True Travel Isn’t What I Thought
Travel isn’t about the discovery of difference, however exotic or unscripted. It is a bilateral process of discovery—internal and external—in an act of bridging worlds. This is a story about how I found that out.
Marcel Proust famously wrote:
“The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred different pairs of eyes.”
It is an astounding insight. When I read it, I recoiled, because it struck a nerve, and I realized I may have had it backwards all this time. Like his provocation, I have indeed been to nearly a hundred different lands, and have long considered myself an expert traveler. That is, I am rarely happier than when I am in foreign territory, senses tingling on high openness to new stimuli as I absorb the unfamiliar, rapt by it all — by the limitless beauty that teems on our own tiny galactic orb. Right here, on Earth.
Grasping at Insight
I am not your typical traveler. I walk into strangers’ homes, uninvited, like the Indian swami’s in Jodhpur, or Tina and Raudel Jr’s home, in Havana. I strike up conversations with people whose lives I have just interrupted in doing so, in an attempt to draw some form of connection with those unlike me, and to capture them, on film. I have convinced Hmong women sitting on a roadside in rural Northern Vietnam to share the lunch they carried, carefully wrapped in banana leaves, offering only a ridiculous pantomime in return. I wonder if they still laugh about the strange foreigner who connived their meal of frog and sticky rice as they sat that day, watching the world go by.
I have endeared myself to a bunch of Cuban teenagers by out-pushup-ing them while they strutted like roosters, showing me their vigor. It was only then that they finally let me photograph them. I did so drunk, after having ‘bought’ my way into a dominos game on the street just minutes earlier. There, a dozen men made me take the first tumbler-sized shot of the bottle I’d bought them at their request, as my ‘ante’. And I have stumbled upon a school for the dalit — the Untouchables caste — in Northern Rajasthan, where I fell in paternal love with a child named Sahiba; and to which the next day, after three hours spent in an attempt to retrace my steps to find her in the urban labyrinth, I returned to ask the schoolmaster if I could adopt her. (She had family that loved her. I learned that day about my own Western conceit.) So I did penance by changing my trip to stay another day, so that I could spend my Western dollars on every pencil, pen, watercolor set and paper I could find there, then returned to offer them as a gift to the students gathered in that beautiful abandoned temple. I knew that this school was the ‘end of the road’ before they entered a life of indentured servitude, and felt helpless to change that outcome; but arrogant enough to believe I offered a potential solution.
What a world. What a mind.
It is a miraculously complicated one. Or, said better, human beings are incredibly complicated. Nature, by contrast, is complex. Complexity is richness. Complicatedness is cultural mess.
I convinced myself a long time ago that my brand of travel was a great method of broadening my own world view, to include people and experiences I knew nothing about prior to these encounters. That to travel, as such, was to build not only context for my own understanding of the world, but more importantly, it was to build empathy — love — for more pieces of it, animate and inanimate, than I hitherto knew.
This, at least, remained true.
More insidiously, I convinced myself that this made me a better traveler than those who board airplanes with their giant suitcases — entire swaths of their home lives — then slip into taxicabs to reach their cruise ships, or resorts; extensions of the homes they left, conveniently floating, or recreated, to deliver soothing familiarity. If not cocooned in their staterooms, then in their Four Seasons between trophy meals, and to ooh and aah at the marvels of the ancient world: the pyramids, cathedrals, tombs, artifacts and streets that litter a sprawling hominid history. The spoils? A scarf; a carving; a story; a week’s worth of Instagram feed; a clever t-shirt.
Most travelers are fearful. They are fearful of what would happen if they didn’t know where to go; if they turned down the wrong street; if they missed something on others’ must-see list; if their phones ran out of juice, precluding them from snapping am arm’s-length selfie to prove that they’d been there — that they’d witnessed.
Travelers often feel guilty even before they even deplane: that they represent a kind of affront in their relative wealth, in stark contrast to people in some of the places they go; and thus, in their privilege, to be traveling through a place with such ease, viewing locals on bicycle, or toting hay on their heads as they walk, or half-naked, their bundled children unable to swat the flies on their faces, or wipe the mucus from their nostrils… that the true embarrassment is in how easy life is for us, and how difficult that same life seems to be for a large number of human beings.
That conceit itself betrays our own biases — that the definition of a good life is in how far we can separate ourselves from subsistence, and instead fill our lives with Netflix, Amazon Prime and Uber Eats.
You know — to make it.
And so, most of us limit our exposure and potential discomfort when we travel; and just as soon as we’ve had enough entertainment for the day, we retreat to our Egyptian cotton sheets and continental breakfasts, and check in on social media, to share.
I have seen enough people with nothing in enough places that I am convinced they are happier than most people with everything, myself included. What matters is how we live the life we are given — not with what.
