The second time I returned to Thailand (after volunteering in Cambodia), I was quite disappointed. I became sicker than I’ve ever been and managed to crawl into a dingy, dank hostel bedroom above the chaotic partying of a Saturday night in Bangkok. Speakers blared the bass of dance music through the walls as I felt knives stabbing me internally. I was in too much pain to sleep that night but I did fade in and out of fever dreams as my delirious and dramatic imagination wondered if I was going to die there, alone on some filthy mattress in some upstairs hostel along the Khao San Road.
After a few days of relentless pain, I managed to get up and walk around. Still hunched over in pain, I hobbled out to a nearby park one evening and laid down on the grass. I looked up into the night sky and watched couples flying kites in the darkness. A boy, speaking no English, came and sat down next to me, offering me some of his cookies. Put off by his unexpected and eager hospitality, I politely declined. But he stayed. And as he sat with me, perhaps recognizing my deep pain, he gave me healing through his presence and, eventually, I decided it would be fine to eat some of his Oreos. A day or two later, I started to recognize changes for the better.
After being lumped over in the fetal position and feeling deathly ill on my last few days in Thailand, I caught a bus out of Bangkok. Making it out alive and in one piece was one of the most joyous moments of my 3 months in South East Asia. In my mind, as the bus carried me away, Laos soon took on a heavenly glow of optimism and wondrous health. I welcomed it with open arms. I was going to live!
When I finally finished traveling through SE Asia for 3 months I decided, since I was without a job, that now was the time to visit Taize, a ecumenical monastery in France. A couple days after arriving, I met a girl, Julia, from Germany —specifically, Bavaria. We were finishing mopping a bathroom floor together when, smirking in jest, I said, “Everyone I’ve met is from Bavaria. I just spent 3 months traveling in South East Asia and Bavarians were everywhere!” So I decided to ask her, “Why is everyone from Bavaria? I mean, why does everyone from Bavaria travel?”
Julia smiled amusedly, “Most people in Germany travel before university. I think everyone does it. If you don’t, people will ask you ‘why didn’t you go travel?’ They’ll look at you funny.”
I wrung my mop out for the last time as the water trickled down into the bucket. “What if you want to go straight to university? Doesn’t anyone do that?”
“Well, everyone expects you to travel because we have a gap year between [high] school and university. Everyone travels during that gap year. And if you don’t, you are missing out. That is what everyone believes. Some people go to university right away but very few.”
“So it’s kind of like a rite of passage and you’re ostracized if you don’t?”
Her face was pensive as she put her mop in the wringer and pushed. The tiny plastic wheels of the bucket rolled across the tile floor and out onto the concrete. When we stepped outside the bathroom, she looked to the sky, furrowed her brow and then smiled, “Yeah.”
“That’s funny. It’s the opposite in the U.S.. Hardly anyone travels before university and it kind of ostracizes you if you do. Then you’ll be a year behind everyone else.” I set my mop against the wall. “What about you? Did you travel?”
Her smiled lingered. “Yeah. I traveled. But then I came home. A lot of people are considered weird if they don’t travel for a long time. Some people thought it was weird that I didn’t travel very long.”
The June sun was reaching down now, late in the morning, and pounding off the concrete around us as our team diverged into smaller groups. They straddled benches in the shade of overhanging awnings as their conversations of languid English gave way to German.
I suddenly became aware that I had singled her out and only our conversation persisted in English. I searched her eyes for disinterest. “How long did you travel?”
“About a month. But I didn’t go far; I was mostly seeing different parts of Germany.”
“And then you went home?”
“Well, I realized I wanted to be near my family. My family is very close and I like being home. That’s where all my friends are. And my family. I decided I would rather be spending my time and making memories with them. And if I was traveling they would be going on with life without me. I want to make memories with the people I can spend my whole life with.”
I swung my arm out theatrically and spoke confidently, “But you’re here.” Meanwhile, my eyes hung in an incredulous gaze.
“I’m taking a Religious Studies class at my university.” She looked down, blinked, and then looked back up. “We’re only here for a week as a class trip. A lot of my friends came along too. Then we’re going back home!”
Just then, the Queen of Point 5 (the cleaning team) approached and yelled, “Tea time!”
Julia and I wrapped up our conversation as we walked toward the tea. Soon, we went our separate ways but her answer stuck with me. There was something very simple yet prophetic to her views that resonated with me. It seemed to put words to many things I had been exploring over the previous 3 months traveling in SE Asia –mostly, how everything is a trade-off. If you want to travel, chances are you will need to leave your friends and family behind for a while. They will all be carrying on with life without you back home, making memories. Inadvertently, they will develop other friendships in place of the time they would have spent with you. However, you will, of course, make new friends and new memories while you travel. But in a world with endless opportunities, limitless choices, and global connectivity I don’t think it is crazy to ask “why do we need more friends?”
Maybe what we really need is to go deep.
Do we lack the vulnerability and commitment to invest deeply in a friendship? Do we value anonymity over the benefits of being known? Do we enjoy expanding our options as opposed to accepting our limits? Or are we simply addicted to the excitement of new?
As a typical Westerner, I am drawn to the great freedom that is offered when I do something by myself. Individualism sets me free (from other people) to do as I please: to go where I want, whenever I want. Having a strong history and propensity to do things on my own I have found that individualism is best described as “glorious yet terrifying isolation.”*
The freedom that individualism gives is so powerful that it allows us to do glorious things as individuals. But it usually leaves us in places of isolation. When I do adventurous things by myself I feel a profound- even glorious- sense of freedom but I often stop amid such mountaintops of freedom to recognize buried layers of longing. I long to share such an experience with other people.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
I made a lot of fantastic memories while traveling but, sadly, I’ve already forgotten many of those memories. I frequently traveled with new friends or by myself. I went fast. I fit in an incredible amount of experiences. It was glorious…yet panged by frequent isolation. As a culture composed of hyper-mobile, fast-moving individuals who are prone to isolation perhaps what we really need to do slow down and find ways we can dig deeper into the people and places around us. We need to actively look for ways to be present with those around us.
There is a motto used at Outward Bound that says, “If you can’t get out of it, get further into it.” Too often we try to get out of the difficulties of being known, of long-term friendships/relationships, of commitments, of facing our limits and living in the seeming monotony of stability when we should be getting further into these things. As part of a generation that persistently chooses to run from these things, I believe it is important to take a step back and think seriously about the long-term effects of traveling. It is certainly a wonderful opportunity but it is not always all it is cracked up to be. In fact, it could split a crack in your contentment, your stability, your friendships, and your life.
*Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah, et al