Life on the Road: reflections on unconventional travel

Related image

This post was first published on Adventures of Mike in 2018.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Essays

I begin with these words from Emerson because they capture one of the great paradoxes and contradictions of travel beautifully and succinctly. In general, “exploratory spirits” that I’ve met tend to be disillusioned with their own cultures.  Most have a sense of restlessness that they often trace back to the banality of where they grew up.  They desire to escape “the rat race,” “the game,” or “the illusion” in search of something more real; more true.  On the surface, it would seem that those of us (myself included) who have indulged in this mindset have lost the ability to carry a sense of the beautiful with us.  Curiously, however, this restlessness tends to lead such jaded folks on a real path of appreciation, opening up to the unfamiliar, and ultimately, quite a bit of self-discovery:  in other words, it seems that the majority of people who travel the world in search of beauty end up finding it.

So, is Emerson wrong?  Do we not then truly discover beauty by leaving our backwater hometowns and going to exciting, exotic, and – let’s face it – better places?  While it may appear that way in the surface, I think that he is getting at something deeper that sends us on such exploratory quests in the first place. The qualities that immersive travel tends to cultivate are indeed quite beautiful ones:  curiosity, courage, openness to experience, a deep appreciation for both the uniqueness of people and cultures, and the things that connect us all as human beings.  That’s the nature of spending time in a new place and having to adapt to it.  In my view – and I suspect Emerson’s – the hunger and restlessness that the banality of our hometowns makes us feel is rooted in the faintest sense of contact with the qualities of beauty within ourselves.  We crave these experiences because they help us access that which we already have;  that which was never lost;  that which has always been here.  Travel can be a great hack for accessing the necessary state of mind to encounter the beauty and value that have always existed, but we can still be too blind to see.  It’s the state of mind that truly matters, and it’s possible to travel without ever accessing it.

What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.

When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.

― John O’DonohueBeauty: The Invisible Embrace

Anyway, who am I to speak on all this? I don’t pretend to speak with any special authority or insight.  I’m just one guy, with one personality; one set of experiences and circumstances.  Don’t take any of this as gospel:  your mileage certainly will vary.  I do, however, have an interest in sharing my thoughts as someone who has done much more of this kind of thing than most.  I’m currently living in South Korea, and over the past three years I’ve done stints in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia and visited about twenty two other countries.  For whatever reason, wanderlust is a big part of me, for better or for worse.  I hope that the benefit of my experiences and insights can be helpful to some; and I hope that others (especially those more experienced than I) will call me out and not hold back on it!

So, without further ado, “the big questions” that seem to come up with some consistency:

Is “travel” really “glamorous”?

First and foremost, it depends on what you mean by “travel”.  Do you mean going on a Caribbean cruise for a five day vacation, stopping at five star resorts along the way? I suppose that’s “glamorous” if your idea of glamour involves speed, spending huge amounts of money, and staying within a bubble of comfort and excess where you never encounter anything challenging or unfamiliar. If those are the sort of things you’re looking for, just keep living a normal life and go on vacation once a year.  But let me share my opinion with you frankly and honestly:  that’s not really “travel”; at least not the kind that you would seek if growth or change in perspective are your goals.  I would call it tourism, which is fine as far as it goes.  Tourism can be fun, and it could be a good break from the “seriousness” of day-to-day life.  Just don’t expect it to change your life.

If, on the other hand, your idea of “glamour” involves a deep sense of freedom, daily encounters with the unfamiliar, and the need to be constantly learning, then you are in luck.  That is, as long as you don’t mind at least 20% of your “plans” not going the way you imagined; as long as you are ready to adapt constantly to different standards of behavior.  Basically, if your idea of glamour has anything to do with comfort, don’t travel.  Go on vacation.  The only enduring benefits you’ll get out of travel involve stepping firmly out of your comfort zone, and truly encountering the world of those who live differently.

Are other cultures really as idyllic and exotic as they seem?

An honest answer is “it’s a mixed bag.”  Perhaps even more honest would be to say “usually not, because idyllic and exotic are just constructs in your mind.”  Exotic simply means that it is unfamiliar to you, and therefore seems strange and attractive due to its difference.  Put quite simply, this is just a matter of your perspective. “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”  Once you’ve experienced enough of the “exotic,” it all starts to feel “normal.”  Which is to say, of course, nothing is normal!  Everything is strange and always has been;  it’s just easier not to notice when our environment stays the same from day to day!

