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Travel Writing, the Redux, Italy & Switzerland Edition


Garbage truck in Torino, Italy
Garbage truck in Torino, Italy

In 2011 I wrote:

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”.

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.

Looking northeast up the Italian side of the Val Ferret, to Switzerland
Looking northeast up the Italian side of the Val Ferret, to 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.

Looking southwest from the Col Val Ferret into Italy
Looking southwest from the Col Val Ferret into Italy

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. 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.

The ridge of the Augstmatthorn, Interlaken Switzerland
The ridge of the Augstmatthorn, Interlaken Switzerland

Travel is just a big distraction of novelty and the remarkable. It’s easy to forget everything and be immersed in the distraction. 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.

The north face of the Eiger
The north face of the Eiger

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.

Home, the journey inwards
Home, the journey inwards