Foreign travel done right leaves me a stranger to myself.
A warm Caribbean breeze blows through this Latin America town. The bright sun blasts off of the plaster white building next to our newer boutique hotel. With its front wall painted purple on the street, the tourists will always be able to find it.
Santa Marta, Colombia is considered to be the oldest Spanish city in South America. The crazy war torn days of Colombian cocaine cartels have ended, yielding a new boom of construction and tourism across this country. Here in Santa Marta, the weather has been dry for eleven months and the warm breeze of the Caribbean keeps everything at a perfect temperature.
The small cars and taxis honk their horns as they jostle their way through one way streets almost too narrow for sidewalks, laid out as a Spanish colonial town almost 500 years ago. Once in a while a small mule pulls a ragged old cart along. The motorcycle is the vehicle of choice here. Most can afford two wheels, the weather is typically dry, and you can lock it up inside of your house for the night.
My girlfriend and I had just returned from the jungle. We went off, a two hour drive to trek into the jungle with a tour in search of “The Lost City”. Our group of 19 was guided by a descendent of the Tayrona Indians who started building the lost city 1300 years ago high up in the mountains.
The final approach hike involves 2000 stone steps laid in place 800 years ago. It is so steep that horses are unable to climb the trail. Thus it was a refuge against the Spanish invaders for almost 75 years.
We kept up with the twenty-year olds on the trek. Its back for two nights of rest in the old colonial City. We speak a little Spanish, eat some great meals and tour a boom town undergoing massive transformation.
I love walking around the streets, eating the local food and getting around the best that I can with my limited ability to speak Spanish.
When I travel to an exotic land, I get to be a stranger. I don’t know the language. No familiarity with the fresh fruits, juices and meals. The smells are all new.
When I return home, if I am lucky, I won’t even recognize myself. Foreign travel done right leaves me a stranger to myself.
Its funny how much we invest in getting to know ourselves, to be confident and to have it all figured out. The funny part is that already knowing is a slow and certain death. To already believe that we are a certain way, that our lover is a particular kind of person and that we know how to navigate our life at work “successfully” means to lose innocence, naïveté and the ability to change perspective.
Creation is an art of not knowing.
Traveling to a foreign land lets me experience a strange culture, foreign language and a different way of thinking. When I return home, I will bring this new perspective with me. “Not knowing” is a gift of power given to me as I travel.
If I stay down here long enough, when I return back to the States, I am able to see my own way of living as an outsider. My daily life back home is what I call “normal”.
I can’t see the life I am in. A fish does not see the water that it swims in.
Similarly, when we are deeply involved in a love relationship, we can see the other person. We might even be able to see ourselves in the relationship. But, harder, is to see the entity of “the relationship” that has taken on a life of its own.
The deeper that we get into a love relationship, the more that we become woven into a fabric of what is real, what is important and what our options are—as a function of the relationship itself.
When we break up a deep love relationship, we have to rip apart the fabric of the reality—the world—that we have woven with that other person. What if we could see, discuss and modify the weave with that other person in a way that would improve and deepen the love to continue growing the relationship?
What if I could see, discuss and modify the fabric of the reality—my world—that I have woven to create “my life” back home?
The only way to be able to change my relationship with other people, with work, with money and with “my life” is to be able to see it from the outside as a neutral, foreign observer.
Travel to a foreign land grants you the power to return as a foreigner to your own life.
Many people from the states get a rare chance at a one or two week “vacation” at an exotic resort or on a cruise ship. These are sanitized versions of travel that let you take a peek at another country from a safe, arms length view.
But the kind of travel I am talking about here is immersing yourself onto the streets of a city. Ordering food made by locals for locals. Fumbling a few words of a foreign language. Bumping shoulders with the citizens as they go about their busy day at the market.
To the extent that your “tour” keeps you surrounded by other tourists speaking your own language and provides you the comforts of back home, you are not really traveling. It is good to have a guide. But that guide must lead you deep into their lives, their food, their streets and the rhythm of life the way that they live it.
Better to eat a few meals on the streets. Better to forge out alone even if you are lost for a while. Force yourself to negotiate your own way around the city and to stumble through a few words of the language by yourself.
We all travel in a bubble to a great extent. We all live within a bubble back home too. It is best to expand your bubble to get as close to the locals and their real way of living on your travels.
From what I have seen, very few people in the States actually do venture outside of their known world at home. Ever.
There are plenty of guide books that make it easy to travel alone with or without a friend. All trips can be done across a broad range of budgets. It takes some research, planning and some time. Mostly it requires a certain level of motivation to go out and do it.
If you have never traveled into a foreign land then you will have to take my word for it. You will never know yourself fully until you become a foreigner in a foreign land.
You will never know yourself fully until you return home with a small sense of having become a foreigner in your own land back home.
This piece was originally published in Teddy’s blog.
Photo credit: Teddy Herzog