In the end, it turns out that life, people, and societies are generally quite ordinary.  If there is an Atlantis, Utopia or Shangri-La out there, I certainly haven’t found it, nor do I expect to.  No;  I’ve just met lots of ordinary people, and visited lots of ordinary places. And thank God I have, because doing so has reminded me that though human existence can feel “ordinary,” it’s quite strange indeed.

How much “freedom” do you really have?

Especially having grown up in America, the word “freedom” has become a bit vacuous to my ears.  The comedian and social critic George Carlin once said that politicians say “God bless you, and God bless America” “as if it were some kind of verbal tick they can’t get rid of.”  Talk of “freedom” is another one of those verbal ticks, to the point that hearing the word spoken often leads me assume that no real content is actually being communicated.  So, in order to satisfy myself that I’m not speaking in meaningless cliches, I will define “freedom” as it applies here.

Freedom is having the imagination, resources and circumstances to be able to make meaningful choices.  A meaningful choice is one that has an impact on your own experience and the experiences of others that is life enhancing and life affirming.  In other words, I’m not talking about choices between “paper or plastic” or “chocolate or vanilla” – I’m talking about choices that actually lead you and/or others to feel alive.

Here’s the good news.  The imagination aspect is by far the most important aspect of freedom.  You can have the freedom, to the extent you’re willing and able to let go of the nonsense. What exactly is “the nonsense”?  Happily, mostly just things in your mind:  the idea that you “must” sleep in an air conditioned room; the idea that you “can’t” try that new food that you’ve never heard of;  the sense that you are “bad at languages”;  and most importantly, the idea that you need a lot of money.  It’s true: when it comes to travel, and freedom in general, money does help.  That, unfortunately, is the way of the world.  That’s why I included resources and circumstances on the list:  they can certainly have an impact on the choices that are available to you.  For example, in my case, student loan debts precludes me from living and traveling for any length of time where I can’t make enough money to make substantial payments on that debt.  As much as I’d love not to be limited by those circumstances, I am.

But you know what?  That hasn’t stopped me.  I’ve lived in five countries and visited twenty one in less than three years.  I’m nobody special.  If I can do it, you can do it.

The most important things to let go of, if you are traveling on a budget, are:

1. A consumerist, materialistic mindset:  I have bad news.  If you feel that you need to drive a new Mercedes, own twenty pairs of shoes, have the latest iPhone, and buy a new designer wardrobe for every season, this lifestyle is not for you. Luckily, those things really have nothing to do with our happiness anyway.  The research on happiness is nearly unanimous:  all you need is enough money to meet your basic needs and make meaningful choices (see above).  In the U.S. context, happiness only increases up to an income of about $70,000 per year.  It then flat-lines up to about $200,000 per year, and then actually starts going down.  Believe it or not, the richest people in our society are statistically just as miserable as the poorest.  Seriously!  Of course, there are exceptions to everything.  But the crux of the research still holds:  money can’t buy you happiness.  Rather, experiences and relationships with others are the most important things.  As Thoreau wrote so beautifully, “our lives are frittered away by detail.  Simplify, simplify”.

2. An attachment to living in one or two specific (usually expensive!) places: When I first started travelling, I had my heart set on Scandinavia or Northern/Western Europe.  While I adore the lifestyle in these places and am grateful to have visited, it would have been completely unsustainable for me to stay, at least at this stage in my life.  The cost of living relative to the amount of money I could make was just too high – if it were even possible to get a visa.  The good news is that it’s a big world.  You may love a place you went on vacation or studied abroad, but how do you know you will not love another place just as much or even more?  There are plenty of places in the world where you can live an excellent lifestyle for very little money.  I lived very comfortably in the Czech Republic for a year on less than $2,000 USD a month, and I was able to travel extensively around Europe on weekends, eat out frequently, and save a couple thousand dollars.  In Korea, I am lucky enough to have a rent-free apartment, my flights to and from the country paid for, and the opportunity to make overtime pay on an already quite comfortable salary.  That’s simply because the demand for English teachers in Korea is much higher than it is in, say, Sweden, and the Korean government and private sector offer an abundance of opportunities for native teachers.

