With summer officially, finally upon us, when vacations and trips are planned and packed for, I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of travel.
Why do we travel? Why do some of us have a huge passion for gallivanting from one strange new land and culture to another, while others are content to stay at home and never leave their own town?
Despite long security lines at the airport to cram into our too tight economy seats and served a small bag of pretzels, we still can’t wait! At least I can’t. I love it.
Maybe driving to Sea-Tac airport is not as great as it was when I was younger, but it’s still exciting merging onto the Airport Expressway and seeing the jets on the tarmac from other countries. ANA from Japan, Lufthansa from Germany, China airlines from…China.
Even domestic carriers Alaska Air and United are still cool. Not so much anymore, but they still count. United serves better pretzels.
While I’m currently at home in the States, I’ve spent the equivalent of over a year living and traveling abroad with mixed feelings at times. On the one hand I’ve often felt the most alive, the most comfortable, living out of a backpack and exploring new places. It certainly beats my ass glued to a chair in my cubicle wanting to stab my eyes out with an over sharpened pencil.
On the other hand, after living in Japan for several months for example, I definitely felt at times like the proverbial stranger in a strange land. I had made no real friendships and didn’t speak the language beyond rudimentary words and phrases that would draw polite applause no matter how bad I butchered their language.
I didn’t fit in and I never would. As much as I love Japan and it’s people (I do have Japanese friends now, including my fiance), I’ll never be Japanese because… I’m not Japanese. I don’t think like them, I’ll never speak quite like them, I’ll never be them no matter how much I try.
So I don’t and that is fine.
They accept me for who I am, even if they don’t say so to me directly. Japanese are definitely opinionated people, but too polite in that way. I’m just now imagining of a cross between an in-your-face New Yorker and a very polite Japanese person telling me very respectfully, very nicely, of how much I suck.
And yet perhaps not fitting in is part of the reason some of us travel in the first place. A part of our restless spirit doesn’t fit in at home. Some part of ourselves is missing that we try to find abroad, no matter how futile.
Voyage, travel, and change of place impart vigor – Seneca
But still, why travel?
For me, I’ve found that it’s not the weather, the sights, the food, or attractions. Those things I see with my mind’s eye, maybe because of a book, a film, or the internet. Even though those are always the primary reasons I initially book my trips that are not business related.
When I return home and reflect on my travels, looking through hundreds of photos, it still never ends up being about those things, really; they were just the skin of the experience. It’s always something more on a deeper level.
The people you meet.
Not even getting to know the people, which is often (but not always) better, experiencing the kindness of strangers that don’t share your same language and culture is inspiring. To somehow still communicate and understand despite barriers and share in the human condition.
I got lost in Japan once. I had a day off from work and desperately needed some new socks. I was working in a town called Nagareyama in Chiba prefecture, just outside of Tokyo.
Picture modern suburbs surrounded by farm fields. It was late summer, hot and humid as a Finnish sauna. If you’ve never been, just don’t go to Tokyo in summer. Trust me on this.
Someone I worked with had told me about a small mom and pop store nearby that sold clothing items, but couldn’t give me an address. No worries, I could find it. A quest for socks!
Naturally I got lost instead, but I really didn’t mind. I was in no hurry and took my time exploring my new temporary town. I like architecture and what would be mundane to a native Japanese person was still pretty exotic to me.
Many Japanese homes have very beautiful tiled roofs. Cobalt blue is a popular color. Some houses are so close together you can jump from roof to roof like ninjas do in the movies, but I would be afraid to damage the tile. Even some fences have little pitched tiled roofs over them.
While looking for the store, lost and obviously out of place, an old man came up to me. He was hunched over and scrappy looking, old enough to be a World War II vet. He asked me a question but I couldn’t understand. I pantomimed something I don’t recall, something about clothes and he knew what I meant.
He smiled and gently grabbed my arm and took me for a stroll. He walked slowly, with a shuffle to his step from a bad leg. He spoke Japanese to me the whole time, not minding that I couldn’t reply with more than a nod and an awkward smile. Eventually we came to the store. He smiled, bowed slightly and walked away.
I watched him go, shuffling slowly back the way we came. I remember thinking that when I got home I hoped to someday meet a lost stranger and help them find their way.
I went inside and bought some socks.