“LIFE IS AN ADVENTURE OF PASSION, RISK, DANGER, LAUGHTER, BEAUTY, LOVE; A BURNING CURIOSITY TO GO WITH THE ACTION TO SEE WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT, TO GO SEARCH FOR A PATTERN OF MEANING, TO BURN ONE’S BRIDGES BECAUSE YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO GO BACK ANYWAY, AND TO LIVE TO THE END.” ― SAUL D. ALINSKY, REVEILLE FOR RADICALS
VACATIONS VERUS TRAVEL
A friend recently raised an interesting point: that there is a profound difference between a vacation and travel.
A vacation is a chance to relax and unwind, to go to a beach resort and clock out for a while, or perhaps to spend some quality time with your family. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But vacations should not be confused with travel. Travel is both exhilarating and exhausting. Travel is about throwing yourself far out of your comfort zone, digging out some unique experiences and immersing yourself wholly into the situations in which you find yourself. Traveling demands that delicate balance between copious amounts of prior research and that slightly maverick attitude of just seeing what happens when you get there. Because when you’re truly sidestepping the beaten track, there will always an element of unpredictability. And if you’re an itinerant wayfarer, it’s exactly that intriguing notion of the unknown which drives you forward.
That’s what makes traveling all the more rewarding. It engages your mind, stretches your horizons and challenges your preconceived notions of what the world is like.
Often the highlights of a trip, those tales with which you regale your friends and family upon your return, are those unexpected chance encounters with strangers who shared with you some unique insight on that country, introduced you to something that tourists on the well-beaten track never get to see, or invited you to lift the curtain back on a snapshot of their life. In the same way that it’s always that small, shoddy-looking, family-run restaurant you stumbled upon by a roadside which served up the best food you tasted the whole trip.
THE ALLURE OF THE UNKNOWN
Business guru Tony Schwartz phrases it well, “Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” This applies to traveling as much as it does to daily life. When we are in that mode of openness, then boundless opportunities are simply waiting to be seized.
Curiosity is what drives you out of your front door in the first place, but it’s also that persistent itch that keeps you hunting around for new stimulus when you’re out in the world, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, sights, smells and sounds, and the desire to understand, to string different strands of information into a coherent picture of the place you’re in. And in the meantime, it subtly starts shaping your worldview and loads you up with a heavy dosage of compassion for your fellow human beings.
One simple but powerful life lesson bestowed upon me from an early age was the value of being able to strike up a conversation with anyone. A shy child and awkward teenager, it’s only in my independent adult life that I have started to put this into action, but it’s taken me farther than I ever could have imagined.
I learned this skill from my mother, who will habitually start asking questions the minute she lands in a new country; with the taxi drivers, with people on the same bus, the hotel clerk or the restaurant waiter. To be honest, she does this at home, too, with the local butcher and greengrocer, or any builder or plumber who comes to the door – she’ll always have an eager question, a smile and a laugh at the ready. When traveling, it doesn’t matter who they are, she will always approach people with a totally open mind and try to delve deeper into some aspect of their life: their family perhaps, or their religion, their country’s history, politics or economic system, maybe the impact of tourism on that area. Or she’d dig out their recommendations of places to go and things to eat, freewheeling us away from the usual tourist honey traps and landing us straight into the lives of the locals.
She’d always manage to find out something completely unexpected within five minutes of meeting somebody. It helped us to build up a broader understanding of that particular place and its people. It also meant we’d get stuck in conversations with the occasional droning bore who liked the sound of their own voice far too much, but the payoff was worth it for those wonderful conversation with other like-minded, open and engaging people who were willing to share their stories.
“A FROG IN A WELL CANNOT CONCEIVE OF THE OCEAN.” – ZHUANGZI
When I started traveling alone, venturing halfway across the planet to Asia, I took the same curious attitude with me and realized it wasn’t all that difficult. It just takes a certain measure of courage and receptiveness, the bravery of that first step to start engaging with somebody on a human level, regardless of your assumed station of privileged tourist. I realized that you learn so much more when you’re the one doing the listening. On a personal level, this adventure has seen me land a job in a start-up company halfway around the planet from my quaint English countryside hometown in a country whose culture I delight in exploring every single day.
Contemplating the notion of living a life that is as human as possible (#AHAP) has led me to believe that we must allow ourselves to be driven by our curiosity and guided by our gratitude in equal measure. Courage must be balanced with deliberation, so each step towards fulfilling your grand project (whatever that may be) is bold without being reckless. Asia’s favourite maverick philosopher and one of the fathers of Daoism, Zhuangzi, writing 2400 years ago had his own particular views on the subject. He entreated us to learn to think, feel and act with spontaneity, by freeing ourselves of presumed judgements of right and wrong or can and can’t, by finding alignment with your inner nature and the nature of the world, and by learning to trust the impulses of your inner voices. It’s possible to take the same approach to traveling: to strike that balance between careful planning and spontaneous openness, to reserve judgement yet respond to everything you experience in a way which is authentic to yourself.
The most invigorating thing of all about traveling with curiosity as your sidekick is that you’ll never run out of things to see and learn, niche little pockets of subculture and history to dive into, beautiful architecture and art, the endlessly astounding permutations of the natural world. As Zhuangzi once said, “A frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean.” The world is endlessly complex, and far bigger than you can imagine from the small, safe corner of the world you normally occupy.
And upon your return, the new perspectives you take back with you enable you to see your own home in a new light. The phenomenon of reverse culture shock is no longer alien to me, and I have spent weeks walking around my own town in a state of wonder, feeling like a covert anthropologist as I watch familiar people going about their daily lives in a place that feels like home.