James Carse puts his finger on this beautifully in his book Finite and Infinite Games. Of how most of us travel through the world, he writes:
“Machinery is veiling. It is a way of hiding our inaction from ourselves under what appear to be actions of great effectiveness. We persuade ourselves that, comfortably seated behind the wheels of our autos, shielded from every unpleasant change of weather, and raising or lowering our foot an inch or two, we have actually traveled somewhere.
Such travel is not through space foreign to us, but in a space that belongs to us. We do not move from our point of departure, but with our point of departure.”
He goes on:
“If effective, the machinery will see to it that we remain untouched by the elements, by other travelers, by those whose towns or lives we are traveling through. We can see without being seen, move without being touched.”
Of course, he’s speaking of travel in a car. But the same could easily be said of taxis, drivers, cruise ships, tour guides, specialized clothing, our phones, a wad of cash, and even sunglasses. These are all forms of protection from risk — from vulnerability. They all put us at a comfortable distance from overexposure to what is unfamiliar, or even potentially unwanted.
Said another way, they all prevent us from actually seeing, or being, where we are: in the same physical place as a local resident. Not that we, as foreigners, could ever be local.
I thought I was beyond all of this, as a photographer of otherness. An off-gridder. A confident wanderer and ‘buttinsky’. A carry-on virtuoso. A finder of the unusual. An open-minded human. A creative.
But my very station in life — privileged, a traveler, a foreigner in foreign lands, exposing myself to as much or as little of it as I wish, like turning a tap on or off — meant that wherever I went, I was just like the traveler on a cartoonishly offensive cruise ship.
Proust’s quote shifted that view for me. It’s true: I may have dipped a toe in some different or atypical experiences, while abroad. It’s also true that they may have opened my mind to new modalities of living, and cultures, whose lessons remain with me, as fodder for creative acts, and as stories to tell. But at the same time, their lives remain nearly as inscrutable to me as to any other foreigner, as an outsider.
So what of travelling inward? What would that look like? What did Proust mean, exactly, in suggesting the difference was within us, not without?
Seen with that lens, it turns out I have traveled.
When I was in thrall of my mid-life crisis, just five years ago, I was depressed to discover that I had painted myself into a corner, with my choices. I suddenly saw the floor on which I’d been laying down thick layers of pigment, for years, only to realize one day that I didn’t like being in that corner. I missed the rest of the room, and the ability to move about, within it — or even to switch rooms. On the one hand, I was grateful for a strong career, and a daughter who brought me a unique joy. I stood there, metaphorically looking at all that paint, and wondering whether if I’d known years earlier that I’d be standing there, stuck, would I have made different choices?
I was convinced the answer was yes. I was now the victim of my own successful choices: those that resulted in a great career and friends, a city I loved and a precious daughter I could never get enough of. And now I had to live the life I had made for myself. It was agonizing to know that the only person I could blame for where I was, was myself.
What was missing was deeper. It was as though for all the external successes, something was off, internally.
I fantasized for months about giving up my career, grabbing my cameras, hightailing it to the African continent, specifically, and recreating some version of Alexandre and Sonia Poussin’s odyssey. They walked from Capetown to Cairo and beyond — taking years to amble, by foot, through an entire continent: without money, unaided by anything apart from the kindness of strangers. It was a kind of self-flagellation: of rejecting safety, and giving oneself over fully to the world, whatever it yielded. You know, what Proust said. Perhaps they even knew it. They were French, after all. Their two-tome, 14,000-kilometer record, Africa Trek, loomed large in my consciousness, ever since an Algerian engineer had gifted it to me on the banks of the Nile, while we talked about a project we were designing together, nearby, and which the Poussins had passed, near the end of their transformation.
I thought, perhaps this was my salvation: a chance to finally scratch the itch I had to lose myself in another world, in order to rediscover myself.
The problem, it turns out, is I had a daughter who in the interim had become the center of my universe. I couldn’t abandon her. I needed her.
So in a panic, I had a flash of insight one day. If I can’t leave to see the world, perhaps I can discover it in my own back yard. New York City contained a subset of the entire planet in its boundaries. The term ‘melting pot’ was birthed on the Lower East Side, to describe the richness of human variety there. There are over 800 languages spoken in the city, reflecting the cultures from which they sprung, on their way here.
So what if I spent a year, or two, finding these people, and attempting to gain access to their worlds, at home? Would that not deliver on Proust’s observation about seeing with new eyes? Would that not change the very city I’d called home for 20 years already, fundamentally?
