As a vagabonder and a cultural guest, learn to pay back what you’ve received by spotting need and practicing generosity elsewhere (even with other travelers) as you travel from place to place. The Hungarians who picked me up hitchhiking in eastern Europe never let me chip in for gas, for instance, but their generosity inspired me to give twenty dollars to a Japanese backpacker who’d lost his money belt in Vienna. Odds are, that Japanese traveler was encouraged to pass on the goodwill elsewhere. Thus, even in an indirect way, try to give as much as you take when you travel — even if this means taking an attitude of generosity home with you.
You should view each new travel frustration — sickness, fear, loneliness, boredom, conflict — as just another curious facet in the vagabonding adventure. Learn to treasure your worst experiences as gripping (if traumatic) new chapters in the epic novel that is your life. “Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences,” wrote Bertrand Russell. “They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.”
On the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn. This is not to say that holding political beliefs is wrong — it’s just that politics are naturally reductive, and the world is infinitely complex. Cling too fiercely to your ideologies and you’ll miss the subtle realities that politics can’t address. You’ll also miss the chance to learn from people who don’t share your worldview. If a Japanese college student tells you that finding a good husband is more important than feminist independence, she is not contradicting your world so much as giving you an opportunity to see hers. If a Paraguayan barber insists that dictatorship is superior to democracy, you might just learn something by putting yourself in his shoes and hearing him out. In this way, openmindedness is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try to see things for what they are.
What most people consider “paradise” is defined in contrast to the stresses of home.
Vagabonding is less like a getaway caper than a patient kind of aimlessness — quite similar, in fact, to what the Australian Aborigines call “walkabout.” Culturally, the walkabout ritual is when Aborigines leave their work for a time and return to their native lifestyle in the outback. On a broader and more mythical level, however, walkabout acts as a kind of remedy when the duties and obligations of life cause one to lose track of his or her true self. To correct this, one merely leaves behind all possessions (except for survival essentials) and starts walking. What’s intriguing about walkabout is that there’s no physical goal: It simply continues until one becomes whole again.
In making reference to Aboriginal mysticism, I’m not suggesting that the goal of vagabonding is to become whole. After all, wholeness implies closure, and vagabonding is an ongoing process of finding new things. You can, however, recover and discover parts of yourself — psychic and emotional parts you never knew existed — as you travel through the world. And, as you do this, you’ll also leave behind aspects of yourself — habits, prejudices, even pieces of your heart.
People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.
— JOSEPH CAMPBELL, THE POWER OF MYTH
Travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines, and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself. And just as John the Dwarf had to “work in order to live,” this spiritual process is not always free of care. Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you “find yourself,” it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind — it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here, in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self.
More often than not, the most singular experiences of travel come in not finding what you’d hoped to discover. In The Snow Leopard (thought by many to be the best travel book of the last century), there is ironic joy in the fact that Peter Matthiessen never sees a snow leopard during his adventure in the Himalayas. Thus, robbed of a climactic moment, Matthiessen leads us into the simple essence of his journey: “the common miracles — the murmur of my friends at evening, the clayfires of smudgy juniper, the coarse, dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time: when I take my blue tin cup into my hand, that is all I do.”
I believe I’m just a pilgrim and a traveler on this earth anyway.
After all, hitting the road to get travel out of your system rarely works, so the best remedy upon returning home is to make travel a part of your system. One immediate reward of such an attitude will be how it instantly connects your home with the rest of the planet. Your travels, you will discover, have awakened you to parts of the world, and awakened parts of the world within you. Experiences and observations that didn’t quite make sense on the road will suddenly come into perspective as you once again become a part of your home community. International news about the regions you visited will resonate in a personal way — and you’ll come to realize how the mass media can only offer a partial perspective on other places and cultures. As you continue to read, learn, and think about the places you once visited, you’ll realize that your travels never fully end. Even in times of solitude at home, you’ll feel less like an isolated individual than part of a greater community of people and places, near and far, past and future.