I’ve read a few books while on this trip, but the choosing of these books has mostly been at the mercy of fate. The library from which I could select was whatever books were available on the day’s hostel’s book exchange. Between photocopied versions of travel guides and books in German and French, the selection was often very limited indeed. I had very low expectations of finding thought-provoking reading. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this quote in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” by Salman Rushdie and my brain started churning.
“But let’s just suppose. What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on — what if it’s all a scam? What if all of it — home, kinship, the whole enchilada — is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s why when you dare to let go that your real life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut your ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! To lead the life nobody tells you how to live, or when, or why. In which nobody orders you to go forth and die for them, or for god, or comes to get you because you broke one of the rules, or because you’re one of those people who are, for reasons which unfortunately you can’t be given, simply not allowed. Suppose you’ve got to go through the feeling of being lost, into the chaos and beyond; you’ve got to accept the loneliness, the wild panic of losing your moorings, the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air.
You won’t do it. Most of you won’t do it. The world’s head laundry is pretty good at washing brains: Don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door don’t step into that waterfall don’t take that chance don’t step across that line don’t ruffle my sensitivities I’m warning you now don’t make me mad you’re doing it you’re making me mad. You won’t have a chance you haven’t got a prayer you’re finished you’re history you’re less than nothing, you’re dead to me, dead to your whole family your nation your race, everything you ought to love more than life and listen to like your master’s voice and follow blindly and bow down before and worship and obey; you’re dead, you hear me, forget about it, you stupid bastard, I don’t even know your name.
But just imagine you did it. You stepped off the edge of the earth, or through the fatal waterfall, and there it was: the magic valley at the end of the universe, the blessed kingdom of the air. Great music everywhere. You breathe the music, in and out, it’s your element now. It feels better than “belonging” in your lungs.
Here on the road, we are surrounded by other travelers and so my perspective has gotten a bit skewed. Everyone out here has done it — they’ve leapt away from society and thrown themselves into adventure. It’s easier for some of us than others. Many of the people we meet come from cultures where traveling is a rite of passage (primarily France, England, Australia, and New Zealand), and going on a six-month trip is not uncommon.
However, there are those of us who hail from countries where long-term travel is rather unusual: America (where something like only 20% of the population has a passport), Singapore, Vietnam and Romania to name a few. When I announced I was going on this trip, many people were bewildered and did not understand why I would want to leave behind the great life I have to visit developing nations and put myself in uncomfortable places (any Westerner who has used an Eastern latrine understands discomfort). Our culture does not prioritize traveling. And, I believe, there is an undercurrent of fear that tells us not to venture outside the safety of our home. If you listen to the news, the world is a terrifying and dangerous place!
For those of us from such places, leaving on this trip was extra challenging because we had to go against the currents of our societies. Our families don’t understand the pull we feel to explore and venture beyond the known. My parents in particular have never understood why it is that I spend all my vacation time and money on wandering to far-flung places with names that I can’t pronounce and where I don’t know a single person. And I don’t know how to explain it to them — capturing the pull of the road in words has always escaped me.
I feel a particular kinship with travelers who come from similar cultures and have had long conversations about being misunderstood (or not understood at all) at home. Despite going against the grain, all of us have heeded the call of travel. We escaped the gravitational pull of society and are chasing travel dreams. We wander about the world, observing and absorbing the scenes before us, and then we move on to another new place. What is it that we are looking for? Is it a new place to call home? Is it to open our eyes to different ways of life? Is it new experiences? Is it to collect passport stamps because that, somehow, is a representation of our self-worth? Is it to escape something from our previous home? Is it a mid-life crisis? Is it to challenge ourselves and see what we’re capable of?
I think every traveler travels for their own myriad purposes. But at the root of all those reasons, even if we don’t acknowledge it, is change. If we wanted everything to stay the same, we would never leave home. But there can be no traveling without some sort of re-orientation of ourselves.
Why did I venture out here? I still don’t completely know, but it had something to do with challenging myself, getting distance and perspective from home, and a general sense of adventure. I don’t know if I got all those things, but I’m excited to see how this new Lisa , who I’m still just meeting, fits back into life at home.