From Nowhere to Nowhere and All That Lies Between

The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge. Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. 

This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.
{from "Reclaiming Travel" by Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison}

This week has begun rather oddly. For the first time since I got my license, I am entirely without a vehicle and have to depend on the graciousness of my family members to get me to and from work and class. Thankfully, I also have a semester pass that covers trains, buses, trolleys, and subways in the area, and today, I very nearly used it for the first time to take the bus home from campus.

Perhaps it sounds silly and naïve, but I was kind of excited at the prospect. I have only once traveled by bus inside the US, and only once by myself. As a creature of habit, I don't ordinarily break out of my comfortable modes of existence, even in trifling instances. Sometimes I'll skip dinner on campus rather than trying to make a decision about where to buy food, because I'm unfamiliar with the various eateries and can't be bothered to explore a new situation. But as a product of the countryside who has just admitted to never really being without a car for the past seven years, even riding the train is still a novel experience, and a bus ride even more so. It has all the excitement of a challenge: coordinating subway and bus schedules, navigating unfamiliar territory, figuring out payment methods without coming across as a total moron, and people-watching.

When we throw ourselves into new situations, we learn stuff.

In my Intro to Interpersonal Communication class at community college, we talked about this concept illustration called a Johari window. Basically, it's a square divided into four quarters, and each quarter represents an aspect of the self in terms of knowledge and awareness: the blind self is the part that others see, but you don't; the open area where what others know coincides with self-knowledge; the hidden area, which is all the parts of your self that you hide from others; and the unknown is that which neither self nor others have had opportunity to discover.

These quarters are not equally divided, nor are they fixed in size. Over time, the parts that involve self-knowledge increase (theoretically - I've been accused of believing too much in the reflective powers of average human beings, but it seems like the more generous interpretation). So too, the parts of yourself that you share may change depending on whether you become more open and trusting, or perhaps begin to shut away more in order to protect yourself in reaction to circumstance and pain.

Since "stuff" is a taboo word for good writing, let me expand my thesis. When we throw ourselves into new situations, our learning experience is two-fold: we learn about the world with its inhabitants,  social construction, and material reality, but also about ourselves as we respond to and situate ourselves within that framework.

The journey to the center of the earth is simultaneously a journey to the center of the self, not in some deplorably egocentric way, but simply because we cannot help but change and grow responsively when we begin to think  critically about the experiences we undergo. That's why I love that quote from Stavans and Ellison's article, especially as I begin mentally preparing myself to leave for Cambridge.

On the one hand, yes, I'm satisfying a dorky preteen's goal to study at one of those old English universities, and as I am receiving my courses and meeting supervisors, I'm increasingly excited by the intellectual opportunities that are open to me. But travel is a holistic educator, and my mind is not alone in readiness. When we remain at home, we have to actively and intentionally pursue discomfort. It will not seek us out, except perhaps when an unpredictable entity invades our perfectly ordered space. But when we travel, we are ourselves the unpredictable entity, challenged to be vulnerable, to be humble, to ask questions, and to dare the awkward and uncomfortable. And if we are malleable and open, suffering the inconveniences and embracing the challenges, then perhaps we shall find that as we invaded the world, it invaded us: we are unable to see with our old eyes or think quite like we used to. You approach things differently when your concepts have faces.

So yes, in the end, riding on a bus is a ridiculous excuse for an adventure. But I can't always afford to be wandering over oceans and time zones, so it'll do for now.