A Thousand Steps

Musings on life and living

A lone lion sits on a perch.
January 5, 2013

The Things You Leave Behind

When you decide to travel, move, or embark upon any adventure that removes you from your home for an extended period of time, you have decided to sacrifice. Just as you go to far off places, new smiling faces, and untold wonders, so too do you leave much behind. The weight of this bears lightly on your shoulders, when sitting at home, preparing, planning, and thinking. Time and movement catch up with you, however, and you will in time feel the weight of this change, this loss.

The travelers curse. You see, the traveler’s curse is an experience in relativity. You roam the world leaving home far behind, and in the meantime, home, seemingly stagnant in your mind, preserved as a picture of what it was, has plans of its own; Time continues there as it does for you, yet it continues markedly without you. If you travel long enough your friends will take on careers, possessions  and relationships (and though these may not be important to you, they will affect the interaction with your friends), your parents and siblings will age, birthdays will be celebrated, anniversaries marked, events planned, and outings taken. You will be a part of none of these, and they will continue on without you. You’ll return home to find that home wasn’t left in a vacuum, it continued to evolve. It can be a strange world to reintegrate back into, in particular when you’ve experienced this enormous, wonderful thing, that likely few wish to hear about in depth, if you’re able to convey the grandeur of it in the first place.

Leave all notions of stability, too, when you leave home. You’ll sleep in different beds every night, rarely knowing where you’ll rest your head next, the people you meet will just as soon say goodbye, the food you eat will always be unfamiliar, no familiar faces will greet you through your days, no words with a friend with whom you share a past with will occur. Your surroundings will constantly be strange, your language at varying degrees of uselessness, and your body incurring all manner of new and wonderful bites, itches, rashes, fevers, and other ailments yet unforeseen.

Even the strongest relationships will likely suffer. Communication over vast distances is difficult, and deprives both partners of the physical and visual cues necessary to maintain clear, accurate, and intimate communication. Imagine for a moment if you will your partner reduced to a pixelated version of themselves on an LCD screen, if you’re lucky enough to have video available, or text, if you’re not. Imagine talking to them far less often. Imagine them slowly drifting away. Not a pleasant reality? Then you have a choice to make. But in either case, your relationship will change. And I have bad news if you non-monogamous bunch think you’re immune to this, because while you’re away, you become less and less an active participant in the relationship, and more a spectator, and this hinders communication and security in a way that’s difficult to imagine, while removed from it. There is no physical or intimate contact and comfort to be had. Not in any kind of a relationship? I’m afraid to say you’re not immune either. Just as you meet, and leave new friends on the road, so too do the temporary lovers fade. It takes its toll.

Your world, as you presently know it, will change. There is nothing you can do to stop it, curtail it, prevent it, or modify it. It will go on without you, and will evolve accordingly. And so too will you change, likely for the better, but do take note of yourself, because there are no guarantees. This may seem like a terribly pessimistic post. It isn’t meant to be. Instead it’s mean to be a realistic glimpse into the less pleasant side of such a pleasant activity. These are things that nearly anyone that travels, or takes risk that lead them far from the comforts of their home must face. It comes with the territory. You decide if it’s worth that first step out the door. I would argue that it is, because as much as there is to be lost, so too there is much to be gained.

The lonely mountain
December 31, 2012

On Loneliness

Loneliness affects us all. If you’re traveling alone, or find yourself in a new set of life circumstance where you are disconnected from those routines and people that add comfort to your life, it is almost inevitable that you will come to feel lonely at some point. It is difficult to build lasting, deep relationships on the road, because nearly everyone you meet is in motion, in transition. You say hello and just as promptly say goodbye, and in the end you find yourself alone again. Humans are by nature social animals, and this constant flux in our sense of belonging and community begins to take a toll.

It should be noted that loneliness does not necessarily mean being alone, but rather it implies a greater sense of separation, of disconnection. There times I feel just as lonely in a crowded bar as I do by myself.

When is loneliness a good thing?

Loneliness has certain benefits, and like any other human emotion, it is necessary to feel sometimes. Loneliness forces introspection. When you are alone, you are able to focus on yourself, and your own mind. In these moment the potential to learn about yourself is greatest, and from this introspection comes growth. Furthermore, loneliness bestows upon you time to devout to yourself and your own endeavors. You are able to focus your time and attention on any task you chose, and the gamut of things you can do alone, whether for entertainment or betterment are endless. When you don’t have to take another persons time or desires into consideration, you are free to do anything at all. So in this way loneliness presents us with an opportunity. Furthermore, a feeling of loneliness can force us to interact, and break out of our comfort zone. From this, fascinating and exciting situations are bound to arise. Be aware, however, because the benefit can become detriment if loneliness is allowed to grow unchecked.

