One blazing hot afternoon in the fall of 2005, I was standing behind a really long line of people dressed in khakis and safari hats. I stood on the stairs carved into limestone (that was supposedly millions of years old, at least according to the pamphlet in my hand) and watched monkeys try to steal backpacks from unsuspecting tourists. I was sweaty, hungry, absolutely terrified of the monkeys, and wondering to myself, “What am I doing here?”
There have been more than a few times I thought that to myself – wondering why I was trying to figure out where my subway stop was in a language I didn’t understand, or why I was getting dizzy from the heat while explaining that no, I didn’t want a Buddha shaped out of jade.
Why did I bother to wander so far from home?
Through the rabbit-hole…
I guess the easiest answer would be fatigue, wouldn’t it? In my last article I wrote about leaving home because of problems that needed fixing, be it a debt that needs paying off or dealing with personal loss that’s too hard to face. The formidable circumstances aren’t the only reasons that push us away, though. We get pulled away by the desire for adventure and excitement, too. We want to escape the office, the weather, or the food. We choose to go places that we’re not tired of, to sit on a beach we’re not accustomed to, and to eat something we don’t usually have on hand. One of the best things about escaping is the sense that you try something new for a little while, and if you don’t like it there’s no need to panic because you’ll be back home before anything gets too realistic. It’s an escape – with an escape hatch.
It rarely occurs to me that not everyone wants the same sort of travel adventures that I like. A few days ago I was telling my sister about a new adventure idea I have, explaining what I want to see, how I’ll get around and that sort of thing. After I was through what I thought was a well laid out plan, she looked at me and said, “The world’s a scary place.” The entire time I was describing my brilliant plan full of hole-in-the-wall restaurants where locals eat, winding alleys that have remained largely unchanged for centuries, and fortresses where flaming arrows once landed (I hope), the only thing she could imagine was the fear of not knowing something. What if you don’t know what you’re eating? What if you can’t tell the taxi driver where you’d like to go? What if there is no taxi?? Needless to say, her idea of an escape is nothing like mine and that made me wonder why I want the kind of escape that I do.
First of all, why do I like being in very old places? I find it very comforting to see people living in the same cities that have been around for a very long time. They walk along the same path their ancestors did to buy bread. It makes me feel more human somehow, more connected to a past and, because of that, to the future. If these paths and buildings have outlived all those who walked across this floor before me, then there is hope that they’ll outlive everyone currently beating across the floor. Being in very old places also makes me feel insignificant, which I mean in the best way possible. I suppose it’s a bit like spirituality in a way: to feel comforted in the idea that there is something bigger than you and that you just have a small place within it. Is that why some people travel in search of their spirituality? I’ve never traveled for that purpose, but I have been struck by wonder and awe in realizing how nature or history or tradition swamp me in size.
Another question I have to ask myself is why I hate being a tourist so much. For someone who likes to escape to far flung places, I go through an awful lot of pains to ensure I blend in as much as possible. I can’t think of anything worse than wearing a fanny pack and holding a map while posing in front of a monument. I regularly feel inexplicably annoyed or even embarrassed when I see stereotypical tourists abroad. Well, maybe it’s easy to explain why I feel like that about tour groups. The tour groups are always too big, too noisy, and they take unimaginative photos. No, no… that’s still not really a good reason for me to feel as annoyed as I do. After all, I’m a tourist too! Why does it bother me to think that a local might automatically think I’m a tourist? Maybe I’m worried that someone will think my reasons for being there aren’t good enough. Maybe my need for walking down alleys that have been around since the 12th Century doesn’t justify me irritating the local pharmacist with my broken French about how my foot hurts. If I’m going to be honest with myself, perhaps I’m just worried that what I’m doing is just as meaningless as the trinkets in the souvenir shops – made in China and sold in France to American tourists.
Does it matter?
Back on that hot autumn day in Malaysia, I climbed a lot of stairs to see a Hindu shrine in the Batu Caves. I don’t remember why I chose to take a holiday there, or why I climbed up the side of a mountain while monkeys scanned me for potential snacks. If you can believe it, I didn’t even bring a camera on that trip. What I do remember is getting to the shrine, seeing something I had never seen before and feeling a tidal wave of thoughts slam into my head. I couldn’t believe I was so far from anything that resembled my home and yet I was fine. I couldn’t believe how little I knew about the world I lived in but had somehow managed this grand adventure. What was I doing here? I was successfully escaping boredom, contentment, and the inkling that I had all the answers.
And it felt great.