August 21, 2012

Reflections on the (Dis)Comforts & Solitude of Travel. ~ Thomas DeVito

Photo credit: Thomas DeVito

There is a joke going around Facebook these days: “How can you tell who’s a vegan at a dinner party?”

The answer: “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

As a non-vegan, I admit that I find the jape amusing. It’s a jab at a lifestyle that I don’t really understand and perhaps find a bit dilettante (after all, you don’t often hear of vegans in the developing world).

But as a traveler the edge of the joke cuts me, too.

In terms of getting from place to place, the mettle-testing business of trekking for months through mud and rain and raiders is long past. These days, the worst that most of us endure is a two-hour delay on Heathrow’s tarmac. And heaven forbid the Wi-Fi goes out when that happens.

Still, there are few lifestyles more self-referential than that of the modern globetrotter.

Like veganism, the travel bug often becomes an integral element of its possessor—-so much so that its very “being-ness” is easily confused with ostentation.

Travelers frequently talk about how their experiences abroad have enriched their lives and I have found many of the most common refrains to be true enough. Jokes about veganism aside, I feel that I am more tolerant, more open to new experiences and more empathetic because of my time abroad.

I feel my knowledge of global politics and global events has been strengthened. And I believe I’ve made friends with whom I will stay in contact for the rest of my life. But it would be wrong to say travel hasn’t caused some strains, as well.

It’s an odd adjective to use, but the rarefied air of your standard youth hostel (and I’m not referring to the smell) is not a reflection of reality as experienced by most people. Back home, I occasionally find myself holding back in conversations, anxious not to come across as “that guy” (you know the type, the one who superfluously interjects a story about Egypt into a discussion of football).

“That guy” is annoying. He really is. Though I imagine a lot of travelers understand his particular tic. The truth of the matter is, we’ve probably all been him (or her) at one point or another and had to endure the awkward, tolerant silence of our friends and colleagues who—reasonably—have a difficult time relating to our tense encounter with a deformed camel.

Thus, many of our stories are relegated to a conversationally ambiguous limbo, okay to bring up on occasion, but with the caveat of “not going overboard.”

Travel, then, has a wonderful ability to expand horizons, while at the same time somewhat isolating those who partake in it.

Ibn Battuta said, “Travel gives you a home in strange places, then it makes home a strange place.”

For many returned travelers, navigating once familiar terrain is a constant struggle. Some are better at it than others and I’m probably worse than most.

The point here isn’t to sour people on the idea of travel. While it’s true that travel can impart a certain burden, I believe that it simultaneously provides the tools to overcome it. Dealing with isolation—in small doses—is probably worthwhile in itself.

It leads one to find a certain satisfaction in solitude and to feel pride in one’s own individuality. And as important as this is generally, it is doubly so in an age of social network-driven alienation. They say true loneliness is most pronounced while in the company of others; and today, through Facebook and Twitter, we are constantly in the company of others, even while we feel less and less connected to them.

The experience gained from travel may help us acquire the distance and thus perspective necessary to appreciate that everybody takes a different path in life and that “winning” and “losing” are terms that rarely apply.

Such a perspective, I have come to believe, is a necessary precondition for us to feel genuine happiness at the joys of others, instead of bitterness or jealousy. This realization isn’t only accessible through travel, of course, but I think that it provides one such road to it—and it’s a road with exceptionally beautiful views.

Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has traveled to over 30 different countries and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. Thomas also writes at Mission.tv.

Editor: Jamie Morgan

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