After traveling for fifteen months, we came back to the United States to visit family and friends. And while we loved seeing everyone, I had a lot of free time on my hands, too much I think (as they say, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground” or something like that), and I began to think about how we’ve changed since we left Palo Alto.
When we had left, we were stuck, and we thought traveling would be a way to unstick ourselves, escaping what Henry David Thoreau would consider a life of quiet desperation — one filled with possessions and mind numbing activity. While Thoreau had his Walden to help him realize what was important to him, we had the whole world — the places we had always wanted to visit— places of exquisite beauty and places that gave us the opportunity to discover and explore the richness of cultures new to us.
It wasn’t a hard decision, and we set off inspired by William Blake’s
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hourto find the essence of a culture in a ruin, a piece of art, or a conversation. Making that essence part of us, we felt, would go a long way to helping us get unstuck.
And, with work on our part, it did.
Despite travel industry marketing, the “sights” to us were more than simply something unto themselves. They were a window into a culture. And if we were patient, quiet, and listened carefully, a place would reveal its stories to us.
But to hear the stories you had to decidedly be there (in an existential sense, or as Woody Allen put it, “Showing up is 80 percent of life”), or be mindful of where you are. Being there, not as an observer, or even worse as a spectator — seeing it from a tour bus, or by following a tour guide with an upraised umbrella, or attending a packaged “cultural experience” (“authentic” Hawaiian luaus put on by hotels in Hawaii come to mind here) — but engaged with wherever you were.
Finding the sights was easy enough. We could look at guidebooks, search the internet, or even just ask people. But after fumbling around for a bit, we found other ways to get places to reveal their stories, ways that required a different approach and attitude.
We started by listening to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” both figuratively, and literally — taking the first step, and a lot of steps after that. We started walking with or without a direction known, immersing ourselves into the everyday life of a place, and exploring the white space between the lines of our itinerary, the place where the life of a culture is lived. Walking around we discovered stories we wanted to hear, and then stopping and quietly listening, even the stories we hadn’t even realized we wanted to hear came alive.
As John Ruskin, the Victorian writer and artist, so aptly put it,
No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.
Of course walking from country to country is difficult, to say the least, but when we had to do long distances we tried to avoid flying and traveled by train or bus or boat or even car (except of course when those pesky oceans got in the way).
Early on we found that the most fun for us was being in a city and spending time there in an apartment, allowing us to explore its life on foot and do day trips to expand our adventure. While we could miss a lot of the country by not constantly being in the If-It’s-Tuesday-This-Must-Be-Belgium movie with a day here and a day there, we got to meet the olive lady in Seville, the restaurant owner in Portugal who wanted us we move there, and the guys in a restaurant in Tallinn who told us about the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Way. We learned to always stay more days in a place than we thought there were sights to see.
Staying in a place for a week or so and walking around was our favorite way to travel, but it was not the only way to discover its stories. Our preferences were not nearly as important as letting a place tell us how it wants to be explored. At first we were willing to do a road trip as a last resort, but we finally figured out sometimes it should be the first. Our road trips gave us an understanding of a country we couldn’t get by staying in a few places for an extended amount of time. Road trips were necessary when the places we wanted to see were far from each other and we couldn’t see them on day trips from a single place — there was way too much to see in New Zealand, Peru, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, Mongolia, Bhutan (and others). And when we hired guides (which we did where it was difficult to travel on our own), we found that when we got them past their scripts, we got insights into a country that we would have had a harder time getting any other way.
So we stayed in places and wandered around, navigated public transit, and took road trips.
But to capture the essence of a culture through the sights or its stories, we needed to do some work — we needed to be aware of the history of the place — the context — making it three-dimensional, and making it come alive. And the context became at least as interesting as the place itself, and sometimes even more so, as we explored not only how the past created its future history and how the present reaches back to frame the past, but the relationship of a culture to the natural world.
And it was not just the walking and road trips that opened up the world to us, it was also how we chose to live as we traveled.
While we don’t mind being pampered, we came to realize that the more perfect the experience, the less culturally authentic it became for us. The 5-star hotel and guided tour experience in a country limited us to a glimpse into the lives of the privileged, which turned out to be more or less the same as the lives of the privileged world over.
To hear its stories we needed to immerse ourselves more deeply into the day-to-day life of a place, and instead we decided to travel on our own as much as we could and mostly stay in family owned hotels, home stays, and apartments, accepting a wide range of discomforts we rarely experienced when we were stuck— freezing or sweltering in disappointing hotel rooms, wifi that didn’t allow you to actually access the internet, doing laundry in bathroom sinks, sheets that felt like woven shredded wheat, lukewarm showers, horrible instant coffee, and obnoxious (often including gratuitous flash picture taking and oversized daypacks in your face) tourists — all in order to have some of the extraordinary experiences we had.
But what surprised us was that above and beyond the relationship of a culture to the natural world, nature in and of itself became more and more important to us as we fell back in love with our own variation of what our guide in Laos called “living in nature.”