When is loneliness a bad thing?

Long periods of isolation and loneliness can cause destructive or depressive behavior. Withdrawal, depression, anti-social behavior, obsessive thinking, draining of confidence and self-esteem are all things that can manifest in such extended periods. The difficulty in noticing some of these lies in the fact that they emerge gradually, and are typically cyclical in nature. Obsessive thinking and self-esteem issues in particular have a way of very efficiently perpetuating themselves. You may notice yourself pushing away those people that are important in your life, and taking up actions and relationships that only serve to perpetuate the self-destructive tendencies, rather than add real value and meaning to your days. It is crucial that you continue to be aware of your feelings, emotions, and outlook, and notice when it’s time to make a change. Just as Loneliness can be positive, and offer growth, so too can it be harmful and cause you to suffer mentally and emotionally. In those times that you find yourself lonely, and entering into destructive behavior, what do you do?

What to do when you’re feeling lonely

Foremost you must allow yourself to feel it. Don’t shy away from negative or painful emotions, but rather let them run their course, and see what they can offer you. Seek balance, however, and be aware enough to realize when the emotion becomes detrimental or harmful. if you find yourself becoming withdrawn, obsessive, or depressed  it is time to adjust. Do so by forcing yourself to meet new people, or take on new activities. Take a moment to re-asses the current relationships in your life, and see if they may not be adding to this sense of loneliness. Reach out to people that care about you, be they family, friends, or partners, and speak your mind about how you are feeling. There is no shame in feeling lonely, and it is no indication of weakness. We all feel vulnerable at times, and those that love us will understand and care.  Take on new hobbies or projects, ones that are social in nature in particular. In this way you’ll not only meet people, but meet people with similar interest. You need not be an island, as there are always others around. Seek them out and make those connections, however brief they may be, because they still have potential to enrich your days, and cause you to grow.

Jungle path, lessons from the road, travel
December 27, 2012

Lessons from the Road

Travel is a ruthless and effective teacher. From the first step outside your home, you are thrown into a world of uncertainty, and in this world, you’re forced to cope, adjust, and learn, or suffer. It need not be cruel, as these lessons, even the hard learned ones, are ones that you will carry with you for life. Here are a few of the lessons the road has taught me:

You need little

What is true of life is also true of travel. You simply don’t need much. Beyond the essentials, your sense of happiness and well-being arises not from your possessions but from your experiences, your relationships, and most importantly of all, yourself.

Excessive possessions can slow you down physically and weigh you down mentally. The things you own and carry will weigh so heavily on your mind, existing in a constant state of alert fear and anxiety about being lost or stolen, that invariably they will begin to own you and your thoughts. This is counter to the point of travel. Travel light, and you will be free. You need little more than the clothes on your back, some comfortable shoes, your passport, some money, and any essential medical items. and you can get by just about anywhere. Certainly what is necessary will change depending on where your adventures take you (a tent is not an essential in Bangkok, but it is in the wilderness), and proper research will alert you to the essentials of a specific region, but be sure to scrutinize every item you carry, asking yourself if it is truly essential, and how you would feel if it was lost. The most valuable things you will carry with you are an open mind, a spirit of discovery, a sense of curiosity  and a willingness to learn. With these things in hand, your travels will be a success.

These are the fundamentals  of everyday life as well. Your happiness will never stem from possessions, for more than a fleeting moment, until the desire for the next thing arises. Invest your happiness in this viscous cycle, and you’re bound to lose. It has always, and must always come from within, and no possessions can alter this fact.

Travel is Easy, leaving is hard

Travel is easier than you think. When you’re on the road, you deal with each situation, each new challenge as it arises, and you typically find a way. When you can’t find a way, you learn, so that next time a similar situation arises, you’re better prepared to handle it. When you’re sitting at home thinking about travel, you overwhelm yourself with hypothetical situations, imagined dangers, fabricated stresses. It is for this reason, that the most difficult part of travel is taking the first step. I’m a notorious over-thinker, and planning for my first trip to Asia took far longer than it should have, and caused far more stress than is normal. Finally, I forced myself to buy a ticket, and a date was set. The weeks leading up to my departure were a strange mix of serenity and panic, of excitement and fear. Yet when I stepped out of the door on the day I was set to leave, I knew I would be alright, because the reality was made clear. When you’re actually “doing”, as opposed to “thinking” you deal with each thing that’s before you, and not the millions of things you conjure up in your own fear-based mind. In the ever wise words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride”. You won’t regret it, and you may even surprise yourself.

