Windows on the World
To travel is to discover oneself; but there are many ways to do so, and while all of them help us recharge, just a few lead to deep connection and insight.
Joe Baum was among the great American restaurant innovators. He was the first to develop themed venues, and the first to hire the top designers of his day to bring them to life. His legacy includes The Four Seasons Restaurant, home to the most consequential, high-powered and storied lunch on Earth, the famed Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, an interior funded by David Rockefeller himself to the tune of $25 million, and Windows on the World — a sprawling complex of restaurants atop the world’s tallest building, where diners could sit, god-like, surveying the world far below. In its final year of operation, before terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers, where it was located, WotW pulled in $37 million — more than any restaurant in the nation.
Yesterday, the words ‘Windows on the World’ popped into my head, which was a bit odd given I hadn’t been there in decades, and I was neither thinking about food nor about New York. What I was dreaming about was travel in the context of where I had just spent the weekend, and somehow those four words emerged from the recesses of my consciousness, supplying a metaphor for how I personally feel about what it means to travel; why I relish doing so; and how starkly those ideas contrasted to where I had just been.
So these thoughts have frankly nothing to do with a storied restaurant, but for its name, and everything to do with exploring the demographic, cultural and geographic diversity of the planet.
‘Windows’ are really thresholds to something outside of ourselves. They are frames; glimpses. ‘The World’ implies supreme connectivity. So in a very real sense, Windows on the World is a wonderful way of describing a form of travel in which connections to far-flung, exotically different people and places can — in the right circumstances — lead travelers to shift their perspectives, not only about the planet and its people, but also about themselves.
Said another way, to travel is to discover oneself.
But windows are not that easy to find; and surprisingly, few people who do find them actually take the time to peer inside, let alone dive through them.
Vanilla and Chocolate: Travel Extremes
As a child, every time I expressed a particular viewpoint or preference that my mother didn’t share, she’d say, “Well, that’s why we have vanilla and chocolate,” implying that it was okay to disagree, and that opinions were no more than personal preferences; that is, they didn’t establish a hierarchical “right” from “wrong”.
It was, like so many other things she provided, a great lesson.
As with ice cream, everybody’s travel ideal is unique, and is shaped by a number of criteria. One’s disposable income, and corollary priorities with regard to spending hard-earned cash, usually bracket the discussion. One’s comfort level — self-trust, really — for perceived safety and risk, related to nations as a whole, and even routes within any given place, can open or close swaths of the world to us. One’s curiosity about the unfamiliar, or ‘exotic’, guides how deeply we engage when we do venture out, as does one’s inherent adventurousness. Then there are the reasons one travels, which run the gamut, from trophy-chasing selfies at one end, to total cultural immersion at the other. Once we do make the commitment to uproot ourselves, one’s appetite for moving around — vs. staying put — determines the breadth of our exposure to a place and a people, beyond what is convenient, or close by. And finally, one’s level of imagination with regard to conceiving and planning something legitimately different from one’s everyday existence is perhaps the limiting — or window-opening — characteristic that sets all other criteria in motion, and ultimately primes the permission we give ourselves to explore the world, in all its flavors.
So just last night, I just returned from spending two days, for the first time, in an area of rural Ontario colloquially called ‘cottage country’. The term ‘cottage’ is a bit of a misnomer. Up north, anything with four walls and a roof is called a ‘cottage’. Many ‘cottages’ I saw would be called mansions anywhere else, or estates, summer homes, or retreats. Most of the ones I saw featured entire houses, floating in the water, to protect the owners’ boats. In fact, as we first motored past them, I naïvely told my wife how cool I thought it would be to live on a floating house like the ones we were seeing. I got very animated by the idea of this new archetype, until she corrected me, and told me that the buildings I was extolling weren’t in fact ‘cottages’, but boat shelters; and that the places where people slept were somewhere inland, where one would expect to find them.
They were suddenly less cool.
But anyway, Muskoka (and Parry Sound, Kawartha, and Haliburton — collectively called ‘cottage country’) is the epicenter of the annual ‘cottage migration’, in which 210,000 full-time residents welcome 2.1 million visitors every year, swelling the population tenfold. The migrants hail primarily from Toronto, but also come from elsewhere, and have either bought or rented a lakefront home for the entire four-month, snow-free season, in order to spend weekends — or, during the pandemic, the entire duration — in isolation of one another, idling, boating and BBQing. In ‘cottage country’, I learned, many people have a Muskoka room — an uninsulated semi-outdoor space sometimes wrapped in vinyl in lieu of glass windows; and everyone, nearly without exception, has the same namesake chairs. Not only that, most of them buy them in the same color, too: red. And finally, I learned, it is very popular in Muskoka to talk about other people’s Muskoka rooms, Muskoka chairs and boathouses.
