On the evening of September 2, 2014, I was in Seattle sitting on my sister’s sofa crouched above my over-stuffed 75-liter backpack. The weather was cold for September, I remember that. The windows were shrouded in typical Northwest drizzle and on the wall hung a chalkboard bar menu from a party a few weeks before. Evidently, the event had been a classy one, and her roommate could make drinks I had never heard of (I was only 20). In the kitchen were the adhesive chess-board floor tiles we’d spent the last two days installing; her idea of a good time. I suppose in hindsight that it was a fair goodbye present considering that my own parting gift had been forty-eight hours of advance notice that I required her couch. Seattle was the cheapest place to fly from, after all, and did she have some tips about South America? With my one-way ticket to Quito, Ecuador in hand I left the next morning and bought a travel book in the airport. While waiting to board I booked a hotel near the airport for a night and made a note to practice some Spanish before I arrived.
Four years, four jobs, a few dozen cities, and one college transfer later I’m here at NYU Shanghai. Basically, for short trips I still travel the same way I did that first time, with no preparation other than friendly recommendations and finding the cheapest ticket options. For longer trips however, I see things differently. It didn’t take very long meandering the Gringo Trail to realize that deepening my understanding of foreign places wasn’t going to happen in the hostel bar with zero preparation. I say that like it was an obvious revelation, but it took a couple years, really, to solidify as a value in traveling globally. Last year I managed to incorporate work into travel and when I decided to transfer (read: return) to school, NYU stood out because it was an opportunity to live somewhere radically with intention, purpose and structure.
Besides having obviously visited a lot of international McDonalds, Pico Iyer also nails my sentiment on thoughtful traveling: “epiphany can follow movement as much as it precipitates it.” Initially we may be launched from home by novel thought, yet later novel thought follows us. It demands more of us, geographically and personally (and that doesn’t just mean more places and ‘self-help’). It’s true that the (dare I use the term) global citizens I look up to leverage geography (physical, human, literal) to grow and “search [for] better questions.”
De Botton and Des Esseintes also get to the essence of something inarticulate, yet blurrily present in my own past: that we take ourselves with us wherever we go, despite our best efforts. I love the line: “[my] body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination.” The recollection of De Botton’s own experience (and, to the extreme, his description of Des Esseintes’) border on genuine health disorders, yet many I’ve encountered abroad are seeking to escape themselves in the same way. It’s a wake-up call to find that we are everywhere we go. There are also the many blessed or cursed with a disinterest in such questions – I’ve often been jealous.
Sitting in my hotel room on the first night in Quito, staring at a blank journal that I planned to start writing in daily after my first jaunt around town, I escaped myself for a moment. In that escape was, somehow, a glimpse of myself. I took a twenty-hour bus trip through the cold desert dawn. I almost drowned in the Peruvian surf with an over-ambitious friend. I fell in love in Cusco. I was attacked by dogs in Callao and yelled at the waves in Colombia. Eight months later I returned home and felt that my road to personal growth had truly begun during the escape from self that started in Quito. It is the paradoxical recognition of self through loss of self which I still strive for today, in this current journey: Shanghai.