People are (generally) kind

In your travels you’ll encounter hawkers, scammers, liars, thieves, con-men and cheats. It will get daunting at times, and frustrating at others. This is simply reality. However, by and large, people everywhere are kind, and friendly, and are only interested in going about their business, and extending their kindness to those around them. This includes you. The most important thing to remember is to not develop a jaded attitude. 99% of those you meet will be lovely humans that will leave a positive impact on you for days to come. Don’t let the 1% of bad seeds ruin the experience for you. In those times that the bad seeds get to you, take a deep breath, gather some perspective, try to see the positive, and keep going.

While in Bangkok, I was suckered into the classic tuk-tuk scam, wherein a tuk-tuk driver will offer to drive you around to a variety of sites for an outrageously low price, while also taking you to tailor or gem shops, that give the driver commission or gas for bringing in people. It happens to many people, and if you find yourself in that corner of the world for the first time, it will likely happen to you to. Yet, at the end of the experience, I had only spent about a dollar or two, enjoyed a great ride around the city in a fun vehicle, made clear to both the drive and the shops that I wasn’t planning on buying any suits (and spent a total of 30 seconds in the shop), got to see a few great sites, and was dropped off near my guesthouse. Overall, a fun filled day. Sure, I got suckered into a scam, but with a positive attitude, some perspective, and patience, you’ll find that even in those situations there is good to be found. In addition, my tuk-tuk driver was a great guy, who was just trying to earn a living, and we had a lovely conversation along the way. Even the scammers are human, after all.

By the same token, I’ve encountered people who have displayed the most generous of kindness to me, without so much as knowing my name. It is these impressions, not the negative ones that will persist with you, even when your travels come to a standstill.

The people you meet will affect you just as strongly as the places you go

As time goes on, and your travels grow in length, you will come to look back at not only the wonderful places you have been, but the incredible people with whom you spent your time. In fact, these people may come to be the highlights of your trips. Indeed, many a drab location is made exquisite by the kindness of a stranger, a conversation with a new friend,  the companionship of people on a similar road. The cumulative effect of these people that you will constantly meet (and, in most cases, leave behind) is one that is profound, and character building. They add perspective to those necessary times that you are alone, and add joy to those times that you wish you weren’t. Through the wide variety of people you meet, you grow. Approach these characters with an open mind, and open heart, and you will find that the relationships you build, while brief, will be intense. Humans are, by nature, social creatures, and we strive to build networks of varying size regardless of where we find ourselves. Travel need not be different, though the nature of these networks tends to be more temporary.

Some of the greatest experiences are free

Watching a river flow, soaking in beautiful scenery, a spontaneous conversation with a stranger, an act of kindness, a long walk, reading on a quiet street, observing people, and taking the time to slow down and see what makes a place tick are experiences that cost nothing, but make up the bulk of the beneficial experiences you are likely to have. It is true that not all great experiences are free: music festivals, a drink with friends, admission prices, transportation, etc, all have their price. Yet many of the most meaningful encounters you are bound to have will be both free and unexpected, and typically the most beautiful ones will completely blindside you and breath new life into your experiences. Be open to them.

We Take much for granted

One of the important qualities that travel bestows upon us, is a set of new eyes with which to see our own homes in a new light. Running water, warm showers, electricity, internet, sanitation, availability of food and water, political stability, television and entertainment, personal time, and support networks of loved ones, are among the numerous things that are simple to neglect when we are home. It is simply how our brains work. We become comfortable with the familiar and neglect it, because it is always available to us. There are few things that will make you realize the stark beauty of your own home (because beauty exists everywhere) than being away from it for a long while, and few things that make you aware of the comforts of home than no longer having them. This lesson is a crucial one.

Returning home after a long trip is always a surreal experience for me. It is as though I am laying eyes on my own city for the first time, and with these new eyes I am able to notice all the intricacies, all the beauty that I take for granted going about my daily business. These fresh eyes are one of my reasons to travel.

Things don’t go according to plan

Transportation breaks down, weather changes, people flake on your plans, and your own desires change. Plans only go so far, because there is no certainty in the future. There are no guarantees. It is for this reason it is important to do research, but not as important to have a plan. Instead, know what interests you and be flexible, because you can never know what awaits you at your destination until you are standing in it. Many an itinerary and plan are ruined by the simple chaotic nature of life. Don’t shun this chaos, it is fundamental to what makes life as beautiful as it is, but instead know of its existence, and be ready to bend, and to change. All things change. So will your plans. So will you.

