I have been drafting this message for a while now. Perhaps I have waited too long. My intention was to settle in before beginning this massive missive on my travels since I returned from South America. It’s now been three and a half months, and you’ve stopped expecting this message. Those six months we shared are a memory, that with time will fade further from consciousness until those people and places we came to love hardly seem like part of us.
As I sink into my new routine, I find myself spending my weekends with the same people, holding the same conversations, slipping back into the same patterns. Where is the brave, new soul I was cultivating through my travels? Now that the daily adventure is gone, I feel the weeks slip by (like they always do) and I wonder what is different.
Experience is funny in that you hardly ever realize it changing you. I remember the first night I spent in my NYC apartment this summer. My new roommate and I walked from our place on Waverly out to the Hudson. When we reached the river, I remember turning to face the city, lying there in tribute to American majesty, all the way from midtown down to the financial district. After six months in South America, there was nothing so incredible about returning as seeing, for the first time, the United States of America. Beholding the Manhattan skyline, I was floored.
It is remarkable to be American. I do not think that we are any more intelligent or moral than any other people (quite the contrary), but there is a tremendous amount of privilege that comes with this passport: a power, security, and opportunity not afforded to the great masses who lack our birthright. I did not understand the meaning of this privilege until I left my American bubble and traveled to countries disgraced as the “third-world.” Now I recognize it written plainly on every building and stone.
If there is one thing to be gained from travel, it is that your perspective and your self will open to embrace the world. You will realize how similar people are in motivation and emotion, and how liberating and wonderful it can be to appreciate their differences. And all the while, you will be growing gratitude for what you have back home. When I returned to our remarkable country and saw, for the first time, New York Fucking City, I fell in love with our vision of democracy and possibility. I was energized by being around so many different cultures and ideas, at the same time, all the time. I used to hate the city.
Yet that’s not what I mean to say. This is coming off as too simplistic: in travel, you are exposed to new people and ideas, and then having seen them, you return to your old life having incorporated them into you. Sure, you will invariably take some things away through mere exposure. But we aren’t sponges. All this experience is filtered through the self, and if nothing in you is changed, then nothing new can get through. I suppose then, that the real benefit of travel is that it introduces you to your self. The traveler spends inordinate amounts of time alone as a function of being linguistically, culturally, and physically isolated from the people s/he loves. Through this isolation, s/he becomes her/his own companion. You bring the same thoughts, experiences, perspectives with you, and they’ll color your days (like they always do). Wherever you go, there you are.
We all know the friend who cannot stand being alone, that constantly seeks social outlets for their energy. Like if s/he didn’t, s/he would explode. It’s as if they cannot stand their own company. My time abroad helped me become my own friend because every unfamiliar setting was an opportunity to get to know myself. For example, I realized that I was tremendously sensitive to perceiving disrespect: in situations where I was the only gringo, I was often too quick to assume that other people were speaking negatively about me. In watching these thought patterns unfold, I could literally bear witness to my mind forming impressions and making judgements about my environment; I could then choose to laugh at these and not get caught up in my bullshit. While traveling helps open your eyes, it does so by helping you confront your own expectations about people and places. This confrontation precedes any changes in opening of world-views, discovery of new values, etc.
So, if you take away one thing from my adventure: go explore. It doesn’t have to be for six months. You don’t have to fly to South America. It is as simple as stepping out of your usual routine. When you shed the ordinary, every moment becomes alive with possibility. You remember how fun and how fresh the world can be when you look at it without expectation, just like it was when you were a kid.
I don’t mean to sound so self-congratulatory. There is a lot about me that hasn’t changed. Check out this ego I’m writing through, for instance. Before leaving, my friends did their best to temper my expectations of growth. Like leaving home to expose myself to different standards of living could actually be some panacea to personal flaw. Moving forward, the challenge will be to use this experience to reflect honestly in self-appraisal, and continue to incorporate the changes I was making down south into my new routines. If I want to continue being this new, improved dude, then I need to keep doing new, improved things, or risk reverting back to the same punk that left home last November. My Spanish teachers would be happy to know that I am keeping up with the flashcards, the reading, and the bedtime episode of South Park. It gets a little easier every day.
Which brings me back to how easily things have settled into this new normal. Most of you are probably enjoying the same 9-5 you had when I left. Maybe you kept up with the shit-storm of messages I sent your way, maybe you didn’t. While I was gone, life went on just like it always did, and then I came back and now it continues. I was busy doing some big, epiphany thing, and life at home was busy coursing on. And now I see that no one will ever care as much about these things as I do. I feel silly when my expectant heart still leaps at the excitement of sharing some of these stories, and stupid when a friend laughs at my self-professed understanding of Spanish. These trinkets of my time are for me and me only. And that’s becoming okay.
My South American adventure is over. I miss the friends and family I found, and those blessed children at the school. I crave the excitement, the novelty, and the promise of a world spread wide with possibility. So, what now? I forge ahead with this new routine. There is promise in the present, and a new adventure waiting at the end of the next year. I look forward to embarking on it together, with you. For the love of all things human, please don’t be a stranger.