We all know of someone who has declared ‘I found myself travelling’. Not only are they trotting out a cliché but they also seem deluded that one needs to spend thousands of pounds to fly to another country, introduce yourself hundreds of times and buy a ‘local beer-shirt’ before you can confirm your location. We often see these platitudes as bullshit; this is parodied in this ‘Gap Yah’ clip.
But, are they? Bullshit, I mean…? Some are but I argue there is a form of travel which brings one into the unknown and from that, one can indeed ‘find [a bit more of] yourself’. I substantiate how and why.
YOU are not YOU – a static vs dynamic view of humans
We have a static view of humans. Someone is considered to be one person who is continuous across and within time. That is to say, they are the same today as they will be tomorrow and were yesterday AND they are the same with others as they are on their own. Both of these assumptions are false:
Our 50-year-old self is likely going to be very different, as a person, to our 25-year old. Which is a good thing! So much so that we may not even like our ‘other’ self. Moreover, if you believe in the self-improvement I write about here Self-Improvement: the pursuit of a better self, then you would hope the future self might be a much better version of yourself. Our true self changes across time. The previous ‘you’ dies and the new ‘you’ is born (not re-born).
The brilliant research insights of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, summarised in Thinking Fast and Slow, highlighted how susceptible humans are to subtle changes in our environment. The most extreme proof of this is in the transformation of ordinary people into brutal killers in the Cambodian, Rwandan and Armenian genocides amongst many others. More commonly, our specific roles in relationships vary and our desire to conform to others expectations of those around us forces us to adapt. Our true self, therefore, changes within time.
These two facts have a profound effect on how to consider who YOU are. Rather than an individual with a fixed identity within and across time, YOU are only partly a reflection of your former or future self and presently a reflection of the friends & family. With our desire to conform to expectations, we are bound by the relationships and expectations formed in the past. As a result, we are tied across time and within by the ‘collective body of memory’ that inevitably forms part of YOU.
Travelling strips this away. Whilst travelling, we can be liberated from our former selves, wipe the slate clean and have a chance to define once again who YOU are. No longer can you rely on what your friends advise, family expect or your status quo – YOU have to decide and in those decisions, you find YOU.
The Known Unknowns
Any post about travelling would be remiss without a mention of the new cultures and people you learn from. As I detail in this post A taste of Kenyan Culture, some can really surprise you and force you to think about your society’s approach. Also, when meeting travellers and locals, you are guaranteed an interesting tale from a different background. Travelling to somewhere like Bangladesh or Kenya forces one to consider the stark differences in this world (both good and bad) and the part we play in creating it or the potential we have to reduce it.
As I have been living in the Netherlands for two months, I have really come to appreciate their unique attitude towards ‘openness’. Walk any street in the UK and you see small windows shielded by curtains. By contrast, the Dutch consider that drawing curtains shows ‘you have something to hide’ so in Amsterdam, you cannot help but notice their large windows and lack of curtains. As a result, their streets offer a life of their own.
The Unknown Unknowns
Daily life largely involves certainty. Even so, it contains a minefield of (albeit minor) uncertainties: the will I, won’t I press snooze? will I productively tick through my to-do list or watch TV instead? Or rather Netflix & Chill? However, on balance, there is a narrow scope of potential avenues and YOU are largely in control of how the day goes.
Contrast this with travel which, in a new place, will remain unknown regardless of how many Rough guides you have. You will be confronted with novel experiences you would not ordinarily choose yourself and out of your comfort zone, you learn. You learn how/if you adapt, if you enjoyed it, who you became and which YOU choose to be.
One such experience of my own was when I was in Bangladesh with an eclectic group of people I met there. I was in a small rickshaw-like vehicle, called CnG, with an eccentric Italian man, Pier, driving down a large motorway when we saw bright lights, a musical band and a man on a white stallion. Pier immediately pulled over the CnG, we hopped out and following Pier’s cue, followed the crowd into the large tent. Little did we know that we had gate-crashed an opulent Bangladeshi wedding and were warmly welcomed and feted. It was a splendid evening and taught me the value of ‘going with the flow’! (Short video of the experience here)
The right trip
Lastly, for any of the above to apply, you need to have the right trip. This is composed of the right attitude, length, location and companions:
- Right attitude: being willing to learn and be uncomfortable. I met many travellers who just refused to be in an uncomfortable position and in so doing, I think they took away a lot less. Similarly, many people travel by sticking to a tour-guide and tour-bus, stopping only at the tourist sites with their selfie sticks
- Right length: it should be ‘extended’, define that as you wish but I would say longer than 3 weeks because such time allows one to encounter the known unknowns and unknown unknowns
- Right location: a truly unfamiliar place. The greater the unknown, the better.
- Right companions: Just ‘Me, Myself and I’. The fewer people you know, the more you will meet
For some travelling inspiration, check out this blog from a friend of mine called Michelle on the Road who has written a great post on travelling films. Also, probably the best travelling film out there for real adventure is ‘The Road from Karakol’.
A Tentative Conclusion
Clichés, just like stereotypes, have some truth to them – travel in my life has been immensely rewarding and continues to enable me to ‘find myself’. What makes the right travel so special is that it strips you bare of the ‘collective body of memory’ that defines you and presents new experiences of the known unknowns and unknown unknowns to learn from. It is in this process of learning that we discover whatever is continuous and therefore can be declared as ‘you’.
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