3. Debt – to the extent you can:  Wait a second, didn’t I just say I have substantial student loan debt?  Yes, I did.  And yes, I’m still paying it off.  If you have debt, there are still many, many ways to travel and you absolutely shouldn’t let it stop you. But that limits my choices.  I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to pay off my debt quite aggressively while living in Korea.  I’ve even heard people joke that teaching in Korea is the “East Asian Student Loan Repayment Program,” and for good reason.  But having the debt that I do takes away the opportunity to travel and live in interesting places around the world with a very low cost of living.  Did you know that it’s possible to live comfortably in Thailand, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Chile, and many, many more places in the world for less than $1,000 a month?  In some of these places, even $600 can be enough.  Even Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic – advanced, “first world” economies, offer a decent lifestyle for $1,000-1,500 per month.  If you don’t have any debt, why not take advantage of these opportunities?  Save up some money at home, or in a place like Taiwan or Korea, and you can have more freedom that you could have ever imagined.

What I’m most grateful for:  how I’ve learned through my travels to make the most of all situations

Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” ― Ralph Waldo EmersonJournals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844

Each moment, place, person, and situation is unique.  You will never get back any moment that you waste.

A wonderful benefit of travel – perhaps the most rewarding aspect – is the connections you will make with other travellers. I’ve made some rewarding and surprisingly enduring friendships with people I’ve met all over the world.  In today’s world, due to the internet and the ability to keep in touch through means like Skype and social media, it has actually been possible to maintain these connections, and I’ve even been able to meet up with people I’ve met along the way again on return visits, and when our paths have crossed in other places, often unexpectedly.

Cathedral Cove, New Zealand (November 2015)

While fun and rewarding, it’s true that these sorts of friendships do not provide the same kind of stability as those you may form with those you live in constantly close proximity to.  I’ve also had to spend extended periods of time away from friends and family at home.  This can certainly be stressful and even depressing, especially early on in the travellers lifestyle.  I can remember a period of time in New Zealand of about a month and half – after having spent three months building a great life and meeting great people in the Netherlands – feeling quite upset that that stage of the journey was over.  Unfortunately, this prevented me from making the most of my time in New Zealand.  When the loneliness and nostalgia eventually hit their peak after a brutal bout with bronchitis, I finally made the decision to go outside my comfort zone:  I stayed in hostels, talked to strangers and other travellers whenever I got the chance, and took the leap to travel around for some time in a camper van with some great people from France that I met at one of the hostels.  It ended up being such a liberating and unforgettable experience – and the primary one for which I remember my time in New Zealand.  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy my solitude (especially in nature), and travelling solo can be very rewarding and help you to grow immeasurably.  But loneliness is quite likely to strike you at some point if you choose this lifestyle.  Remember:  there are amazing people and experiences waiting for you in every place and situation.  You just have to be open to them, and you have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone.

Life is messy.  Sometimes things will go according to your plans, but often they will not.  Make the most of the moments and circumstances you are presented with.  No experience is perfect, but that doesn’t mean that experience isn’t worth it.

The bottom line:  you don’t have to travel.  Only you know what’s best for you.

“When you [have] a little adventure like a walk, you look at every object with a traveler’s, or at least with historical, eyes; you pause on the first bridge, where an ordinary walk hardly commences, and begin to observe and moralize like a traveler. It is worth the while to see your native village thus sometimes, as if you were a traveler passing through it, commenting on your neighbors as strangers.” Henry David Thoreau

As I have discussed (probably ad nauseum at this stage), the lasting benefits of travel are the impact on your state of mind.  You don’t need to travel to experience such a change in mindset, just as you don’t necessarily need to learn to read music in order to play it, and play it well.  The extent to which the experience plays a role is the classic nature vs. nurture debate.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on how much of a role one’s environment plays in all this.  My own experience is that the impact has been significant, but a large part of that is probably a function of my own personality being well-suited to such things. Others might find other ways to “walk away from all that you know.” And that’s really what I recommend, above all.  Find a way – whether it is travel, meditation, service to others, riding your bike up mountains, reading lots of books – to challenge your preconceptions of what’s “normal” in life.  Culture can seem like the “be all, end all,” but it’s really only one layer of the onion of who we are.  There is something deeper worth discovering, and as the Hindus say:

There are hundreds of paths up the mountain,
all leading in the same direction,
so it doesn’t matter which path you take.
The only one wasting time is the one
who runs around and around the mountain,
telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.

Mt. Cook, New Zealand (October 2015)

Related Posts