I’ve been traveling in the Philippines and Indonesia for about twenty-five days, but it feels like much longer than that. As per usual, time curiously expands when familiarity and routine are exchanged for novelty and daily choose-your-own-adventure games.
The distinction between weekdays and weekends, one week and the next week, ceases to exist, and in that removal of partition one recognizes the loss of a certain cyclic quality. When the events of each seven-day period remain largely the same in structure from week to week, there is a sense of recurring compartments—static boxes that constitute the form of one’s actions.
We are, to varying extents, free to rearrange the content—of our workday periods, other-obligation periods, nighttime leisure periods, weekend leisure periods, etc.—but the recycling form that we’ve agreed (or not agreed) to imposes constraints that inevitably motivate us in certain ways—e.g. using the weekend as a kind of compensation for “fun” lost during the work week, or seeing one’s demanding workday as justification for vegetating in front of the TV every evening. Even our “vacations” from full-time employment are inescapably structured. They are typically not long enough to feel perpetual (I’ll be traveling for four months, and right now that seems an eternity), and they also usually end up jam-packed with scheduled activities as we frantically try to maximize worthwhile experiences during our precious sabbaticals.
In long-term travel (and presumably in other kinds of unemployment or self-employment) these recurring forms disappear. This is at once liberating and terrifying. Suddenly every day is radically free of obligation and distinctly memorable—the sheer volume of new experiential information encountered each day utterly dwarfs that of a typical day in a familiar place, and no two days resemble each other in the way that successive workdays resemble each other. This effect is further augmented by the constant dramatic changes in one’s environment, with each new scene and place and ambience being tremendously, inexpressibly, and at times overwhelmingly foreign, depending on where you’re from, where you’re traveling, how quickly you’re moving from place to place, etc.
A Chicago native road-tripping to all of the major US cities won’t find much that defies understanding or exhausts his information-processing capacity because his predominant map of existence—life in a US metropolis—has a significant amount in common with the new locations, locations which he may already know secondhand via media images or other descriptions. Days will still be notably more memorable because they will be markedly more different from one another than days of routine, but the amount of new experiential information won’t be as dizzying. By contrast, a small-town Iowa kid (i.e. me) traveling through developing Asian nations constantly encounters various sensory data, physical environments, natural phenomena, and cultural happenings that defy expectation and prior understanding, sometimes to the point where I cannot possibly comprehend the spectacle or rigmarole passing through me and around me. My cognitive powers quiver, and I simply feel awestruck or dumbfounded.
These veritable floods of novelty become less frequent and less intense the more one travels. For example, living in Busan, South Korea for 8 or 9 months rendered the idiosyncrasies of Osaka, Japan more digestible when I visited a few months ago, and the obvious economic disparity of the Philippines and my home country, though troubling, is not as jarring as it might have been, due to the time I spent in Cambodia in January. Nonetheless, I’ve still encountered mountains of novelty these past twenty-five days, and it’s all of that novelty that has made certain days feel heavier and more intense than certain weeks of being a university student or teaching English in South Korea. The sheer volume of new shit—constant nuanced feelings and moments of clarity and confusion and unorthodox intoxication that accumulate into a swirling nebula of complexity—that is suddenly a part of me and also incommunicable to anyone who hasn’t done this is brow-furrowingly outrageous and also, I think, the reason people like to do this traveling thing. For what is unspeakable. For the all-too-much.
Drenched in Experience
Of course, I enjoy attempting to put words to inarticulable experiences, if only as a writing exercise, so I’ll attempt to characterize the “all-too-much” by describing various moments and feelings during my first few days in the Philippines that resulted in a veritable flood of novelty:
Hearing a couple of familiar foreign words and realizing that many Spanish words were integrated into Tagaluk—the national language (along with English) and one of ~111 languages spoken here—because one day Spanish colonizers showed up and decided to stick around and impose their culture onto these people for 300 years; feeling that irreversible imperial truth and wondering what it “means”. Undergoing a similar lightbulb moment upon seeing rosaries and crucifixes in every taxi cab and knowing that Christianity prevails here because of the Spanish colonizers. Having an underprivileged Filipino kid approach me in a small town on a tropical island, recognize that my name sounds like “Michael Jordan”, and proceed to mention LeBron James and Justin Bieber; appreciating the frightening reach of mass media in this hyper-connected age, balking at the reality that my home country once fought a war here and forcibly ruled these people and is now a great money-fed engine of cultural products that are fetishized and consumed by those we once directly oppressed. Grimacing at how sinister we in the “advanced” West have seemingly historically been. Wondering at these and dozens of other inarticulable issues and pseudo-questions about power imbalances that never become more than pause-worthy impressions.
