Monday, December 31, 2018

Out of My Shell: Why Travel Is So Important to Me

Not a world traveler
It was 1983. I was 19, but a young 19: emotionally immature, extremely sensitive, inexperienced of the world with my knowledge and outlook shaped by the small Ontario town in which I was raised (which in those pre-internet – and, in Brighton, pre-cable TV – days meant a rather insular worldview, even for someone as well read as me). Sure, I’d spent one year at university in a city of about 200,000, but since I didn’t live on campus, I hadn’t really met anyone due to my natural shyness.

I chose this particular stage of my life to take my first overseas trip. I was headed to the Netherlands to visit my first girlfriend, a Dutch girl I’d met when she spent a few months with her aunt and uncle in my area. She’d gone home to the Netherlands and I decided I wanted to visit her, even though we had formally “broken up” when she returned and I’d been seeing someone else. So I borrowed some money from my Granny and headed off to Europe at the end of my first year in university.

It was a horrible trip. A day after I arrived – just when I realized I still had a ton of feelings for my supposedly ex-girlfriend – she informed me she didn’t love me anymore. My poor pathetic heart was broken. I was there seven weeks and, aside from a few day or overnight trips within the Netherlands, and one two-week hitchhiking trip through West Germany (with a day trip to East Germany), Luxembourg, and Belgium, I did little other than sit in her little town and mope. And that two-week trip alternated between a couple of fun times (getting hammered in a beer hall in Munich, going to the Grand Prix of Belgium in Spa), some interesting tourist experiences (seeing the Berlin Wall, visiting Neuschwanstein Castle, traveling the length of the Mosel River), and a whole lot of soul crushing loneliness, particularly as the idea of speaking to someone who didn’t speak English when I didn’t know their language absolutely paralyzed me. Tellingly, when I think of that trip even now, the memory that first jumps to mind is invariably spending an entire train ride staring at the grey German skies and crying. (Of course, having spent a considerable amount of time in Germany since then, I now realize that staring at grey skies and crying is the basis for most German literature.)

Fast forward to 2017 and my first trip to Japan. I’m there alone: in Tokyo, the world’s
World traveler
largest metropolis, a throbbing, bustling, wild mix of the ultra-modern and the ancient where understanding the transportation system requires an advanced degree in astrophysics; in the Kii Peninsula following an ancient pilgrimage route with bear warning signs and bells; in the Japanese Alps in traditional villages and inns where I’m often the only non-Japanese. I quickly learn that my months of studying Japanese via Rosetta Stone were a waste: I did not have the right vocabulary, and aside from a couple of moments, no one spoke English. In other words, compared to the 1983 trip, this should have been even more isolating and lonely.


Instead I had a fantastic time. I winged it with smatterings of Japanese and lots of hand gestures. Using Google Translate, I was even able to get my host’s bike repaired in Kyoto when I had an accident (heavy Japanese street bicycles not being known for their ability to climb curbs, as I learned about 0.5 of a second too late). I wandered into hole-in-the-wall bars, packed ramen joints, and traditional shabu sbabu restaurants, and somehow got by.

When people ask me why I like travel, I tend to spout the standard clich├ęs: I love to see how other people live, to try different food and drink, to gain a tiny understanding of another culture, and, yes, to visit all those museums and see the beautiful buildings. Those statements are all true, but they’re not why travel resonates so deeply with me.

It’s far more personal: travel makes me realize how far I’ve come.

That shy, often fearful child/teenager/young adult, that boy who wouldn’t ride rollercoasters, who could never ask a girl out, who was afraid of his own shadow, whose diet was restricted to about 30 foods, who went to Europe when he was 19 and had a rotten time, that person is now able to land just about anywhere – by himself, with perhaps a minimal local vocabulary – and survive. In fact not just survive but thrive, to learn about the country and culture, to bargain, find his way around, and try foods often with no idea what they are.

In my day-to-day life, I am at times still held back by deeply rooted bonds of fear. These somehow disappear when I travel. Not only that, but I often feel better about myself. The things I don’t like about myself – my impatience, short temper, a tendency to be judgmental – mostly disappear.

There are other things that can create the same feelings – hiking and backpacking come to mind – but these activities involve shorter periods of time and are more focused. Travel is a big, sprawling and occasionally scary and frustrating thing. The challenges are greater (for me) so overcoming them makes me feel that much stronger. 

 Now I just need to pull that confidence into my regular life!

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