While Skyping with my sister yesterday, she jokingly asked me, “So are you all ‘enlightened’ now that you’ve traveled around the world?” My initial response was an eye roll and immediate assurance that I have not changed all that much; the only changes that I could think of at the time are that I’m more open to eating other types of foods (which is actually a milestone for this incredibly picky eater) and I’m more used to living each day with fewer material objects. But her question stuck in my head after the conversation ended, for a few reasons.
The backpacker life comes with quite a few cliches, both the ones that are projected upon us and the ones we create for ourselves. In the former category, there are the assumptions that we’re all trust fund kids with superiority complexes who don’t actually care about the places we’re visiting as long as they provide good backdrops for Instagram photos. In the latter category, there is a culture of self-righteousness about our amazing journeys that allow us to discover our life’s true purpose through learning from “other” (non-white or non-Western) peoples. While I have met two or three individuals who match up to these stereotypes, they are few and far between. Yes, a few of us have read Eat Pray Love (guilty) or wear loose elephant-print pants (you know who you are) or wax poetic about “life on the road,” but the majority of people I’ve met have been… normal, for lack of a better term.
Some travelers have saved money for their trip, others work on the road to keep themselves afloat. Some wear makeup daily, others have quit looking in mirrors altogether. Some haven’t talked with a friend back home in weeks, others Skype their families every day. Backpackers of all kinds spend a lot of time watching their favorite shows online, complaining about the foods they miss, chattering about their pets, comparing prices of items at convenience stores, asking for tips about their destinations ahead; there’s no singular type of traveler I’ve come across, really. Occasionally I’ve talked to others about the “reason” why they travel, but somehow it’s assumed as a given among the group – if you have the means and time, why not?
Ethan and I went into this trip with similar feelings – we both want to see more of the world, this is a good point in our lives to do it, our financial situations are stable enough for awhile. Very quickly into this trip, Ethan brought up the quote: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We’re the same individuals who left Berkeley 5-6 months ago, just with a higher tolerance for mosquito bites and snoring roommates. I don’t think either of us expected an epiphany while climbing a mountain or a realization of some subconscious goal while eating a dumpling.
Still, there’s always a nagging feeling that we’re not doing/seeing/learning/experiencing enough, that somehow we’re traveling incorrectly. If my previous statement is true, that we’re traveling not for enlightenment but because we can, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to stay at home and study these places? I could glean more about Chinese history in a week at a desk than I could schlepping a backpack through Sichuan for two months. An immersion program at a Japanese school in San Francisco would teach me more language skills than what I picked up at a hostel in Tokyo. Removing the physical activity, social stress, and money-spending inherent in travel would certainly make learning about these cultures much easier and arguably more amusing.
When I look back on this trip – about 100 days until its end, just a bit past the midway point – I don’t think about all of the history I’ve learned or the museums I’ve seen or the souvenirs I bought. I think of it in terms of moments: watching my mother successfully coax a frightened Malaysian teenager across Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge; singing Eagles karaoke at a Family Guy-themed bar until 4:00 am in Osaka; sitting in an alleyway in Kyoto with my boyfriend at midnight, frustrated after a stressful day of switching trains and climbing stairs. I think of all of the people who I became close with because we were in the same city at the same time and spoke the same language, people who I’d love to see every week for the rest of my life, but can’t because the world is too big.
I guess I don’t travel to become more enlightened; I travel to fit more “life” into my life. And really, one doesn’t need to be in a foreign country to try new foods or meet new friends or have more fun – it’s just that travel reminds you how to do those things when your life at home feels ordinary. The most challenging part of this trip, for me, will be learning to make new adventures without a backpack on, to extend the exhilaration of novelty into a place I already know. So, little sister, get ready to get enlightened right along with me when I come home next year. We’re gonna have some fun.