To further this point, don’t be afraid of having no plan at all. When I bought my ticket to Bangkok, I had no idea where I was sleeping that night, or indeed anything beyond when my flight was. Yet everything worked out for the better. It was a moment where the kindness of strangers yet again shone through. The lovely lady sitting next to me, also from Los Angeles, but of Thai origin, offered me a ride to the hotel she was staying in in the middle of the city. In this way I was not only able to find a place to sleep, but got a free ride into the city and had some wonderful conversation with a complete stranger. Be open and flexible, and things tend to work out. This brings me to my final point:

You’re capable of more than you think

You will surprise yourself. Your assumptions of who you are, and what you are capable of will be shattered. You will be forced to confront your fears, and anxieties, and your notions of what the world is like will be challenged  Some of your ideas will remain, and indeed be strengthened. Some will fade. This is perhaps the most fundamental reason to travel. Just as you gain new eyes for your own city, so too do you gain new eyes to focus on yourself. There are few ways to learn about yourself, and to challenge yourself that are as effective and efficient as travel, because you will have no other choice but to confront those challenges. Do not fear this, embrace it. Know that your beliefs will be questioned. Be ready to defend or release them. Keep what works, drop the rest. This is how you grow. In the end, you will find yourself a bigger person, wiser and more capable. These are, of course, qualities that you possessed from the beginning, but the challenges of travel forced them to the surface, and in those moments where you persevere, and make it through, your reasons for travelling will suddenly be honed to a laser focus. Congratulations, you’re evolving. That’s the point.

 

Mountain zen, lao landscape, travel
December 27, 2012

Romanticizing Travel

“The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.”

― Robert M. Pirsig

Travel naturally lends itself to being romanticized. We think of distant places, and the people that inhabit them, the adventures we will have, and the people we will meet, and in our minds we become protagonist of some fantastic adventure novel. Expectations can be dangerous things, however. Yes, these fantasies are a part of what drives us to travel in the first place, and in this way they serve a valuable purpose, but the danger lies in built up expectation. Outlined below are a few reasons why this can become a harmful practice.

Fantasies and Realities

Think of a time that you were anticipating a trip, or an event. I can say with a certain confidence that the way you perceived this event before hand, was nothing like the way you experienced it, when you were actually living it. This is fundamental discord between our fantasies and our perceived realities. We create these ideas of what will be, of what’s to come, driven by our desires and based on preconceived notions, research, and past experience. Further, these fantasies we create are so grand in scope, that they have little bearing to the way we actually perceive reality, which focuses on what’s in front of us, reacting to and dealing with things that arise in each present moment. Our fantasies deal in this larger scope of perception, of grand ideas and hypothetical scenarios, while our perception, our reality, deals with what is real, what is true at any given moment. It is impossible for us to know what a situation will really be like, how we will feel and how we will perceive, until we are actually living it.

How does this factor into travel? Why does it matter? It is because our fantasies affect our expectations.

Expectations and Letting them go

Expectations based on hypothetical realities are dangerous things, when we hinge our happiness on them. When things don’t go according to plan (and they seldom do), we are disappointed, our sense of joy is lessened. It is for this reason that we must let expectations go. We must expect nothing, or, at the least, we may have expectation, but we must not cling to them. It is crucial to realize that things change, reality bends, and the situations that you will be presented with will seldom align with your desires . In this way, then, you can bend and flow with the situation as it arises, and enjoy it, indeed appreciate it, for precisely what it is, rather than what you expected it to be.  You will grow from this, you will learn, and reality will often surprise you by exceeding whatever expectations you may have had in the first place.

Finding yourself

The idea of finding yourself is one that often gets attached to travel as well. We leave for the road, hoping to find clarity and meaning. Travel, this way, becomes a journey of self discovery. It is true that the challenges you will face, and the new situations will cause you to step outside of your typical routine, and will challenge your preconceived notions of how life should be lived. As with expectations, however, you must be wary of looking for yourself “out there”, because the realizations you will come to, and the truths you will learn will still come from within, and they are not dependent on location. Jon Kabat-Zinn said it best, “Wherever you go, there you are”. Whether in an Asian Jungle or a European metropolis, you are you, and you must look within for the answers. Just as you cannot find yourself “out there”, nor can you not escape yourself. Search within, and you will find the answers.

The point is the experience

The point is always the experience. Arrive with no expectation, and be open, and each experience will weigh just as heavily on your mind, each moment will offer you something. There is beauty and growth in all things, and the only way to tap into it is to be aware, be flexible, and be open to it. In this way, you will find tremendous personal benefit, regardless of where in the world you find yourself.