Roughly 12 years ago I was backpacking in thailand for a month. It was the first trip that was for an extended period of time with no particular agenda. I have a vivid memory of me passing through a rural village, and there was a bunch of kids playing at a stream. They laughed and ran around with a sense of freedom that felt new to me. Back then there was no airbnb, so we would go into a town hoping there’s available rooms at guesthouses. That was my first taste of experiencing generosity and connection with my hosts.
That month I was supposedly in between jobs, but that trip had changed me profoundly. It made me question the narrative of happiness being tied to material wealth (I never really believed it but it was another thing to experience it in person). The kids I saw looked much happier than the kids I would see in Singapore. It could simply be my perception but I don’t think the objective truth matters because what truly matters is being able to experience another set of images that can break the stranglehold perceived reality can have on us.
It was that trip that made me go into remote work at a time when remote work was still rare and controversial. I wanted to be able to work from anywhere in the world. So I spent the next five years or so remote working, though it wasn’t as fun as it sounds, but it taught me that alternative ways of life can be possible.
Then I went to San Francisco for the first time, another life-changing trip. San Francisco in 2011 is different from the San Francisco I left in 2015. There was a chill, hippie vibe: I saw people playing their guitars on rooftops or while strolling on the streets (these days they are too stressed trying to pay their rent and out-compete everyone else to play guitars). Back then it was full of optimism, crazy ideas, life-changing technology, emerging communities (rent wasn’t crazy yet, I paid $50/night for an airbnb omg can you imagine that). I felt like finally I found a place that I could belong, a place where wild ideas can grow and weird people like me can flourish (because over there, I am really not that weird comparatively).
Eventually I left, but I will always owe a debt to San Francisco and her people. It was there that I had finally experienced a kind of freedom that I had never experienced in my own country, where people saw me in ways I was never seen. I felt like a deflated balloon being breathed into life, and I learned to develop the courage to leave a place that made me strong in the first place, like leaving a nest. Perhaps, the more subtle truth is that it made me brave enough to face myself and my wounds.
Then, there was New York:
“She made me learn that in order to have my identity I must accept that I have no fixed identity. That I am everything, nothing and anything. I am defined because I am really undefined. With San Francisco I understood what it means for me to belong somewhere. New York has shown me that perhaps ultimately I don’t need to belong anywhere, because I will still be me, everywhere.”
Together, books and travel, if I ever had a religion perhaps they are it. They have taught me more about people, love and grace more than anything else. They have expanded me, raised me up, increased my empathy and challenged the narrow ways I have perceived the world. I am like a sponge that has absorbed everything I have read and witnessed, becoming more human as these forces gently nourish me.
Here I am in New Zealand, and I am no longer the same person I was before. Just a few weeks and there will always be this additional dimension of me that I will carry henceforth. I get scared and tired of travelling as I age: because of my chronic anxiety I haunt myself by imagining every horrible scenario my mind can think of. Some mornings I wake up anxious, missing the illusory safety of my home. But in between writing this essay, I take breaks by walking to the window near me, and I see sheep grazing in acres of green. I feel wonder, an emotion that is elusive in a city full of concrete.
Travelling forces me out of my safe, comfortable shell. At home I avoid interacting with people, but as a traveller there will be inevitable questions that google will not answer, trails not on the map, unexpected invitations to meals, provocations to our otherwise dormant curiosity. I can only wish I had travelled more when I was younger and had more courage, less commitments, and also a less anxiety-ridden mind. Who would I have become if I had a much earlier opportunity to see that the world I grew up in is so utterly narrow? That there is a million ways to live one’s life. That there is so much more to life than climbing ladders and impressing our peers. That maybe, we struggle to save the world because we don’t know how to be with the world, because somewhere along the way, we forgot we are companions to each other and to the world. Instead, we are obsessed with domination with carefully architected stories of ourselves, when all it takes is a step out into the vast wilderness of beauty, diversity and richness, to see how horribly misguided we are in picking illusory wealth over the natural richness we were truly endowed with, and in danger of losing very soon.
I don’t want to forget that I am part of nature, and I want to continue to learn about the expansiveness of this world, so I hope to continue travelling more in spite of my chronic anxiety. I can only wish that the opportunity to travel for expansiveness is something that is afforded to more people if not everybody (I don’t know how yet but I hope I can be part of a long chain to make this possible and maybe through my writing and pictures I hope to bring a part of my travelling to other people). I don’t think I’ll see this in my lifetime, but I hope for the sake of our own human potential that we are somehow walking towards that equitable world, maybe with lots of twists and turns, but still walking towards that anyhow.
And it is travelling (and books, which are a different way of travelling) that makes me believe that it is crucial to our development as a species, and makes me want to hope, even if current indicators point otherwise.