“Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” — Pico Iyer
The above, excellent quote contains at least two important points: because so much of what we experience when we travel is new, we are undimmed by familiarity. If you think about the metaphor of a dimmed lightbulb then you realize that yes, you can see, but not so brightly. Perhaps not so memorably. So travel can be like a shiny, bright lightbulb. Ding!
And second, we need to be ready to be transformed. We must be receptive to the new and avoid the desire to be comforted by the baggage that carried you here. While it is true that you brought your own baggage, it is worth remembering that your cultural baggage is carrying you. Everything from your native language to what you are comfortable eating for breakfast to the kind of bed you prefer to sleep on — and everything in-between.
If we are creatures of habit, and YES we are, then thrusting ourselves into someone else’s country is a remarkable opportunity to freshly observe — both this new land and yourself too. It’s a different kind of mirror because the reflection is not what you look like, but what you are like. What is your being like? The possibilities of travel can give you more than just a glimpse. As Pico Iyer suggests, be ready to be transformed.
“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” — Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness
I am reminded of the famous commencement address by the late David Foster Wallace, when he starts with a joke:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?’
Wallace goes on to discuss just how difficult it truly is to simply pay attention to something other than what he calls his default setting:
“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive”
When we travel we still see the world through our own smudgy filters. Yet it is essential to listen to Pico Iyer’s plea for us to slow down, to pay careful attention to what is in front of our eyes, and to get beyond the default mindset of me me me, as David Foster Wallace admonishes us. He wants us to realize, “This is Water.” “This is Water.” And he’s not just referring to fish.