Travelling abroad is an exciting venture into the unknown. It has exquisite appeal for the adventure junkies, the global philanderers, the foodies, the culture curious, those who just want to check out what’s happening on the other side of the world, those who wish to take a long hiatus from what’s happening on their familiar side of the world. For whatever reason you choose to fling yourself out into the exotic wide open, there is always a dose of reality that awaits you at the end of your sojourn because we all end up coming back home at some point, even if we don’t choose to stay. The return home can feel like an anti-climatic end to a life-changing experience and it is often the most challenging part of travelling that evokes all kinds of feelings.
I’ve had a few realizations upon my return home again, described below through my interpretation of the poignant words of Eddie Vedder, one of my favourite musicians. Recognize these songs? If you’ve ever travelled abroad for an extended time or are thinking about it, read on. It’s a trip into the wild…
“There’s a big hard sun, beating on the big people, in a big hard world…”
Each year I return home I feel a little bit more like an alien walking the same old streets, driving past the same old shops. I’ve been affected by everything I’ve touched, every person I’ve met, every temple I’ve visited, every mountain I’ve climbed. And I always start my visit home thinking that I’m the only one who’s changed, that everyone and everything is exactly the same, but it’s not the reality.
I always feel the residual effects of travelling during the first couple of weeks at home, especially when I compare everything to what I’ve seen and experienced abroad. This is when non-judgemental eyes become most important and I must step outside of my own experience to recognize my old environment and familiar people in a new light.
I’m not the only one who’s changed. In some cases my changes have been broader or perhaps more obvious, but home and all its people have also changed in ways I can’t immediately see. There have been shifts in priorities, goals, pursuits, and perspectives–things not evident until I’ve spent time re-integrating myself into my family and friendships.
At the end of the day I realize that my travel experiences have not influenced me any more or less than sitting in traffic or starting a business or weeding a garden have influenced someone else in their own life context, they’re all just different experiences, different choices. We’re all under the same sky, affected by the same sun and the same moon, feeling a similar rain and a similar wind, changing and evolving within the context of our own lives.
“Empty pockets will allow a greater sense of wealth”
I was brought up to value money, to scrimp and save for what I wanted, but it wasn’t until I stopped working and hit the road that I learned to properly manage my money, simply because I didn’t have very much. For the first time my bank account was “exit only” and I watched in horror as my savings dwindled to an all-time low, without much material evidence that I’d spent any money at all. You can’t see or touch experiences after all.
About a year into my travels I stopped wanting so many things. Having designer jeans, expensive face creams, and the latest gadgets was less important than ever. Having less money and possessions than I’d become used to over a lifetime truly showed me how unimportant material things are and how extravagant my material life really was. Having less things allowed me more time and taught me to make do with and appreciate what I had instead of always wanting to add more to my increasing pile of stuff. Admittedly, my pockets have never been completely empty of money but they’re full of stories.
“It’s a mystery to me…”
When I came home after my first year abroad I walked into Costco and fell into a fit of frustration trying to select a tube of toothpaste, a loaf of bread, a box of razors, maxi pads. The options were ridiculous and testament to a level of mass consumerism and bullshit marketing that is beyond the scope of my understanding. And, I wonder why people buy and drink bottled water when some of the cleanest water in the world flows from our taps?
“Who I was before I cannot recall”
Frolicking around the world for a year (or five), seeing things I’d never have believed possible has irreversibly altered my worldview. It’s a getting up from the comfortable couch of the ignorance (using the best definition of the word) and crossing over to the experiential 12-hour rice-sack bus ride of the great big world out there.
There are vistas broader than the imagination. Families sustaining themselves on as little as the cost of a monthly mobile phone plan. Ancient architecture beyond any realm of understanding. Crushing poverty, stray livestock inhabiting the city streets, people seemingly from the heavens, people from the dark side of the world. A totally different night sky and the fullest empty horizon you’ve ever seen.
And then you come home and realize that a fundamental part of yourself has changed, that parts of who you were before you set off are almost unrecognizable. It’s aging through experience rather than time because throughout a year of travel you’re pummelled with new people, a gazillion different perspectives, and adventures that test your limits, tolerance, patience, convictions, and personal ethics–all in a foreign land. How does this not change a person? Long-term travel causes a reconsideration of yourself, at least on some level. If it doesn’t, maybe your eyes aren’t open.
“The world begins where the road ends”
This is basically about getting lost. The world begins where the road ends if you choose to keep moving forward in spite of fear and uncertainty. It’s okay to take off for a year and have no idea what you’ll do when you return, or if you will return. It’s okay to book a one way ticket to nowhere and figure it out when you arrive. Much more interesting things happen when you don’t plan every step of the way, when you allow yourself to get lost. It’s okay to lose your sense of material security and to feel like you’re losing your mind. Both are, arguably, necessary for growth.
“When I took to leave her I always stagger back again”
I’ve thought about just staying in Canada many, many times. But I’ve travelled abroad for a long time “out there” becomes almost like an elite, privileged club to which I’ve earned membership, that has served up secrets and insights I wouldn’t otherwise have. I love the security and familiarity of my home country. I love that I can see my doctor for free, drink water from the tap, breathe some of the freshest air on the planet, and have my family close by. But the yearning to be with “her”–to be back out there and travel, to move freely around the world and choose from one month to the next where I want to be trumps any creature comfort or feeling of security. Travelling incites an itch that doesn’t go away when I scratch it, it just exacerbates the itch and makes me want to keep moving.
“I know all the rules but the rules did not know me”
Let’s not look at rules in their literal sense, but rather as those restraints created by society and ourselves to ensure we live a safe, healthy, secure life. They’re also the opinions and judgements of other people who, similarly, have our best interests at heart. But who actually knows what our best interests are? Certainly not the social constructs of marriage, parenthood, home ownership, or age, and sometimes, not even the people closest to us.
Spending a year in unfamiliar places negotiating your surroundings causes a reconsideration of values because it makes all of those institutions that we tend to fall into so naturally more obvious. It’s hard to see what is right in front of you. They aren’t traps to be criticized or resisted for the sake of being free of rules out in the great wide open. But being away from such institutions and expectations certainly causes you to regard them more critically. Travel incites you to ask why more often, and the answers are not, unfortunately, blowing in the wind.