“I am having a cup of tea (via email) with a friend while sitting in a 4 star hotel coffee shop along a bank of windows looking out over the Yellow sea with my computer in my lap and free WIFI access to the Internet. Something my friend said to me has set off a flood of thoughts.
Being a wanderer, crossing a different land among people who speak languages strange to one’s ear…meditating in tune with the dreamy rhythm of train wheels against the rails, allowing the sounds of the world to be one’s mantra, enables one to transcend one’s known life. The essential isolation and silence of being alone (much like being on retreat in a monastery) without the ease of familiarity allows one to stand outside one’s habituated self and access thoughts and memories that may not arise otherwise.
Introspective reflections revealed by large sublime views and new places may reveal thrilling or disappointing aspects of ourselves heretofore hidden from our awareness. Another travel writer says “it is not necessarily [only] at home that we encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we [think] we are in ordinary life…who may not be who we essentially are.”
Flaubert always felt that he had been “transplanted by the winds” at birth. He proposed a new method for ascribing nationality that was not according to the country of a person’s birth or ancestral origins, but instead according to the places to which he or she was attracted. For him, his native country was the country he loved…the one that made him “dream,” that made him “feel well.” Of course this was probably a reaction to his hatred for the “extreme prudery snobbery smugness, racism and pomposity” of the French bourgeoisie at the time.
If we find poetry in tattered old men weaving home on bicycles, a grateful charm in smiling young country girls… and a shared intimacy in the look of recognition in the eyes of other kindred spirits we meet who are also traveling alone we have found an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary rooted world that makes it too easy for us to live on the surface of life. “Leaving the miraculous out of life, says Graham Greene, “is rather like leaving out the lavatory or dreams or breakfast.”
On the other hand, many of us seek to get a taste of the other side that informs our politics…the place across the mountains where we see extreme poverty knowing that we in the U.S., 2% of the world’s population, use up 45% of the world’s resources which becomes, as Pico Iyer puts it, a pebble in our shoe. I want to see the killing fields I have only read about so I can more fully understand what my country can or should be doing or not be doing about it.
As well as place, our traveling companions can keep us “tethered” to our predefined idea of ourselves. They may “expect” certain reactions from us that obligates us…underneath our awareness…forces an accommodation. Or in our companion’s desire to have their own experiences, they may not have the patience to reciprocate and share. If that is the case, in traveling alone we are free to connect with what and whom comes our way, as my friend puts it…”chasing a new flicker in the water or diving under it just for the pleasure, not knowing why, but just doing it” like the koi in the pond at home.
If it is true that love is the pursuit in another of qualities we lack in ourselves, then in one’s attraction to people from another country, one’s underlying desire may be to acquire values missing from our own culture or in our own personalities. What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home. For me, “home” is anywhere my heart feels connected to heaven and earth…sometimes a lot to ask for anywhere.”