Imagine you have the whole year to yourself. You essentially have no responsibilities, no one telling you what to do, no objectives to complete and nowhere to be. You could be anywhere you want, doing anything you want, with anyone you want.
How would you pass your time?
First, let’s look at a difference between traveling alone and traveling with others.
When you’re traveling with another person, you’re more invested in a joint experience. You’re more consumed with the person you’ve come along with: your conversation, mutual interests and the overall outcome of a shared experience. There isn’t as much space for observation and reflection. Furthermore, chances are the person you are traveling with has a worldview quite aligned with your own, giving you a constant frame of familiarity to latch onto. Thus, it can become easier to hold onto ideas and mindsets from home. While traveling with others is great, it also may keep us enclosed in bubbles of familiarity.
Yet, when you travel alone to unfamiliar cultures, most, if not all the things you identify with are no longer present. The only thing you can latch onto is yourself – as it unfolds and transforms in each and every moment. Thus, you spend less time in home-brought familiarity, and more time in reflection. This can be very rewarding, as it allows you to digest your exposure to different cultures, ways of living and thinking more fully. You can start to seek your own answers to your own questions, outside of the influence of a travel partner. It can enable you to take a step back from your cultural conditioning and ask questions such as: “why do we do the things we do?” “What does success mean to me?” “What is truly important in my life?”
Seeing different ways of life can stimulate internal questioning, leading to a dissection of previously held mentalities. And being alone gives ample space to do just that.
Though if we’re not used to being alone, solo travel can be difficult. As when we’re alone for prolonged periods of times, we spend more time reflecting, more time in intimate presence with our headspace. At home we’re used to constantly interacting with our friends or stimulating ourselves, but when we travel alone, these constructs fade away; there are fewer distractions. Thus, our mental ruminations can become magnified, and if we aren’t used to this, then our problems may also become magnified.
“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you,” Neil Gaiman.
Digital media paints a fantastical picture of travel. Beautiful pictures are shared, and it’s easy to think of it as completely liberating. It’s easy to think that travel entails doing whatever you want, wherever you want, and however you want – which it does. But what does that actually mean? It means there is no habitual living. It means you’re in a new country with little familiarity, where everybody else is going about their daily lives; no one is waiting to throw a party for your arrival. What you do in each and every moment is up to your discretion. So, if you had a whole year to yourself, what would you do? How would you pass your time?
This isn’t an easy question, as we are used to having our time organized and our lives planned. We talk about our five and ten year goals as we go through a rigid schooling system with a pre-destined professional tract. With the best of intentions, we always are working toward something. Yet, rarely do we do things without expecting to get somewhere or something in return.
Additionally, we don’t spend many moments by ourselves. We are constantly interacting with others, either physically or digitally. In this sense, it’s easy to become heavily influenced by the people and culture we’re surrounded by; our personalities can become molded by our professional settings and our social circles. We may be familiar with the systems we’re apart of and how we relate to them, but estranged from the “I” behind these relationships. In the process of interacting, relating and identifying with external things, it’s easy to lose sight of the internal self.
Who are you outside of your identity in school, outside of your working life, outside of your relationship with others?
My belief is that prolonged time in other cultures doesn’t change who the traveler is; it makes them more them. It allows them to look at the world, without a professor, friend, boss or parent telling them when, where, what, how and why. Outside of a classroom or an office, mental space is opened up; a traveler can see where their thoughts gravitate toward over time. They can start to ask their own questions and form their own definitions, based on the lens of their distinct experience. Over time, space can be placed between who the culture has molded them to be vs. who they truly are.
Traveling can make us more us.
There’s one more point I would like to make.
Often we associate our happiness based on external objectives and future destinations. We think when we get “there” we will be happy. Yet happiness isn’t something we get; it’s something we are. And “there” doesn’t exist; there is no future time or distant place that contains our happiness. Happiness isn’t planned for a future; it’s accessed and felt in the present. Contentment isn’t found in external things, it’s an internal state, dependent upon one’s perception.
Perception is the process through which the mind translates external sensory experiences into internal cognitive experience; it’s the conversion of the outward world to the inward world; it’s how we mentally understand what occurs to us on a physical level.
An experience is only an experience. Though, it’s human nature to take these experiences and mentally label them as good or bad, happy or sad. Yet the places we go to, activities we do, and things we have aren’t the sole determiners of our contentment, rather how we perceive these constructs is what influences the quality of our experience. A beach is just a beach; a sky full of stars is just a sky full of stars. It’s not the beach or the stars that make us happy, it’s the way we perceive these things, which determine our emotions.
Yet when see pictures of beautiful places, it’s easy to get high expectations of idyllic locations. Since the location looks beautiful in picture form, we may assume that our experience will also be beautiful. But if you’re at peace you’ll find peace wherever you go, and if you’re unhappy you’ll find unhappiness wherever you go.
Places don’t make us feel a certain way; we feel a certain way about places.
So with all this said, how can we begin to reconcile the above? What does one do with their time while traveling? How can we apply this to life?
For me, traveling is the art of the ordinary becoming extraordinary. People, regardless of their walk of life – villager, street cleaner, professor, traveler, etc. – become fascinating. Churches, colonial estates, and dilapidated buildings become compelling. And wandering takes on a whole new purpose. Personally, I spend most of my time doing just that – wandering. I try to approach what I do with minimal expectations and little plan; I try to let the feelings that arise dictate my experience. I may ask myself questions such as: “Which streets seem intriguing? Which food seems fascinating? Which people feel warm?”
Each day I feel I’m learning, solidifying a worldview and starting to see my purpose in all this craziness.
To wrap up, I want to make recommendations for those wishing to receive them.
I encourage time in solitude, the more natural the setting the better. I encourage doing things solely to do the activity itself – without a goal or objective. I encourage engaging in activities, which are conducive to the upkeep of mental hygiene – such as meditation, yoga, intuitive dance, free-stream writing, etc. Be patient, learning oneself is hard work and a never-ending process. And along the way don’t forget about the other 7 billion living and breathing humans.
Eventually, I encourage those who take this advice to ask their own questions. You don’t need to travel to somewhere exotic to do this. Reflection, understanding and meaning are always available, but it’s up to us to create the space.