Chris and I were walking East on 42nd Street from Grand Central, soaking in the throbbing pace and the humanity and the endless steel of New York City. It had been two years since we had walked those streets. They seemed tame. Two years on bicycles in the boonies and cities of Asia had made sure of that. We had seen the wonders of jungles and deserts, cycled the insanity of Indian Cities and the vast emptiness of Central Asia. We had endured nights below freezing at high altitudes, sicknesses out of the reach of hospitals, the annoying grind of being with the same person 24 hours a day for years. It had been marvelous and terrible, all consuming, and now it was over. Now even the backslaps and applause were over, and ahead of us was an empty road, to be filled with whatever our optimism could dream. We were talking about Africa.
“Think about it, Chris. We could walk this time, from Liberia to Mozambique. It would be so far out. We’d hit all kinds of different cultures and challenges, and it would be damn hard—it would totally top Asia!” I almost had to shout over the pedestrian rush hour and car horns.
Chris’ shoulders tensed up. He was getting excited. “I think we could expand on the video diaries we did, make a whole series out of it. We could do more features, too, now that we’ve got the contacts to place them.”
Chris dodged an aproned man hawking free newspapers. He leaned back into me and looked up expectantly.
“It could work.” I replied, and bounced on my heels.
“Alright, man. I like it. Let’s sleep on it and meet with a few more editors, and then we’ll come back to this.”
We walked in silence for a little while as we watched the city, weighing the options, contemplating the loneliness of it, dreaming about the adventures. I wanted to go again. I wanted another fix of that thrill, the open freedom that only life on the road can give you. It didn’t matter that I’d only been home six weeks—I missed it. But there were alarm bells in my head. That the vast opportunities of New York, all its ambition and speed, all the empires real and imagined, had only passing interest, that was strange. Where was my ambition, once the burning ember of my soul? I wanted nothing more from the city then to be an amused spectator of the rat race, and it gave me the sickly sense that the hardest part of the trip was yet to come: re-entry.
In America, the notion that we travel to find ourselves is a cultural institution. We believe that the post-grad year abroad, bus hopping and hosteling and exploring and drinking will offer us insight into ourselves. This idea is annually reinforced with best selling travel books like Eat, Pray, Love or Wild. It’s so ingrained that friends wait with abated breath for coming home parties, waiting to look into their traveller’s eyes to see the dull glimmer of change, to see if they have found some passion or spirit or discipline that they did not have before. Travelers do the same in their reflections in the pupils of others. All squint into the disappointment.
The problem is that travelers have not yet understood what they learned. Travel is a destructive process. One can find a lot of wisdom and new friends and knowledge in foreign lands, but never themselves. That’s the point. Alien experiences make us challenge the ideas and cultural pillars upon which we have built our lives. From the rubble of our old ideologies we build something better, and in this process we change, improve. Travel brings nothing if we don’t lean in to the grind of return. It is useless if we don’t use what we learned abroad to nourish relationships with our families and friends, if we don’t come back and provide something of value to our community.
I couldn’t articulate that ten months ago, but I grasped it, and so did Chris. We were sitting in in my tiny apartment on 1st street, and I said,
“Chris, I can’t do Africa.”
“It doesn’t feel right. I have to stay and face the music.”
“That sounds a little melodramatic.”
He was on a plane to LA two days later, and then I was alone in New York, and the darkness settled in. It wasn’t melodramatic. The coming months were harder than I thought for both of us.
I’d go to drinks in bustling village bars with friends and be overcome with a seething hate of what they had become, careerist and successful and the embodiment of competent ambition. They would have to run early to meetings or conference calls, words that made my throat explode with bile. People noticed my antipathy and got weird. How could I tell them that they weren’t getting it, that you get more when you stay longer, when you take the time to talk and observe? How could I tell them that I had discovered the true meaning of the moment? That I had lived in it, lived for it, and the colors shone brighter and the very air was sweet with the pleasure of spontaneity, and that my soul was at rest, for it accepted any of the infinite possibilities of the next moment as equals. I had found that, and they had not, and I wanted to make them accomplices in the reliving of that sensation. But they would have none of it.
It was a hideous, selfish few months, which tapered into a more endurable few months. Time floated. There didn’t seem to be any direction for me, no clear passion or path. I floated, slinging pricey french food at a Greenwich bistro in the evenings, and in the mornings I’d sit and write about my journey and marvel at the exoticness of it, of what fun it was. It took everything I had not to leave and travel again. Somedays I’d wake up and stay in bed dreaming about Burmese Monasteries of the Tibetan plains, willing myself to buy a plane ticket for that day, to anywhere far, anywhere I’d get the rush again.
I didn’t leave because fear outweighed desire. I feared that I’d never really be able to satisfy the wanderlust, that I’d always be off on crazy adventures with visible deadlines, dashing off to the next project before I’d had a chance to build real community. I knew that I’d lose my friends at home in through my disdain and my absence. Most haunting were the jaded eyes of the travelers that had been gone too long, no spark left, the ones that could sit on the Kumla pass and look into China and Tajikistan from the height of a jet— and think not of the beauty, but where they’d go next.
It is the one year anniversary of our arrival in Shanghai. My heart is home now, and the flashes of urgency to leave are mostly gone. But I still carry what I saw and felt like a fortune of gold, valuable and a heavy burden to carry. It can only become lighter as gifts to my friends, whose paths I must accept and hug them for. The longings to be abroad still come, just not the desire to act on them. I don’t think that will every go away. But while the time for grand new adventure will come again, some years down the line, I know that I have to turn to a whole different kind of adventure first, right here at home. Now is the time to build, to apply what I learned and saw.
What I saw, looking back, was that great common denominator of mankind—the desire to be accepted, to be loved, to feel safe in bosoms of kinship. Part of my desire is selfish: the loneliness of travel and its return makes me crave that warmth now more than ever. But part of it is also duty, for I have been given a truly spectacular gift of perspective. If I cannot strengthen the foundations of my friendships with it, leverage it into community, then it may be that I didn’t learn very much at all.