There is this moment on my Ha Long Bay cruise. Skipping the start of dinner, I go to the lower deck to just soak in the view without having to feel self-conscious about whether or not I should be talking to the other passengers or whether I should be admiring the bay. Anyway, alone down there, it’s spine-tingling — the last light following sunset dims out in the clouds and shades the rock formations into gradients of gray, charcoal and finally black. These rock formations, the product of rising oceans flooding mountain peaks at just the right height so that almost 2,000 limestone monoliths labyrinth the bay like nature’s sky scrapers, ensure that Ha Long Bay will never betray you if someone decides to verify your claim that it was “breathtaking.” But there is something else to the moment other than the view, something about the way I feel about this moment that is bothering me.
The problem is that there is a discrepancy between what the moment is and what I wish it is. For all the peace, solitude and majesty I’m provided, this moment is not special and I desperately want it to be.
That moment in Ha Long Bay wasn’t special to me because I knew that at that same moment, on the 20 or so boats around me, hundreds of people were doing the same thing. I knew that the right to gaze upon moonlit water was based solely on my ability to pay money and use a Lonely Planet. And I’ve sat through enough sunsets and peered from enough vistas to know that the inspiration for contemplation at these places isn’t from the beauty of the view itself, but is just a natural product of taking a moment to sit and do nothing. You see, that moment wasn’t special because its existence was completely independent of anything related to who I was and it wasn’t going to do anything to change who I become.
It might sound silly, but for a long time, I believed that traveling made you a better person. It’s seemed to me like an inevitable consequence of binging on new experiences would be an accelerated growth and maturation curve, because after all, isn’t that where wisdom comes from — experience? For me, through travel, you could meet new people from far away places and that would give you new perspective. Watching how some of those people lived could be humbling. Trying new foods and visiting cultural and historical sites was at its very least an opportunity to learn something that you couldn’t at home. Even the logistical aspects of travel that are often so exhausting — getting directions, finding a place to stay, haggling, miscommunicating, losing belongings — that all seemed to serve a purpose in character building and skin thickening.
But as travel experiences have piled up, I’ve now found myself in a recurring formulaic storyline where I’m just substituting the name of the country, the type of person who lives there and the tourist attraction that brings me there. As I’ve gained experience, I find less novelty in the new experiences I encounter. Lately, I’ve found myself seeking these moments of “authenticity” (see this post) and experiences that are spontaneous, unreplicable and unique. But on reflection, my emphasis of these qualities is predicated on a desire for exclusivity and implied superiority in my travel stories. And you know what, goals like those are born out of insecurity and I have better things to be insecure about.
I guess where I’m going with this is that my perspective on life has changed a lot over the last four years, especially in regards to life experience. I remember an embarrassing moment during my medical school interviews when the Cornell Admissions Dean asked me what I thought was the most important quality in life to making a successful person. I, midway through a year in Korea ripe with new experiences, said with full confidence: life-experience. The guy laughed in my face and I didn’t understand why.
The way I understand life now is that every moment of every day contributes to the construction of who you are, whether you’re waking up on a Tuesday in your apartment to go do a job you’ve been routinely doing for many years, or if you are waking in Thailand to go find your way around the major city temples. The benefits of travel seem so obvious because they act so superficially by filling this bottomless pot called “experience,” a process that’s enjoyable and accountable. The daily grind, while lacking glamor, works more insidiously and its impact operates often below the radar of awareness. Qualities like “piety,” “ardor” and “discipline” don’t have anything to do with the originality of the experience. Whether one is “better” than the other depends on where you are in life when you pose the question. With the novelty wearing off from traveling, it’s becoming clear to me that I’m getting rapidly diminishing returns on my experiences in these foreign lands to the point where I’m losing faith that they are still there.
Most of this trip, I’ve had this knowing feeling that this will be the last time I travel with a belief that it is anything more than just a vacation. Part of it is knowing that life’s obligations will be waiting for me when I get back to the states with handcuffs, waiting to take me toward the land of full-on responsibility and adulthood. But part of it is all this other stuff that I’ve talked about, and because I still want to be dynamic as a person, it means that strangely enough, I need to just go home now and stay there for a while.