in which Woolf told her account, in such meticulous details, of rambling a city street and how one can lose the sense of oneself through this simple activity.
For Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are. This dissolution of identity is familiar to travelers in foreign places and remote fastness, but Woolf, with her acute perception of the nuances of consciousness, could find it in a stroll down the street, a moment’s solitude in an armchair.
The shocking truth is, I’ve actually been experiencing this sense of being lost from time to time: on one Sunday morning in my parents’ house or when I spend my lunch break sitting alone on a bench in a park. The truth is, I’ve been trying to transcend myself this whole time by lying idly on a bed, listening to bird chirping or looking up to watch the sky getting split into little pieces by interweaving branches. Everything, for a moment, falls away. This also happens when I get so immersed in a book I’m reading.
Then I think to myself that perhaps I don’t have to go to faraway places to have this kind of amazing “adventure.” It’s always there as soon as I’m out my door, as I step onto the road. And if you’re careful, you can find it on your bed, on a park bench, or in a book you read.
Of course I still want to travel. I believe I will someday. But I don’t worry about it anymore for the desire to travel is no longer a problem to be solved but a reminder to myself that happiness or whatever it is that can bring calm and tranquility to your life isn’t found in places where you are not. It’s always right here as soon as you stop pursuing it.