This entire scene reminded me, more than a bit, of when I lived in Hong Kong. Back in 2003, Burberry shoes suddenly became a thing; and within weeks, every single woman I saw on the street, if they could afford to, sported a pair. I’d never seen anything like it. No one seemed even remotely interested in wearing something else. Their behavior apparently conferred some form of ‘in-group’ credentials, and not just many, but most people seemed to want this — to be like everyone else. Back then, I didn’t know Muskoka existed, and that it was a travel-and-real-estate form of the Burberry shoe thing. What did come to mind back then, in Hong Kong, was a particular one-panel installment of a cartoon called the Far Side, in which a single sheep, seen peering over a sea of white fluff on its hind legs, front ones thrust upward, is overcome with a flash of insight, and yells, “Wait! Wait! Listen to me! We don’t HAVE to be just sheep!”
It was like that.
The phenomenon of doing the same thing as everyone else, a two-hour drive from home, year in and year out, stands at one extreme of travel. When everybody does the same thing because everybody does the same thing, which somehow manifests as an unspoken understanding that everyone should do the same thing, or at least doesn’t question whether or not they should always be doing the same thing, it may well be pain-free and relaxing, as it must be in Muskoka, because it’s frankly beautiful there with all the lakes, and I fully understand how it attracts people; but I’d never call it travel, or consider doing it repeatedly in my rare time off, because there is too much left of the world to discover — too many windows to peer into and open up, on the way to knowing.
I travel, as anyone who knows me has heard me repeat ad nauseum, to open my eyes to difference, and thereby — through experience of the unfamiliar, and occasionally frightening — gain insight. They know this, because I am constantly referencing travel in conversations, photography and writing. Traveling has greatly informed my understanding of the world and its people; and with every trip, I find more and more unique ‘windows’ through which to peer, and develop increasing levels of confidence to actually do so. When I travel, admittedly, I don’t sit still. It’s not unusual for me to spend a two-week holiday driving 2,000 miles in a car, dragging others with me to visit often hard-to-reach places that most tourists never see, and which therefore remain blissfully un-touristy; which creates an opening for me to glimpse what it is that people do when they’re not mugging for tourists. And while most people would consider this form of travel exhausting (I have spent many twelve-hour days rattling across unpaved roads, with co-passengers overcome with nausea), the payoff never fails to charge my batteries, and I return, always, wide-eyed and renewed. Nausea notwithstanding, those I travel with do, too.
There is something fundamentally life-altering about the discoveries we make when we stick our necks out beyond the known, with an open mindset. Doing so has the capacity to shift our perspective deeply, and can lead to exponentially richer dimensions of knowing, insight, and connection.
Dr. John Vervaeke, Ph.D., is a psychologist and cognitive scientist from Toronto, and one of the world’s foremost experts in education. To Vervaeke, a complete education requires an ‘ecology of practices’. He cites four types, or dimensions, of knowing: procedural — that is, knowing how to do something, like tie your shoes; perspectival — that is, knowing one’s place in the world, in the context of experience; propositional — that is, linguistic, fact-based knowledge that we are taught; and participatory — that is, knowing through creative interaction with others. Traveling creates the potential for us to augment all four dimensions of knowing. When we travel immersively, we learn procedurally by engaging in unfamiliar acts; we expand our contextual understanding perspectivally, through the mirror of others; we are taught propositionally, as a result of our communication with people unlike us; and we connect and cohere participatorily, through creative interaction — something my friend Michka calls ‘bridging’ over differences.
One cannot do these things if one does not place oneself in situations where the potential exists for them to emerge, or blossom. Wandering deep into the unknown is the best means I know of for doing so; our senses are blown open, and we become pure sponges in unfamiliar territory. This primes us to absorb the way we did as children, before we labeled and slotted everything, and therefore stopped paying attention to it; that is, while we were still in a pure process of discovery. And judging by ongoing conversations I’ve had with fellow travelers — those who explore the way I do — they all seem to derive a similar energy boost and expansiveness as the one I described earlier. At the very least, for a certain subset of them, it’s a frequent topic of conversation; and one can see it in their eyes. Moreover, since knowing lasts a lifetime, the afterglow of a trip during which one’s worldview has expanded will remain undimmed for as long as he or she lives — far longer, and brighter, than the rejuvenation of a trip to a familiar place, or equally, to familiar types of establishment within a new place.
