On Travel

I just spent a good hour or so reading this Hacker News discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26407560

That discussion hit pretty close to home for reasons that are obvious if you know me. I've been in Japan for about a year and a half now (as of March 10, 2021), so it's interesting to hear other people's travel experiences. Although, I'm not sure I'd consider my own experience "travel". "Travel" is when you pick a destination, book a hotel, pull together a quick itinerary, then go have a blast, right? What I did was more like: apply for job, move. Naturally, the HN discussion touches on that distinction a bit. Many folks strongly differentiate between a week-or-two tour trip a multi-month immersive excursion.

This comment in particular I found rather interesting: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26408454.

I'd love to hear concretely what you guys who traveled actually gained from traveling the world? Because I always hear that it's really exciting and you get to go to exciting places - but what exactly did you gain in terms of perspectives besides your instagram pictures and cocktail stories? I've never get beyond this superficial in hearing people's travel stories online and IRL.

Maybe it's just me; but the idea of going from one place to another for 2 weeks, to take pictures and get led around by locals tourist industry is the very definition of Western Consumerism. If you want to immersed into a culture, wouldn't you want to commit to learning the language and go to your local city's meetup for that language - instead of going to a foreign country with a phrasebook. If you want to dance, wouldn't you want take a class for salsa, shuffle, tango at your local club instead of a single experience at a beach bar at some exotic locale. If you want to meet new people and break out of your comfort zone, wouldn't you want to make friends locally where you can build up that friendship or relationship consistently by dinners, outings instead of a single chance encounter? Listening to live music at some exotic place vs. going to local musicians jams where you're up on the stage playing, take instagram pictures of Prague vs. urban sketching your local city streetscape… I could keep going.

  • noname123

Maybe I'm wrong. Please tell me know what you've personally gained from traveling the world!

Back before the pandemic, a colleague of mine and I had a conversation on the train along similar lines. Many people who have traveled will tell you just how extraordinarily life changing it is. Of course as previously mentioned there are tiers to this. People who do multi-month excursions will say "ah, the week long tour-goers haven't had the real travel experience!" Similarly, expats may say the same thing about even the month-long traveler types. But the guy in the aforelinked comment is asking what specifically did you get out of traveling? I feel like I myself am also likely to give vague "changed my life"-type answers, so the question really made me think. What am I even talking about when I say it's life changing?

Of course, I've thought about this a fair amount in the past as well. I especially remember early on, I had to spend so much time on basic things, it was rather astonishing. Things like "where do I go if I want X?" "how do I use this basic utility?" - all in addition to getting a bank account, insurance, medical care, a place to live. It felt like turning 18 again. I had forgotten just how much paperwork and bookkeeping goes into maintaining a single adult life in modern society. And of course there's the language as well. I took the somewhat reckless route of moving over with only basic understanding of Japanese. New people, new society, new job, new words - it really was starting a new life. It was as though I chose to die and become a baby again while keeping all of my past life's knowledge. That part of the experience was super interesting, but why? I'm not completely sure. It's a concrete example of my mind being opened, sort of by force, but does not do much to explain why it's good or why I would recommend it.

To drill down a little deeper, there's another thing that struck me early on. And that's that, when you're in an international group of people, you kind of become a representative of your home country. During conversation, you'll be asked things like "how about in America?" or "what about your hometown?" - those questions make perfect sense in retrospect, but I somehow did not see them coming. Having lived my whole life pretty close to my hometown, I was never in a situation where I had to explain what my hometown is or what it's like. Let alone my home country! This is another example of something that happened to me as a consequence of traveling, but it's not clear why it might be good or significant.

A lot of people like to tell these stories about their travels, where they're in unknown territory intermingling with the locals despite having little-to-no shared language ability, or their native friend is showing them some cultural event with a deep background. And it's all profound and stuff because different ways of thinking, different culture!! I too can probably dig up a story kinda like that from my experiences here. Again, it is legitimately fun to have novel experiences but I don't really know why, concretely. Going out, meeting new people, learning things through cultural exchange is all entirely possible in your hometown. In fact, education and information is so darn good nowadays you can learn stuff like this without even leaving your seat.

The point about leaving your seat though might be key to some of this. In your hometown, it's extremely easy to become complacent. Your lifestyle falls into a comfortable average. When you know everything about the location you're in, your brain starts to take shortcuts. You can go to the store without thinking. It's been a long time since you last put thought into simple stuff like, what banking options do you have? What restaurants are around? Not having to think about these things, the mind may become restless. We like to say that children are like sponges and will absorb everything around them, learning rapidly. I think adults are not so different. The only difference is that the average adult has already absorbed everything around them. You're starved for information, so you ride the high of watching television everyday after work. I suppose if you adopt that line of thinking, then travel is a good way to keep your brain moving, so to speak. People like to say that you don't know what you love until you lose it. Travel can be a relatively safe way to temporarily lose everything. Once you've experienced a completely different lifestyle, the contrast lets you recognize and appreciate your old comfortable average. And the experience reminds you what it's like to learn.