I was in my kitchen, fresh from my 6-week backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. I didn’t even have a few days of rest from traveling before I heard the “marriage talk” again. Not that it should surprise me anymore.
My mom and aunt were telling me what I “need” and “should” do with my life. I could feel their incomprehension at my need for travel. It’s not that they want me to stop traveling; they want to me to shift my focus into the marriage arena. I’m always told, “Of course you can keep traveling! You can go wherever you want! Just get married and do all that with a husband”.
Normally, this would have flared my temper and we would be in a full-on argument. But this time, something was different. Without any effort to resist them or think of witty comebacks, my emotions took a seat and I let my mom and aunt say whatever they wanted.
As they lectured me, I felt nothing but a quiet bliss inside. I wasn’t zoning out or trying to block them out. I wasn’t doing anything, really. Somehow, my mind had changed and I have my travels to thank for it.
Lots of people travel these days. It’s hard to resist with all those gorgeous pictures we see on our Instagram feeds. And I’m not talking about the type of travel where you fly across the pond only to visit a bunch of relatives in England. I mean going somewhere completely outside of what is familiar to you, to a country you’ve only heard of in geography class or on the news, putting yourself right in the midst of a different culture.
Even in the Toronto Tamil community, there are more people traveling without family, before marriage and even alone (gasp) to places that were once considered unconventional travel destinations. We no longer talk ourselves out of doing amazing things just because we didn’t grow up seeing people like us living those lives. We’re enjoying the privilege that came with the better lives our parents were looking for.
And it makes me so glad! I smile whenever I see another Person-Of-Colour traveling, especially solo female backpackers (we’re rare but we exist). Representation is also part of the reason why I started my own blog, Jnana Travel. But aside from the obvious reasons of getting away from it all, seeing new places and experiencing different cultures, why do we travel? What it comes down to, for me, is the huge influence it has on my mind.
It was during my most recent trip when I noticed this influence. I was more aware of what my mind does at rest, what it does when trying to solve a problem, what my normal thought processes are, its control over my emotions, and its automatic responses that take away from human experiences. Here are 5 ways that I’ve found how travel has reshaped my mind:
1) Being uncomfortable.
Comfort can be deadly. Just like when we don’t work out our muscles enough, our mental facilities weaken when we’re not challenged to use them to their full abilities. Humans are fantastic at using and shaping their environment to their benefit. It’s in our genetic makeup and it’s why we’re still here. But how often are we required to do that now? Routine makes your brain go into autopilot and that’s when you stop thinking about your surroundings and take things for granted. But even in this age of convenience and comfort, there are ways of giving your mind a workout. Like being in an unfamiliar place halfway around the world. I find I’m much more capable of solving problems and planning hectic travel itineraries when I’m not basking in the familiarities of home. Being uncomfortable can bring out your greatest strengths.
2) Dealing with uncertainty.
Ah, that pesky little thing that we find in pretty much every aspect of life. Uncertainty is the arch-nemesis of our persistent need to control what happens around us and plan for the future. It’s also what keeps life interesting!
Dealing with uncertainty means keeping yourself on your toes. It’s expecting yourself to change with the tides and work around your plans when needed. When I was younger, I loved planning things ahead of time and feeling super prepared for any little thing that could go wrong. But I found that staying flexible and letting unexpected things, good and bad, happen as they may.
The most memorable part of my trip was a stretch of time that I didn’t have planned. I ended up taking an impromptu trip to Bali and planned my time there as I went. I had some hiccups along the way of course, but I surprised myself at how well I managed my schedule, dealt with people trying to rip me off, pulled off excursions that I was adamant on doing within tight time frames, and traveled between towns.
Which brings me to my next point…
3) Discovering what you’re capable of.
Things can and will go wrong in life, vacations included. It’s a reason why vacation packages are so popular. They minimize the possibility of unexpected surprises. The majority of your trip is planned out ahead of time and it’s super convenient to plan excursions at resorts.
But if you only have a few days to spend somewhere and want to make the most of it, you won’t let little hiccups get in the way. I planned to bike around a small Indonesian island and when I discovered that my brakes were so weak that I couldn’t stop on steep hills, I didn’t head back to town.
I was scared and I considered going back, thinking it would take me the entire day on foot to get to some beaches I planned to see. But I weighed my fear against the breathtaking views I could get and my fear lost. I decided I wasn’t going home without seeing some gorgeous beaches. I was in a rotten mood the entire way there, cursing the rental company I got my bike from and seriously considered turning back more than once. But it all went away when I got to the beach. I went for a swim in the strong steady waves and felt all the tension and anger melt away.
