It is hard for us Americans to step outside of our country. Some will say it is because we are closed-minded, nationalistic, or ignorant, but outsiders often take for granted the great distances involved in North America. From my home to the nearest international border is thousands of miles, and besides, there is a lot to see right here– deserts, mountains, jungle swamps. There is no Chunnel to whisk us away to a foreign land for a weekend getaway, no fifty Euro airfare to Prague.
Which is all the more reason why any American should do the hard thing and just go. At least go once.
Somewhere a young person is calling this advice shenanigans. For it seems that every time some fool suggests the importance of travel, people roll their eyes, assume that this bit of ridiculousness comes from the mouth of a spiritual phony, a well-to-do snob, an heir rich and lucky enough to view the world as their playground. They will assume you are bragging of your privilege.
You can get paid to travel, but this article is not about that. It is about how you should just go.
Having children is infinitely more expensive and time consuming than going abroad for a while. And yet, no one rolls their eyes at expectant mothers. There are no accusations of privilege for fathers to be. Perhaps people find a way to do the things that are meaningful and important to them, no matter the financial obstacles, driven forth by the desire to fill some greater purpose.
So, if you find that you have no purpose, do this one thing: travel alone. If you live in a western, first world country there are very few obstacles to doing so. It simply involves aiming your life in a particularly scary direction for a little while.
This is not about gathering your buddies for a weekend in Cabo, but the measured practice of being horribly alone in a frighteningly unfamiliar place. You won’t be alone for long. You will find people on the way. You will pick them up in this place and put them down in that. Some you will keep forever. This never happens if you travel in a group or with a significant other. You never grow or learn when shielded by the comfort of familiarity. This is about tossing off that warm blanket in the most forceful way possible. Save your money. Buy a ticket to a strange place. Go there alone. It is the one of the best things you can do for yourself.
You will come to respect that loneliness, and it will inform your life ever after. A much clearer picture of the world and its nuances is apparent only through loneliness of the kind you can receive in a new place— unaffected as you’ll be by the small world which exists between known entities, able to embrace the broader view of what is to be seen and felt. This lonely strangeness, once cultivated and familiar in its own way, is a beautiful feeling. At the very least a beautiful memory. It is a thing that doesn’t leave when you return to your life.
Traveling alone will also give you a different attitude towards mankind. Misanthropes like myself will know how concrete of a struggle it can be at times to reconcile yourself with the nature of people and your place within the womb of humanity. Nothing lays this struggle as bare and naked as going to a foreign country alone will. All social niceties and customs will be foregone in your case if you are obviously foreign. A clean palate for human interaction is your reward. You will be at a loss for so many ridiculous things we take for granted: small talk, body language, pop culture. Even the very landscape may be as inscrutable as the men and women that have grown from it. You realize that there is more in the world that cannot be known, more that is indeterminable yet finite, irrational and comfortably so.
It reshapes your biases. People tend to uniformly put forth the notion that travel to foreign countries will always and absolutely make you less biased. My thinking on this is different. Going out alone in to the world can, if one isn’t careful, confirm your worst misgivings about the human animal. However, at its best travel will force you into confrontation with your pre conceived notions about humanity. It is one thing to be a xenophobe when you live at the end of a dirt road in rural Mississippi, quite another to stand in a bazaar in Phuket and quietly reassert to yourself that you just don’t trust brown people. The latter is an enormous challenge while the former is quite simple. In such a way travel pushes us towards who we are destined to be, good or bad, open or shut in our ways and methods of seeing, our pathways of thought.
Go alone through strange country, rifle through strange records and hear the lapping of alien tongues. Let it do its odd things to you. Let it brings out what is already there in you — anger, alienation, fear – and magnify your problems, your unsuitability, the things that make you dubious to and of the rest of mankind. Let your shortcomings be marked and put on display, exhibit your faults to yourself for the first time. Enjoy the most brutal of therapies. Do it deserted and friendless. Be a stranger. Stagnate on that tropical island watching the men unload fruit, it will teach you that you are stir crazy, a restless man whose problems aren’t real, that your issues all arise like phantoms from a mind that makes it impossible to sit quietly in a hammock all day. Walk through an East Asian village, let it teach you that you have always felt like an awkward outsider who everyone really is staring at, like a person on the edge of some great warm campfire of humanity that you have never been invited into somehow. In Eastern Europe you will learn that the rest of the world doesn’t give a fuck about American, feel good, PC culture and that not everyone is equal by default. There is no one waiting at the end of it all to give you a pat on the back and a participation trophy. But dive in anyway. Baptize yourself in the reality of it all: your whole life has been a product, a fantasy, a construct, and you are a result flavored by all those things. The language you speak and the clothes you wear, even the way you walk gives you away as someone not of this place, a stranger. And yet, buried beneath the many layers of sediment there is something at your core that is inexcusably human, connected, a person that really is sitting inside that ring of light, that warm campfire with its smiles and drinks and songs, that is absolutely steeped in the universal beauty and value of mankind.
Go out and learn about the communal loneliness of the world, if you haven’t yet. It will do you good.