HAMBURG, Germany – The question arises from time to time, sometimes when I’m hungry or tired, and sometimes when I’m uncomfortably wedged between too many people on a foreign public transportation system.
Most of the time, the days are too full of new engaging things to see and do, new people to meet, and new maps to decipher. But there are those days when I wake up at four in the morning on another night train, somewhere in Bulgaria, when I can’t help but wonder, even if just for a second, “why am I doing this?”
Inevitably, before I can answer this question I’m interrupted — by a brusque customs official who, with a mere momentary glance, makes me feel like I’ve already overstayed my welcome, or by my large and inebriated Serbian train car neighbor who doesn’t seem to know or care why he’s paying me a visit (but will not leave) — and it is buried away until further notice, perhaps a week down the line, as we are unwittingly shot at by BB gun wielding Turkish boys on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Eventually, the opportunity to reflect on the motivation to travel arises and things become clearer. Not only are the hellish moments not that bad in hindsight (and good fodder for storytelling), but the ups and downs that make up the travel experience give it the incredibly dense learning potential that it has.
It encourages, and sometimes demands, an attentiveness to the here and now that is vastly different to sedentary life, allowing for a different, and valuable, perspective. When ordinary experiences occur in front of new and unfamiliar backdrops, they can stand out, revealing nuances that you never knew existed.
Traveling can often be a twisted game of “expecting the unexpected” or alternatively, extreme “going with the flow.” In Rio, we rented a cheap apartment for a week that abutted a steep hillside, marking the beginning of a small favela (shanty town) territory. The favela’s proximity was never something we really thought about, and in fact, I had forgotten it was there until an early morning incident that momentarily had me thinking I was a goner.
We were ousted from sleep in the middle of the night by the sound of fireworks (or machine guns as my half-slumbering mind interpreted it) exploding right over our building at the top of the hill. Allegedly, the ten-minute pyrotechnic display was to alert the necessary actors that an illicit shipment of drugs had arrived and was ready for distribution. The reason for the excessive use of explosives to publicize this fact still escapes me. It took me a long time to fall back asleep that night.
Foreign exploration also amplifies the importance of luck (or fate, depending on how you look at it), as each day has the potential to get off course, which in turn can be good or bad. Dealing with changes in plans (be it of the surprise bus strike or stolen wallet variety, or of the serendipitous encounter of a political rally or beach party variety) can be frustrating or amazing, and often depends on a frame of mind rather than what cards have been dealt.
When I look back at our LongJaunt thus far, it’s easy for me to see what, more than anything else, has made it a worthwhile experience. As we speed through cities and countrysides on all manner of transportation, staying with remotely connected friends, long lost family, and sometimes complete strangers, we are privy to a unique cross section of every locale we visit.
For the simple fact that we are travelers, we are almost guaranteed to be an anomaly no matter where we are, which gives people an automatic excuse to interact with us. That in combination with our constant need to ask for assistance from people around means that, in the span of a given day, we interact with a cast of characters that we would never have access to in our sedentary lives.
In Italy, after a long train ride conversation with a conservative South African-Italian grandmother about politics and the state of Italy, we stayed with a punkabestia (an Italian term for the culture of hard-drinking punk-embracing youths with dogs) for two nights, a drastic contrast, and an interesting insight into life in Italy. The old woman had fears about rapid change, immigrants, the price of food, and young people. Our punkebestia friend was Colombian-born, studied Japanese, hung out with transsexuals, and slept during the day.
In one day in Croatia, we got a sunrise guitar recital from a gnarly newspaper seller, chatted about Hong Kong with two travelers, had a hand signal-heavy conversation with a 14-year-old soccer playing Croatian boy, and hitched a ride from a 40-year-old businessman who had spent 10 years living in South America. They were certainly unaware of the fact that we had been in different cities across Italy almost every night for the past week, but it was impossible for me not to compare them with the various students, vagabonds, and “upstanding citizens” we had met in the days before.
So when I ask myself why I am traveling, in the age of the Internet where Wikipedia, Google, and Facebook seem to provide you with images and information about almost anyone or anything, I realize that it boils down not to what or how much information there is, but how the information makes its way into your brain.
For me, it’s the stories and conversations of real live human beings that make you really care enough to actually sift through and find the important stuff. It can be exhausting to muster the energy to meet and re-meet new people all the time, and talking to strangers is sometimes the last thing you want to do, but to get a glimpse of other worlds from patchworks of individual voices, sometimes in agreement and other times diametrically opposed, is, at the core, the reason why I travel.