*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #36, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
The most difficult part about traveling is the people you must leave behind.
Other things can also go wrong: missing planes, losing luggage, items stolen, food sickness, uncomfortable weather, fear of strangers, looking like an outsider, feeling unsafe… they’re all most likely going to happen. When traveling to a new place, especially by yourself — and even more so as an American, whose exposure to hardship is less than most of the world — mishaps occur.
You learn to deal with them, and then you learn about yourself, learn navigation, gain confidence. But if you do it right, at the end of your journey, you’ll discover that “finding yourself,” that age-old obsession, is not the best or most significant part of travel. Rather, it is connecting with people in a real and meaningful way, even while recognizing you may never see them again.
The most important moments in travel are not the ones that connect you with yourself, but the moments that link you with others. Modern media, especially the ubiquitous travel blogs, have created a self-indulgent idea of solo travel as a vehicle for narcissistic soul-searching. Seeing international travel through this lens distracts us from even the most basic level of mindful immersion. Traveling alone should not mean that one exclusively travels inwardly.
What becomes memorable and meaningful is subjective. Your takeaways will vary. Here are some of mine.
1. Knowing that a day at the temple leaves your palms smelling of herbs and spices, cardamom and coconut water.
Last fall, I took a three month journey to Asia by myself — but this was not a backpacking trip. I spent two months living and working in Bangalore, India, then part of another month exploring Vietnam. I took ten days at the end of this journey to visit a few European countries. While living in Bangalore, India, I worked at the Happy Kids Institute, an after-school program for children with learning differences like dyslexia, ADHD, and autism: all disabilities that are regarded in India either as taboo or as outright fabrications.
I spent my time at the institute interviewing and documenting teachers and students, and working daily with the 12- to 14-year-olds. I lived in an apartment with the woman who owns and operates the school, thanks to her generosity and to knowing her son as my college roommate. It was an incredible offer I couldn’t possibly refuse, and it gave me the ability to immerse myself in Indian culture, traveling through the country on holidays and weekends. It was, indeed, immersive.
I woke up each day at 6 a.m. for yoga and meditation. I know how cliché that sounds, but I’m not kidding. I’d go into the courtyard of the apartment complex in which I lived to do yoga alongside many others doing the exact same — old, young, men, women. This is a way of life here.
Then I’d come inside and watch as my hostess carried out her daily Hindu prayers, make Indian food with her, dress in an Indian tunic, and head to the school to help prepare lessons for the day. That level of immersion was, in some ways, difficult. These were not clothes I would normally wear, knowing that at home they’d either be seen as a novelty or as cultural appropriation.
As a woman in Southern India, I was expected to dress, talk, and act like Southern Indian women do. It was easier that way. Last year, the Thomson Reuters Foundation found India to be the most dangerous nation in the world for sexual violence against women. Wearing long, loose pants and Indian tunics was a protective measure — those clothes felt like armor, and soon I felt strangely naked if I wasn’t wearing them in public. That feeling took several weeks to wear off, even after I left India.
So, yes, immersing myself into Southern Indian culture could include some fear, some discomfort, some unfamiliarity. But it was worth it to come together each morning with strangers in meditation, to be included in holiday celebrations. It was worth it to learn to cook Indian food each night, discussing Indian customs and education with the strong-willed, kind, and intelligent woman who hosted me. It was worth it to spend days in Hindu temples and understand why cows are sacred (Shiva), why Ganesha has an elephant’s head, why Durga is a badass. It was worth learning how to bless myself with herbed water, learning about energy and balance, about arranged marriage, village farming, the cruciality of a healthy corn harvest.
2. Perceiving the joy and pleasure when a child recognizes they are capable of learning; experiencing their open curiosity firsthand.
I am being bombarded.
“What does your house look like?” “Where do you live?” “Do your streets look like ours?” “Do you live with your mom?” “Are there loose dogs everywhere in America?” “What do the cars look like?”
To keep up with the questions, I pull out the school atlas and find some pictures on my phone. I show them the tiny dot on the map that is Richmond, Virginia, pictures of my backyard, of my mother, of American cars. Chetan, Kavana, Lakshmi, and some of the younger ones whose names I don’t know, crowd around the little desk. Their questions become more complicated and in-depth, asking about cultural differences, religion, and the American school system.
The intelligence these children display — despite the prejudice they face from teachers, family, and friends due to their learning differences — never fails to astound me. Many Indians in older generations still think in context of the caste system, slotting these children into a lower social position, and setting them up for failure before they’re given a chance to prove they deserve any better. Happy Kids Institute gives them that chance.
“Maybe one day you’ll all have the chance to visit me in America,” I say. The smiles on their faces could light a city. 14-year-old Chetan and 12-year-old Kavana are brother and sister, orphaned as small children; they now live with their aunt and uncle. 14-year-old Lakshmi is the first person in her family to learn how to read.
If ever you have the chance to teach abroad, take it.
3. Sharing secrets with a total stranger at 10,000 feet above sea level.
The fog creeps up the Himalayan mountains everyday at 5 p.m. like a weary visitor come to rest for the night. The mountains are so tall, the fog is like a lap blanket below us. The air smells of mint and dew, and every single star comes out to wink the night away. The chai is all the sweeter after a six-hour trek, and our group of eleven gathers around a campfire at the base camp of Nag Tibba, the highest peak in the lower Himalayas of the Uttarakhand region.
