Travel opens my mind to new perspectives and allows me to recontextualize existing systems of thought.
While true for me at that time, for that trip; there is nothing magical about travel itself that opens the mind to new perspectives nor helps to “recontextualize existing systems of thought”. One must be ready and “in the mood” to open ones mind and experience life from a new perspective.
The distance travelled is of no importance when the most distant places on Earth can be connected to within a 24-hour period and a few short layovers. The travel doesn’t even begin until you have arrived at your destination. Perhaps it’s how the distances are percieved that really matters. If ones perception of 2,400 miles is two mediocre movies and a few bad in-flight meals, perhaps it’s not really “travel”.
“The air traveller only travels after he has landed.”
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
After travelling through Croatia in 2014, I wrote:
I most enjoyed the activities where we weren’t charged an entry fee.
- Riding a scooter through the countryside of Hvar
- Swimming off the coast of the island of Vis, free to explore the coves and rock formations
- Aimlessly wandering the streets of ancient Croatian cities
When an entrance fee is charged, I felt a certain manicured, restricted, and “ushered” experience. Krka National Park— while attempting to showcase the natural beauty of the region, it failed because the experience was limited to a short walk along a wooden boardwalk. A long queue of tourists snaked around the park, each one experiencing the same thing, taking photographs on cue from the designated “Scenic Vista” points along the way.
It was a nature park that offered a menu of canned experiences devoid of anything approaching natural.
Entry fees and queues are a good sign that more authentic experiences can probably be found elsewhere. Freely wandering without a guide, without a destination, and without expectation can get you very far.
Its October 2016. I have the privilege of quitting my job at an Artificial Intelligence startup in Cambridge that I’ve been helping to build for the last four and a half years. I’m ready for some serious alone-time, away from computers, the internet, and people. I need time to myself, time to have unstructured thought, time to get outside my own skull. I’ve got a little more than two weeks of unscheduled time to tramp around from Italy into Switzerland.
This trip was about actually travelling between places on my own feet. Navigating terra incognita by push my own limits- setting a goal on the horizon and getting there by any means. My goal was to hike across the border from italy into Switzerland via the Italian/Swiss Alps.
Importantly, this trip wasn’t about setting off on a ‘Hero’s Journey’, to return home a changed man, but to spend time alone to better understand myself. It was a journey inwards. More than anything else, I had ample time to myself, whole days went by without talking to anyone.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes
I learned to be kind & gentle with myself, to calm my own anxieties when stressed, to assess reality with facts and realize only my actions will have any impact on the outcomes. To foster a feeling of contentment with what is, not what could or may be. These are things I discovered not out on the road, or on a mountain path, but within myself. These learnings are not discoverable by going farther, or hiking higher, but by allocating time and opening oneself to finding them. One has to both open the door, but then be willing to walk through the doorway.
Travel is just a big distraction of novelty and the remarkable. It’s easy to forget everything and be immersed in the distraction. In a world where we all become hyperspecialized in our careers, travel lets you multiply your experiences of life, hopefully getting a taste of other possible lives so you can tell yourself what it would’ve been like. Travel becomes the yearly experience people remember, the marker we live by when our lives become banal.
“Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal. The economic organization of visits to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence.”
—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
So if you are looking for something inwards, be prepared to focus on whats inside, not whats outside. Travel can be an escape from oneself or ones responsibilities, an escape more powerful than other forms of escape.
In the end, travel for self-improvement is snake-oil just as any other form of organized, packaged, advertised and productized self-improvement (e.g. self-help books, expensive Yoga classes, meditation get-aways, therapy sessions, magical potions and boner pills). The real work can’t be bought, it must be practiced- and you don’t need to leave the house to do it. Travel doesn’t change personal growth any more than puzzels improve intellectual growth.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Fredy Perlman. Detroit: Black & Red, Print. 1983.
McLuhan, Marshall, and Lewis H. Lapham. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, Print. 1994.