Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Traveler's Curse

Whether it was the time I lived in a bookshop in Paris or when I saw the sun rise over Africa after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the stories I tell often give people the impression that my life over the last few years has been nothing but joy and excitement. And while the excitement bit may be true, as any experienced traveler will tell you, the journey has its own hardships that most people (myself included) don't tend to realize until they've done it. When I get that look in my eyes of longing for a place to settle down, even for just a year or two, I have a hard time expressing why such a concept is important to me at this point in my life. But recently a friend sent me a story he found online that I feel sums up these experiences really well. So, for your reading pleasure...

An old vagabond in his 60s told me about it over a beer in Central America, goes something like this: The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love, the more things you see. It drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that's perfect (we all know there's no Shangri-La), but just for a place that's "just right for you." But the curse is that the odds of finding "just right" get smaller, not larger, the more you experience. So you keep looking even more, but it always gets worse the more you see. This is Part A of the Curse.

Part B is relationships. The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. But the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them. Since all these people can't travel with you, it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate long term relationships the more you travel. Yet you keep traveling, and keep meeting amazing people, so it feels fulfilling, but eventually, you miss them all, and many have all but forgotten who you are. And then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you've seen, and you will always feel a tinge of loneliness, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more than they will want to hear them. The reason this is part of the Curse is that it gets worse the more you travel, yet travel seems to be a cure for a while.

None of this is to suggest that one should ever reduce travel. It's just a warning to young Travelers, to expect, as part of the price, a rich life tinged with a bit of sadness and loneliness, and angst that's like the same nostalgia everyone feels for special parts of their past, except multiplied by a thousand.

This resonated with me profoundly. Looking back on these last few years, I've experienced many of these same sentiments, though I would like to offer a few brief counter arguments. First, the author points out that the more places you see, the more you realize that no one place has everything you want. Fair enough point, but I would actually say, from my perspective, all of the travel has actually helped me realize what pieces of a place are the most important to me and what I can do without, what's important for a place to live and what I'm happy having only in the places I vacation. Travel, I would say, has actually given me a greater appreciation for the places that I love, New York top among them. Growing up in or just outside New York City, it wasn't until I started traveling that I fully realized what a special place it is.

The other argument I would like to make is a much less substantive one. I know all too well the pain that comes with saying goodbye to the incredible people I've met. I had to do it when I left Oxford, Cornell, Ghana/Google, and now, most recently, Cambridge. It's always a heartache, and every time it makes me want to stop moving around and stay in one place. The main argument I'd like to make, though, is that the Internet has allowed me to stay in touch with the incredible people I've met orders of magnitude more easily than it would have been just a decade ago. Granted I don't get to see many of my friends on a regular basis; in fact, sometimes it's months or years in between visits, but that doesn't mean those relationships aren't profoundly deep or important.

Finally, about the loneliness of not being able to share your experiences with others, it certainly is true, but there's also the fact that from time to time, you meet others in the same position as you, the other road worn travelers of the world, and those people become true friends almost instantaneously. It's something like nothing else I know that bonds people like the common experience of travel and all that goes with it. I've been lucky enough to meet some such characters in Nairobi, and to be honest, it's been one of the most important factors in my reasoning about potentially staying here for a few years. But alas, that's still a decision left to be made. Until next time...

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