I haven’t always lived in an urban environment. In my early years I spent time living in the mountains of Northern California, in a small town on the California coast, and several other out-of-the-urban-mainstream places, and Linda grew up in a small town in Northern Minnesota. But being in an urban environment we gradually lost touch with the natural world.
Living in Palo Alto, we, of course, took trips to mountains, lakes, and the coast — skiing in winter and hiking, bicycling, or just hanging out in summer, But when we started traveling, we began to experience the majesty of nature on a totally different scale. What was surprising was just how much pleasure it gave us as we reconnected back to the physical world. Whether it was exploring rivers by boat in northern Laos, or exploring the Gobi desert, or the spectacular mountains in Bhutan and the Republic of Georgia, or just about all of New Zealand, being in nature became a much more important part of our lives and one of the most important parts of our travels.
And sadly, as we traveled, we also learned about the war on nature, not only by business but often by the governments of countries themselves.
But this was not how we started. Yes, fifteen months ago we had some ideas about how we wanted to travel and what we wanted to experience, and, as it turns out, they were the same ideas that a lot of people have. We had traveled on vacations before, and we thought we understood where we wanted to go (in more ways than one). There was the natural beauty in the world, and we were both passionate about art and architecture (with a special interest in street art). We wanted only a wisp of an itinerary, not one that was cast in concrete.
We sold our house and gave away most of our stuff, not because we had a grand plan in mind for some kind of personal transformation, but because we were being practical, realizing that it would be easier not to have to manage a house and all that stuff while we were away. At the time it seemed important to simplify our lives — instead of owning our possessions, we had accumulated so much stuff that the stuff was beginning to own us. Our lives seemed to be getting less and less hospitable. And as we did that we felt a kind of liberation, and a not surprising lightness.
Selling our house, giving away our stuff, and satisfying our need for exploration and discovery by traveling not only vaporized our old way of life, but also how we thought about living our lives. And since nature abhors a vacuum, a new way of life began to settle in, and as we traveled and as we nurtured it, it grew into something we are now so comfortable with we are barely aware of how different it (we) used to be.
In fact, we are so comfortable with our new way of living that we are surprised by how some people think about it.
Some think we are on a perpetual vacation. While not a bad idea, as Linda is fond of pointing out — this is not a vacation, this is our life. While people escape on vacation, or vacation to escape, escape is not what our traveling is about (except maybe after the last election, but that is another story). Traveling, or, more accurately, living the way we do, is our new normal. We still have to pay taxes and our bills, deal with broken computers and iPhones, and take care of the day-to-day stuff (including responding to emails and catching up with friends and family). But instead of going to work, maintaining the house, getting cars repaired, and dealing with a gardener, we have to decide and then plan where we want to go next, where we want to stay, how to get there, and how to get around once we are there. But as we travel it’s (too) easy to forget about the mundane stuff, and we find ourselves scrambling to catch up. And, like most other people, and as silly as it may sound, we too take vacations. Every once in a while we will hole up at a resort, or even a city, and catch up with the planning and emails, but more often, just relax.
And then there are the people who tell us that we are really brave to step out of our comfort zone, to travel on our own to places where we don’t speak the language or aren’t able to read the street signs, and have only a passing knowledge of the culture and customs. This confuses us, since we don’t think about what we are doing as brave. And as much as I enjoy basking in the glow of compliments (at least I took them to be compliments), I have to regretfully inform people that as we traveled, we never felt that we had ever stepped more than a centimeter or two outside of our comfort zone.
Instead of being settled in our home and where we lived, we had inadvertently created a new comfort zone, one that was portable and moved with us. We took it with us as we traveled from place to place, and since we chose to travel with only one medium suitcase and one small carry-on bag each, traveling became (well almost) effortless.
A comfort zone, after all, is just a self-created and self-imposed set of limitations on the familiar and predictable, creating the illusion of certainty in your life. And I’ll confess: we both still need some degree of certainty in our lives being well past the age of hitchhiking with a backpack and staying in hostels. But the boundaries we need to remain within our comfort zone have changed through experience and learning how to travel. What we need now to make us comfortable is knowing that we are in a situation where we can manage our traveling and the exploring and discovering of new places. And if we aren’t comfortable being able to figure it out on our own, we work with travel agents to plan our trip.
Perhaps we are learning to channel William Blake and
To see a World in Simple Every Day Pleasures
So here we are, two ordinary people who, by luck and happenstance, learned to listen to the world around them as they traveled, and have had some extraordinary experiences. Some of them were the dramatic and spectacular blockbuster type like Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat and a host of others. But as we traveled we learned to appreciate the unexpected, small, and sometimes exquisite, pleasures that were just as satisfying — conversations in passing, watching Linda delight in taking a photo of a sunset reflecting in the water, sampling olive oil at a family-run factory that has been making olive oil in the same way for hundreds of years, and a guide exclaiming as we hiked through a beautiful meadow and up to a glacier, “I have the best job in the whole world!”.
God may be in the details, but art is in the story you create, and who knows what will happen next?