A new friend and I had been joking throughout the day: bonding over art, writing, hiking, and superhero movies, laughing so hard my abdomen hurt. As the cold moved in and the aches of the day pushed everyone to bed, soon he and I were the only ones left awake.
“My boyfriend and I broke up last week,” he said, interrupting the silence. I waited. “I’m glad we did it. But this week has been hard.” Only me, the crickets, and the pack mules know the rest.
Homosexuality was decriminalized only this past September in India. Being gay in India is not easy. But heartbreak is heartbreak. When traveling, instances arise in which you become the side character in someone else’s story. Embrace them: being a listener is an underrated gift.
4. Standing next to an elephant; it doesn’t feel scary, but it does make one feel very small.
His back leg was irreparably broken after being crushed in a logging accident, and an abscess was embedded on his hip. He walked with a limp. He had been rescued from a logging company, and sent to the Elephant Conservation Center in Laos to live out his days with a disability that would prevent him from ever mating or socializing normally again. His sheer mass and height filled an astounding amount of space. The metaphorical space he occupied was overwhelming.
I couldn’t touch him — this was a conservation center, meant for rehabilitation, and contact was prohibited. Before I met him, I spent three hours walking around with one of the center’s organizers, learning the painstaking, meticulous processes — both legal and medical — that the center must carry out to protect these elephants. Regardless of the way it seems from afar, the solutions to another country’s socio-political and environmental crises are always a little more complicated than “Let’s boycott the elephant riding-tour companies.”
Cultural immersion isn’t always about people. Sometimes it’s about 12,000 pound elephants.
5. Always taking the city bus and second-class train car. They’ll teach you more about a place and its people than any museum.
It was like a barrage. For the past hour and a half, the entire train car had been empty, but at this small village stop somewhere outside Hanoi, a huge group of people making their way to the city piled in. Local Vietnamese, arms full of bags, dogs, luggage, and children, filled the entire car. Grandmothers corralled the little ones, men hurried into the quiet corners, students rode back to the city for the school week and finished homework left to the last minute. I smiled sympathetically at the girl poring over her math homework, because doing math homework at 6 p.m. on a Sunday is actually the worst. She smiled back.
Traveling to more than 50 places within the span of a year, as some other popular travel articles have advised, becomes nothing more than a to-do list. Yes, you’ll meet lots of people. You’ll see lots of things. But that’s never been my goal when traveling. I aspire to learn, to absorb, to connect. I want to spend at least two weeks in any single place, because anything less is a tourist trap.
I’m happy for those who have the opportunities and means to travel — granted, I am one of them. I work hard to earn what I can, and find ways to travel despite supporting myself alone. I’m accustomed to operating this way. But the world does not exist to support my self-indulgent quest to find myself.
Because that’s the thing. It isn’t about me.
Travel is what you accomplish while being present in a place. It’s about mindfulness, being careful to remember you’re a stranger, not presuming you’re welcome in any space, and respecting boundaries until told otherwise. Reach for immersion. If you have the choice between staying in one town for a few more days or traveling elsewhere to look at a national monument for two minutes, stay in the town. Don’t allow your travels to become a to-do list. Allow them to consume you. Ride the city bus.
6. Reconnecting with loved ones, even if they are thousands of miles away. And Paris is never a bad idea.
We meet at Opéra. We always meet at Opéra. There are five of us, five girls who met at school, all those years ago. We link arms in the cold and head down the street, speaking a weird mix of English and French that probably only we can decipher. No time has passed. We order hot chocolate — it’s the best in the world, and we don’t need wine to enjoy ourselves. This is home.
It’s okay to visit the same place twice. Maybe even three times. Maybe even annually.
7. Knowing that no matter where you go, you are never alone, because there is always someone who has felt loss in the same way you have.
On the island, his friends call him “Crazy Sven.” He laughs loud, photobombs every picture he can, makes dirty jokes, and lives by the motto that “Every day is a good day.” Sven is a real-life viking. His ancestry predates the 1100s, when Norsemen first landed on the brutal, beguiling landscape. He has been a search-and-rescue operative, radio reporter, mountaineer, photographer, mountain guide, and tour guide.
Our little group of eight had chosen a newer, independent Iceland tour company, meaning we had the pleasure of allowing Sven to show us the cliff sides, waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. At the end of a long, cold, wet, and wonderful day, we gathered around a table eating dinner in a farmhouse somewhere in the barren lava fields of Snæfellsnes.
Once inside, Sven removed a couple of his many warm layers, revealing seven ravens tattooed on his forearm. After entertaining us with some stories of elaborate pranks he used to play on his coworkers, everyone became engaged in side conversations. I asked him about the tattoo.
He tells me that in Norse mythology, the raven can be a symbol of death — of a loved one lost, watching over you.
“There were eight of us,” he said, referring to his group of friends during his time as a search-and-rescue operative. “I’m the only one still alive.”
“I have a tattoo like that, too,” I said.
Many people regard international travel as glamorous, free-spirited, and privileged. But if you get beyond the standard tourist experiences and gap-year clichés, there is a lot to be learned from it. Mark Twain, the original American travel writer, once wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
For me, travel required a measure of courage and a desire for adventure. But in return, it offered fulfillment and encouraged perspective, even as it redefined the importance of home.