One month ago I stepped off the plane at SFO, greeted by the blustering rain of a proper winter day in California – the kind of day that feels like a rare blessing in this drought. The damp smell, the chilly wind and the flush of bright green on the hillsides told me I was home. When my old subaru pulled up to the curb with Ian and Pixie inside, my heart welled up with joy. After lots of hugs and wags, a decadent breakfast at Blackberry Bistro and a hike in Redwood Park, I went home, threw my bike in the corner and crawled into my own bed for the first time in nearly four months.
In the days and weeks that followed, I pinballed through no less than five Christmas dinners (three with Ian’s various family factions, two with my own), one road trip to Seattle, one sick dog ordeal, one plumbing ordeal (we were without sewer for a week!), one moldy closet ordeal, one record-breaking New Years Eve hangover (I’d forgotten that I cannot drink champagne), and a full-time, temporary job that started January 5th – all the while reconnecting with loved ones, my stuff (I have so much stuff!) and the modern consumer economy.
And people think I’m crazy to go riding my bike across Asia? My regular life is the crazy part!
It’s such a classic human cliche. Throughout my travels I was homesick, lonely and afraid of all the things I didn’t know or understand: Am I on the right road? Will I find a hotel before dark? Why are they looking at me like that?
Now that I’m home, I’m nostalgic for the simplicity of traveling life and afraid of all the things I know too well: my bad habits, my complicated relationships, the sheer impossibility of getting everything done, of not letting anyone down.
All month people have been asking me, “How was your trip?” Neither they nor I are satisfied by my answer. My mind races, trying to come up with the right words, to explain how it was. I start talking, but their eyes have already glazed over, moved on.
Maybe the reason I don't have a good answer is because my trip was just like my life — difficult, thrilling, frustrating, serene, ridiculous, boring. At times, the solitude and cultural isolation felt like a cage I was trapped in, with no easy way out, with only my rattling thoughts for company. If getting home had been any easier, I probably would have given up long ago. In those moments, there were only two options: keep pedaling, or find somewhere to drink tea and read Game of Thrones until the mood passed. Thank you George R.R. Martin, I couldn't have done it without you.
At other times, I was exhilarated by encountering people and landscapes in the open, vulnerable state that only solo travel can bring about. The smallest glimpse of beauty or act of kindness would send shock waves through my heart.
My trip was a string of opportunities to encounter myself in all my naked, human imperfection. My impatience, my idealism, my judgementalism, my stereotypes, my fears, my stubbornness, my love and my longing.
And now I am home, where we are all moving so quickly, lurching from chores to deliverables to social engagements. Every day my to-do list grows, faster than I can cross things off. The sense of too-much-ness begins to feel like a cage of a different sort, just like it did before I left.
People in Thailand or China aren’t any different. They’re all preoccupied with their own problems and fantasies, just like I am. There are cultural and political differences that influence how they relate to their lives, but the fundamentals are the same.
Travel gives us the opportunity to step outside the thrum of our constant activity, to see the world with fresh eyes, fully present, witnessing both the beauty and the suffering around us, beauty and suffering that are so different from ours, but nonetheless resonate somewhere deep within us.
When we return home we bring those fresh eyes with us. We see our lives differently. We witness anew the beauty and suffering that we had previously taken for granted. We recognize patterns and habits that had become unconscious.
When I came home I was flooded with startling revelations. I don’t actually like Downton Abbey. I don’t like myself when I drink coffee. I am surrounded by crazy people whom I adore. There’s a pair of almost-new shoes in my closet which I had written off as ugly, but now I'm wearing them all the time. I have the capacity to appreciate 98% of the people I encounter, but if you’re in that other 2% you’d better watch out. Especially if I’ve been drinking coffee!
How long will these fresh eyes last? Another month, six months, a year? Already I can feel them fading away. When I set out on this journey, I had big – often unconscious – expectations about how this trip would transform my life. I would return refreshed, wiser, more patient, more perfect. I haven’t become any of those things, of course, though I do feel that I have tested my endurance and accomplished something meaningful, a feeling akin to passing organic chemistry with a hard-won C+, or enduring a painful phase in a relationship. There’s a deep-rooted confidence that comes from sticking it out through the hard stuff, in order to win some understanding or experience of beauty.
This the part where I could rant about how our society doesn’t value and appreciate these types of experiences anymore, that we’re all addicted to our instant-gratification devices and status-seeking behaviors. But I don’t believe we’re actually any better or worse than we humans have ever been. Sure, we have more novel ways to delude and distract ourselves than your average Chinese peasant, but we have always found ways to delude and distract ourselves. And there has always been a part of us that transcends this weak-spiritedness, that calls us to be our highest selves, to see what we are capable of.
Wherever I went, I met enthusiastic people who appreciated and understood what I was doing. Some of these people had difficult lives, others were obviously quite privileged. Many of them said they could never do what I was doing. But there was a spark in their eyes that said otherwise.