First published on The Jakarta Post Weekender, Dec 2011, Travel issue
Ah, that classic scene of a child on her bike, waving, shouting proudly to her mom, full of happiness and a sense of fulfillment and freedom, oblivious to the fact that, at any moment, she just might lose her balance and fall. Who cares? At the time, she is simply on top of the world!
And that, ladies and gents, pretty much sums up how I feel about travel.
By far this is somehow the most difficult piece for me to write for the WEEKENDER, which is odd. Among friends, I am known as a seasoned traveler. Yet I found myself struggling to sum up my feelings about traveling in 1000 words.
I treasure the times I travel. I want to give travel its due without exaggerating it. I want to stay honest with my experiences. So I asked myself: what is it about traveling that entices me most, what does it mean to me and what does it do to me?
And that vision came to mind: a child on her bike, immersed in that moment of complete freedom, joy and fulfillment. It is an experience of utter abandonment, in the most positive sense of the word. Total freedom.
Whether I am traveling by air, by bus or on foot, I feel like I am going to a theater to watch nature’s grand play. I simply sit, enjoy the show and occasionally do a standing ovation to such a beautiful, entertaining performance.
Perhaps it is the fact that we are in a different place – in a different environment, doing different activities, meeting different people – that makes travel so refreshing. We see things with fresh eyes and have fewer expectations as to how things will turn out. Hence, we feel lighter.
Travel also makes a strong case that things are simply beyond our control. It is easier for us to acknowledge that a lot of things can happen while on the move that we cannot control. We practice letting go of our expectations, accepting what may come and adapting to changes during our journey, often somewhat subconsciously.
This also applies to the people we meet, from all walks of life. Some we want to keep in touch with, but most simply fade away in our memories. They’ve done their bit in our encounter with them.
All of this sounds a lot like life, really. In fact, I personally believe that travel is a miniature, a snapshot of life. Travel is our laboratory of life in which we feel safe(r) to experiment with our self.
I always take advantage of my travels to reflect on how I am and to observe myself as I travel. You might say that I have made myself part of the play that I am watching.
I do little experiments when traveling, especially when I go by myself. I do something new or different from how I go about things when I am home.
I go with gut feelings, moment by moment, to answer these questions: Where would I like to go now? What do I feel like doing? And whatever response arises, I follow it.
And because I have a less rigid concept about how I need to be, I release all those pressures that we call “external” but which I have actually put on myself and allow myself to be me more easily. I take off my watch, leave my cell phone behind and try (very hard, sometimes) to stay away from Internet cafés.
On my last trip, for instance, three friends and I met up in Bali. We arrived at different times but stayed at the same hotel. From the word go, we agreed that we did not need to be together at all time, but could go our separate ways. Once in a while, we got together and shared our stories.
Our trip became richer and everyone was happy. It was a good exercise in being honest with ourselves and our companions. It was, honestly, very freeing to stay true to oneself. (another important lesson here: Pick your travel companions well. Do yourself a favor and choose those who are on the same wavelength as you).
This and the many other experiments I have put myself through during my travels have somehow made a huge impact on how I am in my everyday life today. Through travel, I learn about myself. I find my rhythm in life. I learn to become more myself, to embrace myself and to enjoy being me. Through these travels, I have discovered that I love being me and I have fallen in love with life.
I learned something else recently. A friend asked me to share my travel experience with teenage street kids at a school where she volunteered. I told a story about a trip I made years ago. I wondered why I needed to bring up something that happened long ago. It felt somewhat irrelevant and obsolete to me.
Then I realized that it was not about me anymore. My travel has become non-personal in the sense that it is time to share what I have learned with others. And if traveling really does reflect life, then this applies to life in general as well: It is high time to share. It is not about just you or me anymore – life is so much bigger than that.
Here’s my invitation to you: Get the guts, go traveling. Pick a destination that speaks to you most at this moment. Go there. Be as you are, as best as you possibly can, at any given time. Never mind what other people think about you; never mind what you think about yourself. Just be. And see where it leads you. I imagine you too will release the controls and shout, “Look, ma, no hands!”
I have been knocking all my life at the door.
The door opened.
I realized I have been knocking from inside.