Traveling Far to Understand What is Near
Traveling ranks high among the best learning opportunities available. Crossing borders, oceans, and cultures naturally broadens our horizons as we are forcibly pushed out of our comfort zones. There is an excitement that stimulates our learning when confronted by new sights, sounds, and smells. For the traveler on vacation, the goal is often to fill the schedule to experience as many once in a lifetime moments as possible.
However, that is not necessarily the approach of the most seasoned of travelers, the travel writer. They do not book their journey just looking for the most unforgettable, highest rated local attractions hoping to find something different. They know that their past experiences (books read, places visited, relationships developed) will help them find meaning in their new ones.
This means they must balance the need for planning with providing ample space for the unexpected to happen. In many cases it is the willingness to indulge in the random appearance of an unplanned encounter that provides the greatest insights into what is unique about a particular location.
The other counterintuitive approach is to build time to do nothing. More productively, this means reflecting on your experiences. This is not so much about processing your new surroundings as it is thinking about your life “back home.” In experiencing what is new we are often able to more clearly confront our most enduring challenges and gain perspective to understand our internal struggles.
Robert Kaplan writes widely about foreign affairs and travel and his research takes him all over the globe. His recent book, Adriatic, takes a travel writer format as he retraces his steps from journeys very early in his career. He captures the historic perspective and current developments along the Italian coast, through the Balkan nations, and ends up on the Greek Island of Corfu. He combines his appreciation for the region’s literature and art, his interactions with common people and politicians, and his own observations to describe a part of the world he believes will be increasingly important in international trade and politics.
However, he occasionally interrupts the description of his external environment to share how these experiences are influencing his innermost thoughts. The nature of travel often provides times where there is little to do but wait for the weather to clear or for your next appointment. Kaplan is wise enough not to wish those times away but to take advantage of them and explore what his travels are teaching him.
He writes, “I travel to recover my sense of self, to be alone with my contradictions, to know tangibly how they are not really contradictions, at least not to me. … Of course, I am not all that unique. We are all obsessed with self and want therefore to be understood.”
We usually return from our travels (especially those that take us to faraway places) more exhausted than rested. We are energized when we can relive the highlights by sharing photos or telling stories about the amazing scenes, unforgettable people, and travel nightmares. But if we are intentional, we also come back with a rediscovered self and a new perspective on what we return to.
T.S. Elliot famously said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” It is the experience of exploring both our external and internal environments that help us connect our past with a better future.
To solve our biggest problems requires us to see things differently than when those problems were created. Innovation requires us to take on the role of a traveler. Seeking out the new, different, and at times confusing when we leave the comfort of home. And like the seasoned travel writer, we must carefully plan our trip but also build in time to engage the unexpected. Equally important, we need to lean into the moments of solitude and waiting that reconnect us to ourselves.