Eat Pray Love Laugh Netflix Fatigue Travel

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.

The Nameless Cats

By Emily

I’m not a very patient person (understatement of the year). This character flaw manifests itself in a number of ways, from my habit of interrupting people to naturally walking quickly to trying to “see” the future and plan for it. In anticipation of this adventure, I actively tried to imagine every possible best and worst-case scenario that could arise and made sure I was prepared. But what I wasn’t prepared for is the patience I’m already learning three weeks in.

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Two days ago, Ethan proposed a hike through a nearby town up to a temple at the top of a hill. About 2 pm, we bid our friends Marco and Nick goodbye after a delicious lunch of katsudon and began the trek upwards. While playing my version of “Are we there yet?” – in which I ask Ethan the questions “Do you know where we’re going?” “What does the map say?” and “Are you sure?” every thirty seconds – we wound through narrow lanes and footpaths, stopping to take pictures of nice views and odd street signs. Eventually we reached Koryuji, a Buddhist temple in Yamanouchi. It’s a small complex, with only a few buildings surrounded by an extensive cemetery. I spied a few cats on the premises, but they didn’t take too kindly to a strange woman whispering “NEKO” loudly at them.

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We admired a bronze statue in the middle of the temple grounds, and hiked even higher above the cemetery to the edge of the woods. At that point, I felt that I had seen everything that needed to be seen, and began mentally planning the route back to our hostel. However, Ethan insisted on sitting on a fallen log at the edge of the woods for a few minutes, so I followed in exasperation.

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Sitting quietly at the forest’s edge, I tried to be “mindful” – a buzzword if there ever was one – and take in the world around me. A few realizations did sink in: everywhere I looked was green. The hillsides are covered in grasses, flowers, and trees, with creeks and hot springs bubbling up all over. It was incredibly quiet as well – just the wind through the trees, the occasional sound of cars on nearby roads, the buzzing of insects. It was actually… kind of… nice.

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A few minutes into our pause, a small white truck drove up about 50 yards down the road. The driver stopped and stared at us, very blatantly, and Ethan and I laughed at this not-uncommon occurrence – we certainly don’t look like locals. He continued driving up the road, and stopped to get out of the car and say hello. This man was in his 80’s or so, and seemed to work on the temple grounds. He asked where we were from, and talked a bit about the temple and the woods (from what I gleaned between Ethan’s quick translations and my own burgeoning Japanese vocabulary). Then he drove away, and we continued to sit and chat about what it must be like to live in Yamanouchi. Within ten minutes, the man drove back down the hill, stopped his truck, and tapped his watch.

“Tea time.”

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We smiled and nodded, but the man motioned us to follow him. Incredulously, Ethan confirmed that the man was inviting us to tea with him, and we followed his truck back to the temple. He pointed at the statue we had admired earlier, and told us that this was the temple’s first Zen master – and his great-great-grandfather (the statue, weirdly enough, looked a lot like him). Then he climbed up the steps to the closed temple, opened the doors, and we followed him in, eyes wide and whispering excitedly to each other.

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Inside the first room was a huge altar, with a Buddha statue at the back, which our new friend explained was about 900 years old. He pointed out more of the art, decor, and religious items in the temple (none of which I have the proper vocabulary for), most of which was already a few hundred years old. Then we followed him into a back room, and sat at a small table on the tatami-mat floor. A woman came out – we later pieced together that this was his daughter – and served us matcha tea and tasty cookies.

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The four of us talked for about an hour – and by “us,” I mean Ethan, Koni Yamamoto (our new friend) and Junko Yamamoto (his daughter) talked in Japanese while I alternated between staring at Ethan in anxiety, smiling apologetically at our hosts, and guzzling tea. This trip has certainly opened my eyes to new forms of communication, especially since I’ve been depending on Ethan and other friends for translation, and trying to use my ten Japanese words otherwise. Ethan explained our story and previous travels, and we listened to the Yamamotos’ stories.

It turns out that Koni is actually the current Zen master of Koryuji, in addition to having studied Japanese history and culture at a university in Tokyo for awhile. We were dumbstruck and I felt completely unworthy to be having tea with an ACTUAL ZEN MASTER when I can’t sit still for five minutes, let alone meditate. Koni was very nonchalant about it all, even when he could see our awed expressions upon learning his profession.

As we continued chatting, I summoned up the courage to ask Koni and Junko a question – well, I summoned up the courage to ask Ethan to ask them a question (I’m a real peach to travel with). He resigned himself, and translated into Japanese: “What are the names of the cats that live around the temple?”

This question surprised them, and after staring at each other blankly, Junko laughed and answered, “They don’t have names!” But she agreed with me that they were very cute.

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After tea, Koni and Junko continued our tour, this time pulling out huge paintings pasted on folding screens. The first was at least 500 years old, the second, about 200. They explained the background of the paintings’ meanings and influence, then mentioned that there were some like them in the Boston Museum (behind glass!!! while these paintings!!! were literally!!! right in front of us!!!) My inner art history nerd was thrilled, and Ethan was near tears (don’t tell him I told you).

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Before leaving, we asked to take a picture with them – our new friends, the Yamamoto family. They bid us goodbye and good luck with our adventure, and we tripped all over ourselves repeating “Arigato gozaimasu” over and over. While walking away, we basked in the unexpected excitement of the afternoon, seeing the temple grounds with new eyes.

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If I had given in to my impatience and insisted on leaving, we’d never have met Koni, or Junko, or seen the temple interior, or had delicious tea and cookies, or gotten this close to a Japanese Important Cultural Property. Either way, the cats wouldn’t have names. But being patient and stopping for just a moment allowed me the chance to ask.

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