Feeling the basic urge to just smile at people, to somehow communicate that I see human faces and human lives and not some exotic tourist attraction, that I don’t put myself on a pedestal, but then feeling undermined by and slightly guilty about the fact that I’m carrying an iPhone and Macbook that few here could ever hope to afford, sensing that disparity of economic power. Feeling undermined by my perceived inability to truly empathize with life-situations that have been so vastly different from mine, trying nonetheless. Feeling undermined and oddly self-aware and uncertain sensing that my Western appearance and garb make me an object of resentment for some, admiration for others, and probably a combination of those for many more; knowing that because of all sorts of messy historico-political reasons, I’m seen as representing something of envy, or as a pair of deep pockets from which to extract money, or as a thousand other nameless things that make it nearly impossible for me to be perceived as an equal, a mere bone-and-blood human, what I ideally wish myself to be (or tell myself that I do).
Feeling wonder and gratitude at the outpourings of kindness from most everyone and the wide-eyed curiosity, laughter, and gleeful shouts of “hi” from the children. Snorkeling in tropical waters, seeing the alien environment and fragile ecosystem that exists parallel to this foreign human culture, observing dozens of vibrant and bizarre species, losing myself in the observation, mesmerized by the physical proximity to these other Earthly beings and by the surreality of actually being here and actually seeing the truth of these ethereal sea-dwellers. Feeling these and innumerable other things that words can only pitifully characterize, feeling many things at once, blinking, scanning. Feeling that “posting” a few photos on Facebook as a way of “sharing” this experience is a laughably inadequate gesture—akin to throwing a dictionary at someone as a way of sharing a new language.
The Strange Anxiety of Travel
Experiencing all of this is magnificent and exhausting. One gets the sense that the bits and pieces that one is able to put into words and process intellectually pale in comparison to the magnitude of shit that has been intuitively or unconsciously integrated into one’s worldview, and that those latter things yet pale in comparison to the magnitude of shit that one has overlooked, or that is simply inaccessible. This can be an anxiety-producing experience—this realizing that there is far more to grasp and think about and “get a handle on” than one can ever hope to. It’s not unlike studying philosophy or science, in that all are avenues which, if vigorously pursued, demand that one admit that one does not know or control an iota of what one might wish to know or control.
The state of being awash in novelty is at once a great reason to travel and a peculiar challenge. Combine it with other travel-mainstays like lost tickets, hostel searches, scam avoidance, constant solicitations, dark streets, flight-hopping, etc., etc., and there’s a decent amount of anxiety that can come with this lifestyle. After just eight days of traveling in the Philippines I was overcome by a feeling that this bite-size bit of traveling had already presented me with more raw feels and vibes and experiences than I could process. I felt like I wanted to go home and let it all sink in. But I can’t do that, I thought. I’ve got months to go. The duration terrified me a little bit. So much has already happened, and how can I deal with a hundred times more shit happening, and not much has gone wrong so far but how many things could go wrong in all of this newness ahhhh . . .
This anxiety—which I would characterize as “novelty overload”—presented a psychic challenge that I’d not previously navigated, except perhaps early on in South Korea. When these concerns sort of bubbled to the surface in the Philippines, I felt weak, honestly. Here I was on the “trip of a lifetime”, freer than ever, doing the thing I’d looked forward to doing for the past year, and feeling scared of how big and free and new it was. #firstworldprobz, right? I slept on it.
I walked out of our cottage the next morning, saw haze-enshrouded mountains rising from the emerald islands of that gorgeous bay on Palawan, and felt calm. I started writing this piece, and the familiarity of the writing process felt cleansing and refreshing. Maybe I’m weak. But actually I think I’m just human, and I think long-term travel is misguidedly romanticized as a utopian venture devoid of trouble and concern. It surely is not that, but it is pretty damn cool. As I write this, now three-and-a-half weeks into my journey and sitting in the colorful neighborhood of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, my minor travel-panic in the Philippines seems quite far away. For the past 10 days or so I’ve felt remarkably rhythmic, having seemingly internalized the beat of this travel thing and submitted to its flow (though who can say what’s to come).
In a college poetry class I once wrote that “familiarity breeds discontent”. I still think that aphorism holds true, especially if you happen to be one prone to adventure, one who craves novelty. But the stars are always brighter on the other side of the galaxy, or something. I mean—if there’s one thing to learn from an experience of “novelty overload”, it’s that familiarity, consistency, and long-term community do deserve a place on the mantlepiece of human values. There’s beauty and worth there, and as I continue to stumble around this planet, I will ideally integrate both familiarity and novelty into a lifestyle that allows me to move fluidly between the extremes of homebody and vagabond and all states in-between, savoring the fruits of each distinct mode (a fool can dream, right?). For now, it’s time to sleep. Tomorrow I fly to Singapore.