Even though I was scared at one point, that bike ride wouldn’t be the same without the crap that came along with it. And though it was cool to see myself swallow my fear to do something amazing, it was how I handled my frustration that really made me feel accomplished that day. For me, that was the greater challenge.
We all have emotions that can get the best of us and impede us from doing great things. Travel forces your mind into a state of full awareness. Not only of your physical surroundings but your emotions too. At the end of that bike ride, I saw just how big of an obstacle some of our emotions could be. That realization helped me find clarity without the interference of more muddling feelings, like fear, anger and doubt.
4) Taking yourself out of the social environment you’re used to.
I cannot stress this enough. This is key. Only then will it be you, just you, without the external stuff that is too often mistaken for who you are. These things are only a part of you, the many aspects of your life, but they don’t represent who you truly are.
There’s something about detaching yourself from your usual surroundings that brings out your true self. Our environment has a huge influence on us and it’s easy to get obscured by all the layers of our lives. As wonderful as those layers are, be it family, friends, culture, etc., it’s good to shed them once in a while. I end up treasuring these layers so much more after I isolate myself from them. Not only do I have a better sense of myself as an individual but it gets me out of autopilot mode and makes me thankful for the things I take for granted. It’s the feeling you get on a flight going back home.
5) Keeping yourself open to new interactions with people, even if you don’t intend to maintain the interaction afterward.
I don’t know what it is about knowing that you won’t see someone again that makes some interactions so deep. It’s as if these connections are free of the social expectations and rules that come with our regular relationships. This knowledge can make them much deeper and more profound but this means knocking down barriers that we love to put up when meeting strangers.
We automatically try to find something to be wary of in strangers. When someone approaches us just to say hello, our minds, faulty things they are, try to point out something in the other person that signals danger. That’s what my mind did for a split second when I was approached by a random fellow traveler on the streets of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Granted it’s important to stay safe while traveling, especially as a solo traveler. But you could be missing out on genuine human communication, something we find less and less of these days. After forcing my mind to quiet down, I listened to this guy pour his heart out to me about his wife’s recent miscarriage and their intent to heal themselves while in Thailand. We had a great conversation about healing, inner strength, yoga and meditation. It all lasted about 10 minutes but as we parted and continued on our own ways, I was in tears. Not so much for his loss but at the optimism and love for life I saw in him. We didn’t even exchange names but I felt a profound connection with this person. It was such a wonderful moment of reconnecting with humanity and I wouldn’t have had it if I listened to that split-second feeling of suspicion and avoided him.
The world is not as scary as we’d like to think.
The experiences I described have made it easier to deal with the hurricane of crap that usually sets me off into a tense state. It may sound cliché but my most recent travel experience helped me find the calm within the storm.
And I don’t know about you but I was always so mystified by all those instructions on meditation. They finally make sense now! Stepping outside yourself, observing your mind, observing your reactions, etc. In that moment in my kitchen, I was truly observing what was going on and not reacting. I was hearing my family and understood where they were coming from but I’ve thought about it before and came to the conclusion that I have no interest in making an effort in the marriage department. So it went in one ear and out the other, for my own good.
Travel isn’t the only time we are exposed to the things on this list. We could create them for ourselves no matter where we are. But with traveling, especially on my own, I had the time and space to delve into my mind and observe myself. Being completely cut off from distractions allowed me to see what was going on. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re still in a routine that you’re so used to and are constantly being pulled in so many directions by the roles you play in life. Doing it while traveling by yourself is easy. Doing it at home takes a ton of discipline.
That day in the kitchen with my mom and aunt was a manifestation of all the transformations my mind went through. It was an amazing feeling, not resisting the negativity directed at you and letting it run its course without affecting you.
Even though it’s a defensive tactic, that resistance we automatically put up when faced with something unpleasant actually wears us down physically. Emotions like anger and resentment take a lot of energy. It’s exhausting to feel them. As the saying goes, resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to suffer.
Now, it’s not that this single trip completely morphed my psyche and I’m now in a perpetual state of bliss. Far from it. Though I was free of distressing emotions that day in the kitchen, they’re always hanging around and I still catch myself letting them get the best of me from time to time.
It’s a continuous practice. Remembering to keep an observational role in life in addition to participating in it is a balancing act. It’s hard not to react to things and stay objective, observing not only your own emotions but observing the emotions of others and accepting people and situations as they come. But as soon as you get a single moment of clarity and feel the bliss that comes with it, you will realize that the effort is more than worth it.