Travelling: An Exploration of the Self

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Tribal territories of Ha Giang province’s mountain ranges in Northern Vietnam, right on the Chinese border.

My short-lived travels

I’m not the most seasoned traveller in this world, but I’ve travelled a little bit, so I’ve naturally thought a few thoughts.

I travelled for 3 months around the north of Vietnam, including a month teaching English to children in the Ha Giang province (the poorest province in the country), then spending a week in Bangkok, Thailand, before returning home. I planned to travel for quite a while longer than three months, but my adventure was cut short was by an unforeseen even. I dislocated my shoulder after falling off a motorbike, and the attention my shoulder required was cheaper at home (in the UK) than it was in Asia.

I should make it clear that I don’t feel sorry for myself. The dislocation was entirely my fault (falling off my bike in the fashion that I did deserves more than a few laughs at my expense). And I am so lucky to have had the option to go home to the wonderful NHS! I’m now very aware of how fortunate I am, and am under no pretence that I’m hard done by.

As for the experience of travelling that I had? My mind was exposed to new experiences, and I certainly learned a lot from being exposed to different cultures – of course I did. Vietnam is a beautiful country, with beautiful people. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to go over there, short-lived though it was.

The Universal Applicant

What I want to write about in this article is the reflections I have had since returning home. Interestingly, it wasn’t the differences between my own culture and the cultures that I was introduced to that I remember most. What has really stuck in my mind is the similarities I noticed.

Generally, people’s lives revolve around food, shelter, and security. While the methods of satisfying these basic needs differs significantly from culture to culture, the outcome is always the same.

I mean, obviously English food and Vietnamese food is different … but they all still eat food. Obviously socio-economics differ between both countries … but there are still rich people and poor people. There are still small businesses dreaming of success. There are still homeless people asking for change. And there is still a balancing act for all people between work and play.

Even among the mountain tribes of northern Vietnam, people work to maintain their homes, feed their families, and enjoy a bit of leisure, too (they were regularly drinking a home-brewed rice wine, which they translated to ‘happy water’ … I have since discovered that happy water may have contained opium – ha!). Even people living on the edge of poverty – with no NHS, no welfare, and no state security – still enjoy the same activities that we privileged Westerners do. The only real difference is the aesthetic.

Another similarity I observed, which I think is the most important lesson I learned, was the presence of uncertainty.

There is nobody from any country or culture without flaws. Nobody understands the depths, purpose, or meaning of this life, no matter where they come from.

I don’t believe any culture exists that comprehensively believes they are living in exactly the way that they ought to be. That is to say, in all societies, there always exists a group of people who believe their society could be performing better, on one level or another.

Noticing such similarities between my home and other societies reinforced my belief in the existence of a universality among all humans. In fact, I believe this universal can probably even be applied to all kinds of species.

So why would someone want to go travelling?

Travel is good on many levels. For a start, it is for the species, and for international relations. Different cultures are actively being exposed to each other on a mass scale via travelling humans, and these cultures are blending into each other, too! For example, we see world foods and world music in Western countries; and in my own travel experiences, Vietnam and Thailand are loaded with Western (European and American) influences, while retaining their own cultural identity.

This is truly a groundbreaking time for humanity. In my view, the blending of cultures can only result in more open-mindedness between different people worldwide. By travelling, and travelling gracefully, people are contributing to the building of friendships between nations.

This process is a significant event. Cultures have never been blended like this before, so I have no doubt that one day historians will look back and think “wow, that was an exciting time in history.”

And I’m sure there will be a bunch of people who look back on our time and think: “I wish I was born back then!” in the exact same way that people think that about other eras today.

Travelling to Find Yourself

People who want to travel certainly should go and live that experience – because it really is a great opportunity. It’s a golden age for hermits! And I really think it will be looked back on with nostalgia, and admiration.

That being said, travelling is not going to help anybody to ‘find themselves’ – a notion that is popularly banded around. Travel will not rid anybody of their personal demons. Those demons can only be resolved by the person themselves, no matter where they are.

Trying to find yourself is, in the words of Alan Watts, “like trying to smell your own nose.” You aren’t going to find yourself in any particular place.

The mindset associated with travelling – of letting go, of accepting, of being open-minded, and open to learning – is certainly valuable. If somebody taps into this mindset while travelling, then sure! They will be learning skills which help to heal their identity crisis.

But it is a mistake to believe that travel is the only thing that can open people’s mind in this sense.

The Yellow Brick Road isn’t the only way to Oz

In the movie ‘My Dinner With Andre’ (1981), the character Wally asked Andre this question: “isn’t there just as much ‘reality’ to be perceived in a cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?”

There’s something very profound about that question. After all, people often travel in order to have new, ‘real’ experiences which do away with the monotony of their life at home, or their routines.

I think many travellers would agree that it is often the interactions with other people that makes travelling so special. Of course, the landscapes of a foreign land are mesmerising! And the exposure to other ways of life is educational … but still, interactions with other people are often the most memorable moments. I find it fascinating that arguably the richest experiences of travel involves something that exists in our home life. People!

I’m reminded of an excellent George Carlin quote: “Every person you look at, you can see the universe in their eyes if you’re really looking.”

The yellow brick road isn’t the only way to Oz. Mount Everest isn’t the only place we can experience reality. And we can expand ourselves with, and learn about life from anybody we meet – even those boring, predictable people we see in our lives everyday.

Home is a Microcosm of the Universe

Living in the same town for your entire life is not necessarily restrictive. The key to living a life that feels free is that mindset associated with travel – of letting go, of accepting, of being open-minded, and of being open learning. With this mindset, we can live rich and fulfilled lives without needing to explore all the corners of the world.

If you focus a microscope on near enough any piece of matter, you will discover there are a virtually infinite number of levels of life. If you focus in on the skin of your arm, for example, you’ll realise that it’s made up of all kinds of molecules and tiny microorganisms. It’s likely that there is even smaller organisms than our science has even managed to perceive in existence, too.

My point is, it is possible to learn as much about the universe by staying in one place as when you are travelling the world. Of course, travellers, more often than not, are more cultured and well-learned than people who haven’t travelled … but it doesn’t change the fact that travel alone is not what makes these experiences happen. These experiences depend entirely on a certain frame of mind.

Given what I’ve said about underlying similarities among different societies, I think this is all fascinating. No matter where you are, or who you are with, you will always be able to learn something new (if you are open to it).

In conclusion, leaving is easy…

I think people who travel are achieving something deeply significant. There is a lot of value in, and there is certainly a lot of knowledge to be gained from experiencing new places, new people, and from eating new food.

In terms of self-improvement, travelling can definitely help many people – and for some people, perhaps it is necessary!

However, I think travel is a luxury that our generation is very lucky to have. It is not of any grand importance that people travel. Furthermore, I don’t think that people who are well travelled are necessarily better placed to answer any of life’s big questions.

It is true, though, that exploring the world is an exploration of the self. Yourself and your world are interconnected! Two ends of the same stick. By exploring one, you are exploring the other.

I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m sure anybody would benefit from travelling. But it isn’t travel in and of itself that improves people. What improves people is that frame of mind which doesn’t force anything or expect anything.

We improve by learning from the contrasts we experience in everyday life, whether we’re on the top of Everest or in the supermarket.

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