Luggage Lost, Soul Found: What Traveling the World Taught Me
There are countless reasons not to travel: lost luggage, delayed flights, aggressive hawkers and taxi scams, to name a few. And so it was that logistical hassles, fear of the unknown and the tyranny of the status quo – not to mention the cost – all conspired to keep my wife and I grounded in the safe and familiar confines of our downtown Toronto condo. Indeed, for years, only a few touristy forays to Western Europe and the Caribbean gave us glimpses beyond the Platonic cave of our self-imposed, inverted exile.
By our mid-twenties, though, that started to change. Suddenly uninspired with the prosaic cadence of our corporate calendars (alarm-coffee-calls; meetings-TV-bed — repeat), we knew we needed to broaden our horizons. And what better way to do that, we reasoned, than to see new ones altogether.
It began modestly, to be sure. We started with the lower hanging fruit of Central Europe and Central America, before inching into Morocco, Turkey and Namibia on the peripheries of more ambitious continents. But with each successive sojourn, the travel fever deepened and the pins in our National Geographic planning map begged to colonize ever further corners of canvas. Wanderlust consumed everything: when to book trips so as to minimize work disruption, what to sacrifice to free up budget (an endless exercise), how to tell my parents we wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving, and so on. Tanzania and Turkmenistan soon followed, with countries like Iran, Djibouti and Myanmar not far behind.
Much of what I learned in those travels these past six years has the ring of received wisdom. It’s true, for example, that people really are the same no matter where they live. Boys play soccer in the slums of Soweto with the same reckless abandon as those in the neighborhoods of New Haven, just as a preemptive smile in the hutongs of Hong Kong has equal currency to one in the barrios of Buenos Aires. Other vignettes whisked me to my own adolescence in southern Ontario, like the time when the mother of our sheepish guide in northern Azerbaijan admonished him to pack enough food and warm clothing for our long trek back through the Caucasus Mountains. Hearing my own mum speak through her Azeri avatar, I saw firsthand how differences of culture truly pale against the community of our common character.
But beyond these truisms, travel’s most telling tutorials weren’t so much about the places we’d seen, or even the people we’d met; rather, they were what they taught me about myself.
Buffeted by the gales of unexpected events and without the comforting cloak of relatives and routine back home, traveling exposed us to many of life’s elements in their rawest; from downpours and disappointments to wonderment and woe. I remember, for instance, when our 4X4 got hopelessly stuck in the washed out roads of rural Burkina Faso, and how the fear closed in with the darkness. In that eternity before local villagers found us hours later and came to our aid, we gravely weighed how the disappearance of two Canadians in West Africa might be reported back home.
Not only did moments like this impress a healthy awareness of my own fragile transience but, far more profoundly, they syllogized a simple sermon: to travel is to feel, and to feel is to live.
The anonymity afforded as a stranger in a foreign land, too, offered instruction. Without the scripts to read or expectations to meet that choreograph our roles back home, I began to see less exclusively through my own eyes and more through those of others. I wondered, for example, whether the Syrian refugees we chanced upon in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley more so welcomed us as curiosities or resented us as interlopers, and questioned whether our government minders in North Korea really didn’t know what pizza was or simply feigned ignorance for fear of being outed as Party apostates.
Forcing me inside the minds of others, travel challenged my assumptions and betrayed my blind spots. Seeing outward, in other words, made me look inward.
Driving this home was an entry in one of my weathered travel journals that I recently excavated from a forgotten storage bin. Pouring over it with the zeal of an archeologist on a new dig, I recounted all the staples you’d expect: logs of where we’d been, who we’d met and what we’d seen. But self-consciously hidden at the very back, as if buried in a still-deeper subterranean chamber, was a list of personality traits – all of them unflattering – that I must have cataloged about myself in a kind of introspective inventory: “Impatient, selfish, compulsive..”, the long list began.
I don’t recall where I was when I scratched this out (perhaps in the back of a Guatemalan chicken bus or on a dune of some desolate desert), but am certain that such candid self-accounting could only have been done while disconcertingly distanced, physically and mentally, from my natural element.
To me, that is travel’s true treasure. While it can surely be a window to the wider world, it is even more so a mirror to the secret sanctums of your soul; those closeted recesses that, back home, we wall off with the pretty patina of Facebook photos and drown out in the daily din of humdrum happenstance.
Sometimes to find yourself, I suppose, you first need to lose some luggage.
Justin Williams lives in Toronto, Canada. While a lawyer by trade, his true passion lies in exploring new frontiers with his high-school sweetheart and wife of seven years, Anna. With close to 100 countries under their belt to date, their ambitious goal remains to somehow find a way to visit the rest before they turn 40. You can follow Justin through his Facebook account or the Instagram hashtag: #aroundtheworldin80posts.