How Deep to Dive?
A metaphorical lake provides us with options. We can stand on the shore looking at the water, and take in its visual beauty. Alternately, we can stand at the water’s edge, feet in, and only then understand its temperature. Yet another option is to take a swim in it, and in doing so, experience its current, and feel the power of the wind to move, and crest it. And finally, we can plunge into a lake’s depths to touch bottom, in the process of learning how deep it is, and along the way, even discover what lives beneath the surface. As an additional layer of complexity, there are many, many lakes in the world, each one different from the next. That’s because each one is an ecosystem — a confluence of forces that cannot be replicated, nor understood, until one explores them.
Travel is no different. There are levels of knowing, here, too. We can revisit the same place, close to home, inhabited by familiar people, food, customs, culture and nature. Alternatively, we can drive or fly somewhere else, and stay in hotels we know, eat familiar foods, and visit cultural institutions that our friends have seen, and told us it were worth the effort. Bucking the trend, we can stay with a family we’ve never met, learn a bit about how others live and act with one another when they are not busy trying to sell us something, in a form of cultural exchange. And finally, we can wander off-grid entirely, without bold-faced destinations to check off our lists, but primed with an openness to discovery — of people and places — in order to unearth unscripted and unscriptable moments; and in doing so, not only create new stories, but share new experiences that can bond us to one another in friendship. That’s because the experiences we share with another person draw us closer together — at least for a while. If, however, what we have shared is powerful enough to have expanded our knowing — and in the process, our consciousness — then what we share can in fact bond us for life.
It all sounds like a mouthful. But for anyone who has been on the receiving end of such experiences, they become true orienting points in one’s life — windows that open up other windows.
The Hermit and the Nomad
In a way, the range of experience and participation I’m describing can be framed by the image of ‘the hermit’ at one end, and ‘the nomad’ at the other. While neither is inherently good or bad, they certainly lead to very different perceptions of the world. At one extreme, hermits are by default more fearful of ‘the other’, because in being sheltered, they have no exposure to difference, and therefore any reasonable means of understanding or assessing it. Certainly, a limited exposure to others consequentially limits our experiences, which in turn makes us feel more comfortable in the company of people who are like us, and in contexts that feel familiar.
When one travels to an alternate version of home, close by and with familiar food, customs, people and habits indulged, one’s world view does not expand. In this manner, travel is no more than a diversion — an indulgence. It teaches nothing. When, by contrast, we hoof it into the unknown like a nomad, tossing ourselves into unfamiliar situations, with people whose life stories bear little resemblance to our own, we engage in wide-eyed exploration that can imprint itself deeply in our minds, there to become context for new connections, and insights.
And while I’m describing literal travel, I could as easily be describing metaphorical travel — a journey inward. When we insulate ourselves against an unfamiliar internal landscape — our self-knowledge — we stunt our own growth; whereas when we ask ourselves the hard questions, venturing into the unknown recesses of our own character and mind, we invariably bump up against difficult situations and unfamiliar terrain, where with the right mindset, training, and commitment to expanding our world view, we can come to know ourselves more intimately, and in the process, become more insightful, and thus powerful.
That’s because there are two sides to every window: that which frames our internal world; and that which connects us to one another’s. When we take the time to look through one, open it up and connect two environments, an entire universe opens up, within and between us.
To travel immersively in unknown territory is, therefore, to open up windows onto the world. Because so many of these exist, it means that with each one we unseal, another piece of the planet and the people within it comes into view, allowing us to become connected to it. The more of these we open, the less of a barrier remains between our inner and outer worlds. At some point, conceivably, we can have done this enough to dissolve the illusion of boundaries — or duality — and become one with everything and everyone. At that point, I believe, we stop seeing difference — only connection.
Ignorance, contrary to the adage, is not bliss. Rather, it is an impediment to knowing our place in the world — to our core sense-making. So while ‘vanilla’ trips help us feel warm and safe as we ensconce ourselves in our cabin in the woods — the one with the beautiful view — only ‘chocolate’ ones help us to realize that we don’t need a house to feel that way, that the landscape is in fact not just more expansive than we thought, but also immersive and multi-dimensional, and that ‘out here’ we can find ourselves among ‘the others’, and establish a home without windows.