The relationship between self discovery and long term travel is a mysterious beast. Although it’s true that big trips can have profound affects on people, the self discovery, if there is one, rarely follows the Eat, Prey, Love formula of a scenic a ha! moment bringing spiritual enlightenment. This happens, I’m sure. But it’s far from what should be expected of the road.
In an effort to remove some of the ambiguity of how self discovery comes about through travel, I want to talk for a moment about fishbowls.
Imagine for a moment that humans everywhere live in little figurative fishbowls of slow moving cultural tides, largely oblivious to where they as individuals stop, and the culture they are immersed in begins. Illustrative of the extreme here are people who insist they speak without an accent. This is objectively impossible. Accents are unavoidable bits of culture. Everyone has at least one, and yet some people flatly deny any such affliction.
Not everyone has the accent deniers difficulty with separating themselves from their culture, but at a lesser level, the problem is pervasive. Accurately seeing what we’re immersed in is difficult for everyone. If it sounds absurd, David Foster Wallace’s famous proverbial goldfish asking “What is water?” from the middle of his fishbowl illustrates the point well. Simply, culture has a way of hiding in plane sight when you’re immersed in it.
Now, the obvious point I am getting at is that travel is an act of leaving ones fishbowl. Academics explain that travel occurs in an in between place, where the traveler is removed from their culture of origin, but is stuck looking in from the outside into the culture of the host destination. The academic short hand for this is to say that travel occurs in a ‘liminal space’, or exists in a ‘liminal world’, but it’s just as easy to imagine it as a liminal sea, outside the cultural fishbowls.
Change in travel comes about through the process of trying to find your stroke amid the powerful cultural tides of this liminal sea, all while looking into a multitude of unfathomably different fishbowls, which is often the whole point of the travels. Unadjusted, friction and the excessive amounts of information being processed, combined with always needing to work to swim upstream, conspire to make the the slowest of slow long term travels seem to come to pass, after the fact, at light speed. A lot happens on the road.
It’s almost as if it’s a psychological law, analogous to the relativity of time, that more happens when you’re outside your fishbowl. As but an example, it’s not unusual to return from a trip and ask your friends, “What’s new?”
“Nothing, same old,” they respond.
Meanwhile you’ve met the love of your life, meditated beyond sanity, and survived being shook out of the Himalayas by a devastating 8.1 magnitude earthquake.
Again, a lot happens on the road. It’s difficult to process everything as you’re going through it though. And noticing personal change during a period of transition shares all the difficulties of accurately seeing the culture that makes up the fishbowl you’re immersed in. So, if your travels don’t immediately bring about the self discovery you were hoping for, don’t get down. There’s a good chance some very real changes are laying under the hood, waiting for you at home.