Wednesday, February 4, 2015

7 Things Traveling Has Taught Me

You know the basic benefits of traveling: it broadens your perspectives, challenges your world view, makes you appreciate what you have.
Then there the less obvious lessons. Here are some of mine. Now, you don't need to travel to the end of the Earth to learn these things. The more evolved individuals have known them all along.

1. Time is not money

For most of us mortals, time is just time. There's a lot of it now, and a whole lot more where it came from. It's a renewable resource.
I was trying to cross into DRC, but the Congolese immigration officer wasn't feeling me. I didn't want to give up so soon and decided to wait and see what would happen. My time was dragging on in Bwera, that non-descript small town on the edge of Uganda.
There was nothing really to see, but I decided to see it anyway. I looked at the life around me. I stuck my head in all kinds of little shops. I watched Zakia the tailor sew skirts. I took pictures of the usual targets: kids and animals. At the tiny market, I admired fish, and browsed second hand shoes. Just to kill time, I tried on some dresses, imported from China. I didn't really love any of them but bought one anyway. I wear it from time to time and remember Bwera with a smile. Those two days had seemed so long. I'd felt like I was wasting my time - I had places to go! Of course, it was just a blink of an eye in my lifetime, and the memory of it is a pleasant one. I had time.
2. To get to the good stuff you gotta tolerate the rest

Travel plans play like a highlight reel in your head. In reality, there's almost always a lot of downtime. The less exciting stuff just didn't make the cut for the reel.
The whole point of going to Djemila was to see the ruins of a Roman town. Getting there was tricky: from Algiers, it took three different buses and lots and lots of time. Once there, the ruins rewarded me big time. After dark, though, there was nothing I could do in Djemila. I had no business roaming the streets alone at night. So, I spent the remaining hours in a bare hotel room. No laptop, book, TV, wifi. Just silence and solitude.
These days we're used to having a million distractions at our fingertips and I for one am a product of my time. As I'm writing this, I'm shuffling between news, newsfeed, Netflix, and random cat videos. Remove all entertainment and communication, and what's left? Just you. Do you like you? 
Rome in Algeria
3. Boredom is key

In Western culture, we'd rather die than be bored. We regard boredom as an ugly, unwanted feeling. I prefer to see it as a transformative state.
After a few weeks in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, I'd learned how to haggle with taxis, and freshened up my survival French. I had rummaged through sights and museums, been to some cool restaurants. Then the day came when I couldn't think of anything to do. I was just bored. 
I lingered in the house for the better part of the day. Eventually I put some shoes on and strolled to the end of the street, just to buy chocolate. I passed by the Lebanese supermarket, and the lady selling oranges on the roadside. The shop keeper greeted me. He knew what I wanted before I even told him. As I walked back, I realized I had become part of the neighborhood. I was no longer a traveler passing through.This was my place now, and there was a place for me here. My state of boredom had allowed my mind to go quiet. Finally, I could feel the place. From there on, Cote d'Ivoire started pulling me into its sweet embrace, loving me more and more.
Dodo and I
4. You are not lazy, you are traveling

The other reason we fall apart at the face of doing nothing is that we equate productivity with self worth. Not doing anything? You're lazy and useless. But the juice of any experience is in the feeling, not the doing. Truth is, we are worthy human beings without having to do a damn thing. Those voices in our heads insist we should be productive all the time, but our voices are louder, and we can tell them to shove it. It's surprisingly hard, even for a lazyass like me.
In Bahrain I met a female US soldier. She'd spent her twenties on different navy bases, saving up her money. Now the end of her stint was getting near, and she dreamed of going traveling for a year. She totally deserved to take a break and explore the world after working throughout her youth, right? Not so fast. 
"I don't know if I could travel more than a couple of months. I'd probably feel guilty for not working for that long." 
An unemployed Bahraini camel
5. You are not a friendless loser, you are traveling

In a new place, by yourself, your mind can start playing tricks on you. Loneliness has a way of creeping up on a solo traveler. You've got to keep it at bay, and be stronger.
There aren't many times I've felt as out of place as I did in Marrakech. The whole situation was bizarre. I had intended to leave Morocco, but then a bellydance contract in Tunisia suddenly came up. It would take two weeks for my work permit to be ready. I thought I would just hang out in Casablanca, but quickly realized I couldn't stand the city. In an unprecedented move, I booked myself a week-long stay in a four star hotel in Marrakech, thinking it would be relaxing and comfortable. That was hardly the case. Naturally, all other guests were families or couples. Sitting alone at breakfast was awkward, with a lineup of overly helpful waiters watching me and rushing to refill my coffee cup the second it was empty. Every day I bodyblocked cleaning ladies from entering my room. Had they seen my dance costumes, the whole house would have known I was a hoochie mama bellydancer. Was I in Marrakech alone because no one in the world loved me? No. Did I feel lonely and pathetic? Yes. Did that deter me from traveling alone again? Hell no.
A happy day in Assilah, northern Morocco
6. You are not the same bitch everywhere you go

In your own environment, it's easy to be your best self. I'm sure you are nice. I hope you feel safe. All is normal and so are you.
I'd like to think the same about myself. But this is not the only version of me. Take away my ability to communicate, or put me in a place where I'm given loads of unpleasant attention, or I have to worry about my stuff or my ass being grabbed, and I'm not that nice anymore. The defense mechanisms that come out under duress are not pretty.
I try not to judge myself too harsly for being a bitch on demand. The way I see it, part of the travel deal is accepting the uglier, equally real sides of myself.
In India I was no yogi - I was a screamer. From what I'd come to understand about South Asian culture while in the Gulf, and by my everyday observations in India, aggression was the law of the land. Stay polite in a conflict, and you'll be eaten for breakfast. 
I was handpicked by my agent to do a show in Kurukshetra, Haryana. A significant Hindu pilgrimage site, with a holy pond and temples - the boss knew Kurukshetra was right up my alley. He gave clear instructions to the driver and the middleman who would take me there: "No temple, no dance." 
The sun was alarmingly low as we neared Kurukshetra. The middleman turned to face me. 
"I don't think we have time to see the temple...the client is calling me." 
I knew we were in no rush - he just didn't feel like giving me a tour. I immediately turned up the volume, and threatened not to dance. For him to take me seriously, calm and polite wouldn't cut it. The middleman called my agent, who (loudly and impolitely) backed me up. So I saw the pond and the temple, and even got some nice footage for my documentary. I only got back in the car once it was totally dark. At the show venue, I still had to wait for several hours before dancing. As we all knew I would.
Brahma Sarovar, a holy pond
7. Seek and you shall find

Whatever we believe about the world is true, because our beliefs shape our experiences. Are most people good or bad? Is the world dangerous or safe? Are people happy or unhappy? Whatever you're leaning towards, the proof is never far. We simply zoom in on what we want to find.
As much as I can, I choose to see the good. In some places, people will warn you about thieves, for example. I don't then focus on the thieves. I zoom in on those people who care enough to warn me. They are my sisters, my brothers. In my life, they outnumber the bad guys a hundredfold. They help me find what I need. They defend me, they keep me safe. Anywhere I go. Every single time.
Mustafa, Hanan, and Najib took me under their wing in Somaliland