Jan 05, 2016

Twenty countries and none of it written down. That’s not right.

Just for my own amusement, I hope to write down what I can remember of my past trips and continue writing up my future travels. Adventures across Asia, Europe and the Subcontinent, past and still to come.

Amphawa floating market, near Bangkok

Just about exactly four years ago I took my first trip outside America and I have grown as a traveler since. I don’t mean to fall prey to the vague hand-waves about travel “changing you” as I find most of that to be uselessly ill-defined but I do believe that travelers change and become (I hope) better at traveling. Not so much better at handling airline delays and whatnot but rather we grow to realize that the world isn’t Disneyland. We begin to tear down the walls we ourselves erect when we travel, walls made of tour guides and Lonely Planet books.

Perhaps walls are the wrong analogy. Windows are more apt. Large glass sheets we use to insulate ourselves from having our expectations challenged. My first overseas trip was to France with my family and (now ex) girlfriend. Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, so forth. Off to Venice and Florence and the Cinque Terre and the ruins of Rome for a teary goodbye in the Frankfurt airport as I stayed behind to begin a semester abroad.

Looking back at that semester, I realize I saw Europe through a window. I was not part of what I saw, just as I am not part of Disneyland when I watch the Dapper Dans in their strawboat hats. Nobody lives in Disneyland and at some level that was the lens through which I viewed these foreign countries—an total lack of realization that these are real people, not actors. The man who sells me a metro map in a Parisian tabac is not a costumed vendor acting in a highly orchestrated movie set like his Epcot counterpart—he’s a real person. That realization took me some time to find.

I’m trying (and I believe failing) to distinguish my point from a typical critique of the well-worn tourist paths around the world, circuits built up by Frommer’s or the Banana Pancake Trail of Southeast Asia. I find such criticisms to be overblown (though certainly there are aspects of mass tourism that have absolutely destroyed local cultures—Thailand’s Khao San Road perhaps being the most obvious).

My point is that travel is a skill that must be practiced. I believe that those who fail to get beyond these glass walls are those who come away most disappointed. Those are the travelers disturbed by the urban reality of Tokyo and its dull, faceless buildings stretching for hundreds of miles, a far cry from the neon glitz of Lost in Translation or the quiet insularism of evoked by Ghost in the Shell and a romanticized history of samurai and shogun. Or the travelers scammed or cheated on the Roman metro who swear never to leave home again.

They expected Disney, they found reality. I’ve had such moments. Despair is a natural aspect of travel. Worst, I spent most of my time in France holed up in my apartment surfing the internet. I withdrew into myself and hated where I was. I regret how I spent those months. I’ve also had moments of sheer joy, complete contendedness with wherever I happened to be. I hope to share those past moments here. And I hope I find many more in years to come.