As it turns out, it did. It opened my eyes to the incredible richness around me; of other travelers who also ended up here, in a place they weren’t born. So I took my cameras, and spent a year and a half exploring neighborhoods: temples, parades, community centers, commercial arteries, festivals, barbershops, eateries… wherever life centered for a community is where I went, to discover it, led by the excuse of my lens. As a photographer, the lens has always been my source of courage. I am not given to confidently approaching people ‘cold’. So in my personal desire — for whatever reason — to capture something authentic about others in the act of photographing them, the camera always pushed me beyond my comfort zone.
I crisscrossed the city — all five boroughs — every weekend for a year and a half. In the process, my understanding of New York City — my city — transformed. I did not become Hindu, or Liberian, or Sikh in the process. I did not become a scholar on any single culture, or suddenly develop insights about how the city works, for everybody.
But what did happen is that the eyes with which I see the city fundamentally changed, in a few ways. First, a Sikh walking down the street, or driving a cab, now seemed familiar. On many occasions, I’d ask if they knew the Gurudwara in Richmond Hill, in Queens, where I’d attended a Ghallughara Dihara (Day of Genocide) event, by luck. Each year, Sikhs memorialize the storming of Sikhism’s most sacred shrine, the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar, and the ensuing loss of life. Invariably, they all know that particular gurudwara. And in finding out that I have spent a day there, and witnessed a piece of what they held sacred, a small bridge is built between our worlds.
That’s just one example, among countless others. Taken in sum, New Yorkers now all seem more familiar to me, because I have glimpsed worlds about which I knew nothing — nor even, really, about my own ignorance.
Other experiences I had on the way to discovering my own city followed a similar arc: with Liberians; Puerto Ricans; Chinese; Hindus; Russian Jews; Jamaicans; Bolivians… and with countless other populations that call New York home. And so as I walk down the street now, or ride the subway, I see my neighbors and their cultural signifiers differently than before I ‘traveled’. They are not less dissimilar, but more familiar in their difference, because I’ve seen them in a context that supports their authenticity and practice, whether it’s ritual behaviors, the foods they eat, the shops they frequent or the communities they’ve built, in creating a piece of their homeland on foreign soil. Now, everything seems just a little less foreign.
New York City is now different from before I traveled it. And in it, I have seen much more of the world.
The poet Walt Whitman once wrote:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”
We all contain multitudes. We are more than the sum of our experiences. Instead, we are all — whether or not we are aware of it — in the process of discovering ourselves. We have an inner landscape as rich as our outer one. And each external experience brings with it an opportunity to learn more about oneself.
Many of us either ignore this dimension of living, or curtail it; or, are oblivious to the gift that our experiences deliver us, as insights yet to be unearthed, if received in the right frame of mind. That is, opportunities to uncover a little more about our own multitudes.
Life as a journey is, more than anything else, I believe, about discovering oneself, for which our experiences operate as frames, or triggers, to use in the act of self-knowing. Seen this way, travel, then — at home or abroad, lavish or modest, protracted or brief — opens two sets of doors. It opens external doors between worlds; and it equally opens doors within us — to our own internal landscapes. When we bump up against something unfamiliar in the outer world, the emotions that arise from the act offer clues to our own nature, as well as to that of others.
So as Proust laid bare, what matters most, when we travel, is the eyes with which we see, not the distances we cover. Travel is a psychological journey, I’d argue, more than it is a physical one.
This is where the nature of our travel — the choices we make — begin to matter.
When we encounter the familiar — a Hyatt; a McDonald’s; a gift shop; a tourist menu; or any other form of commercial or cultural similarity to the world we inhabit daily — we remain as blind to it as we do in our own back yards. We are on autopilot, mostly, because we can be. Nothing in the experience forces us to pay attention to it, and thus it is of little value.
It expands nothing.
At least, when we force ourselves out of our comfort zones into the unfamiliar — linguistically, culturally, experientially — we enter a liminal state in which choices have to be made that we likely can’t ‘phone in’, but to which we must pay attention. And so most of us, when we travel to so-called exotic places, for their dissimilarity to home life, do enter a process of discovery. At least, we discover something about other people. The depth of those experiences is guided only by how open we are to that process, and how far we travel from our internal ‘home bases’, in the interactions.
True travel is more than the sum of new adventures, had, around the world, and discoveries made that build bridges, and expand context. It is the combination of discoveries, both external and internal, that deliver on travel’s promise. To travel is to explore and unearth more about oneself, in the process of discovering one another: our hopes and fears, yes; but more importantly, our inner narratives — the very identities we’ve built for ourselves, and through which we act in the world. The world, from our own neighborhood to the hinterland, is an infinite landscape in which to lose oneself, only to find out who we really were, all the time.
When we do this often enough, through enough of our “hundred different pairs of eyes”, we emerge with the kind of insights that let us act powerfully in the world. Because there is nothing more powerful than a human being connected to the pulse of the world, and in sync with it.