Before continuing to read, please watch the TED talk at the following link so my discussion below makes sense 😉
TEDSummit: Pico Iyer’s ‘The beauty of what we’ll never know’
Pico’s talk left me with several memorable quotes that enabled me to link them back to my own experiences as a traveler-emigre and then to lessons we can pull from them.
“So when we said goodbye that night, I realized he had also shown me the secret point of travel, which is to take a plunge, to go inwardly as well as outwardly to places you would never go otherwise, to venture into uncertainty, ambiguity, even fear.”
I’ll admit I like exploring exotic locations but not just beaches in Fiji or the Maldives. The lesser known – or least understood – places continue to intrigue me. Perhaps this is why I’ve become so fascinated with traveling to former Soviet states. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and US tensions created heightened states of fear within their own borders. In the US, Soviets were the ultimate enemy, and even now, Russians still serve as the ultimate villain in countless movies and TV shows. However, as a result of my dissertation research on the Sochi Olympics and two trips to Russia during which I made all sorts of Russian friends, I was able to better understand “the other side”. Something that originally seemed scary. Even the Cyrillic writing intimidated me beforehand so I downloaded the app ‘Russian Alphabet Mastery’ and learned to read Cyrillic on the plane to Moscow. (This proved to be a smart decision, by the way, due to the lack of English on the subway!)
The uncertainty followed me on my subsequent trips to Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, and arguably, Transnistria. There was an unexplainable rush in visiting places that Westerners usually perceived as “big, bad, and scary”. I wanted to push my limits, yet still got those butterflies before getting on the plane alone. I also wanted to show that these places were not what my Western society often perpetuated. Just like cities in Spain and Thailand, these nations were full of warm smiles, delicious food, and spectacular feats of art and architecture. More than anything else, I yearned to humanize them.
Chernobyl wouldn’t just stay the nuclear disaster site I read about in my social studies textbook. It morphed into a land of instantly left memories and artifacts of what the Soviet Union was for millions of people. My idea of Talinn went from KGB headquarters to home of a frightening-political-prison-in-twilight to European tech hub that allows for e-citizens to set up shop. Would the four intimidating Belorussian skinheads walking right towards me on the sidewalk leave me alone after I refused to give them money? Or was I just mapping them over with my own stereotypes? My guide in Transnistria says I can’t take pictures in certain places in fear of arrest. Then I find out that land area has its own currency and states it’s still part of Russia. How do I even begin to break that down? You see, in Transnistria and Belarus, the transformation also came in the form of awareness of my own fears and biases.
Pico’s references to uncertainty, ambiguity, and fear rang both alarmingly and refreshingly true for me. These feelings gave me the push I needed to dig deeper into people and cultures outside of my own, empowering me to question and challenge previously held beliefs. At times, they were indeed affirmed. Occasionally, they were outright rejected. More often than not, my new perspective fell right in between.
“At home, it’s dangerously easy to assume we’re on top of things. Out in the world, you are reminded every moment that you’re not, and you can’t get to the bottom of things, either.”
I think the trip, or should I say, the country, that mentally challenged me most was Israel. Growing up in Catholic school, I took religion classes for 13 years. I didn’t necessarily have any expectations but I was eager to see places, such as the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, that I’d learned about. During my 10 days around Israel, I simply could not wrap my head around the heavily disputed land. Armenians, Jews, Muslims, other Christians divided in one city. All the Israelis I met wrongly assumed I was from New York, Jewish, and on one of those free Birthright trips. Palestine was a land untouched by commercialization. No McDonald’s, a knock-off Starbucks. Palestinians were grateful I even took the time to visit their piece of the land, something that legitimately surprised me.
The Israeli soldier who befriended me on the bus says one thing and the young people I meet in Bethlehem say another. The more I spoke to people, the more I learned, and the more I realized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be impossible for me to understand. We read generalizations like: ‘If you value safety and security, you tend to be conservative and pro-Israel.’ and ‘If you have empathy and care about children, you side with the Palestinians.’ But the truth is, amidst Hamas and Mossad and every other country’s geopolitical interests, this was something I’d never be able to get to the bottom of, something wildly complicated beyond my imagination. And something I would never have fully comprehended without venturing there.
This realization stands in stark contrast with the generally orderly way in which I live my everyday life. I prefer to know what’s going to happen. I expect a certain level of control. Don’t we all? Somehow I am able to let go of this need, or so-called expectation, when traveling and consequently, it remains an omnipresent goal of mine to demonstrate this characteristic more in my daily grind.
“Everywhere, “People wish to be settled,” Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us, “but only insofar as we are unsettled is there any hope for us.”
Here Pico reminds us of what Emerson argues: that we must be unsettled – uncomfortable – in order to grow and progress toward our full potential. When we’re uncomfortable, we are more conscious, more alert, shall we say, of how we respond to people, places, and things. Travel is often viewed as the most uncomfortable thing you can do because you are literally wiggling yourself free from your cocoon and setting out towards the unknown. These uncomfortable encounters, whether they are during your travels or not, are opportunities for learning and growth that won’t occur by doing the same thing over and over again, or by being creatures of habit and comfort. Sit at a different table in the corporate cafeteria. Stop at a different coffee kiosk on the way to work. In actuality, you might not know whether something is truly uncomfortable until you just do it.
“But underneath all that, something that I couldn’t understand so moved me for reasons I couldn’t explain to you yet, that I decided to go and live in Japan. And now that I’ve been there for 28 years, I really couldn’t tell you very much at all about my adopted home. Which is wonderful, because it means every day I’m making some new discovery, and in the process, looking around the corner and seeing the hundred thousand things I’ll never know.”
Like Pico, I lived in Japan. For five years. And while I can sit here and say I “get” the entire “10 Japanese customs that will surprise you” listicle, there’s an infinite amount of Japanese culture that I cannot begin to fathom. For example, I do understand the Japanese concept of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ personas or personalities but will I really ever understand the true root of them and everything that goes into their embodiment?
Over the past eight years of living abroad, I have always said, “Every day is an adventure.” For better or for worse. Herein lie the constant new discoveries and yes, frustrations about things like why Japan Post won’t let you ship a $40 pearl necklace via regular air mail. (True story!) But those small things give way to galaxies of information that are out there waiting to be spotted – and to an eagerness to begin to figure out what, why, and how. My adventures have unabatingly resulted in endless Googles and Wikpedia-ing after visiting places, learning about their histories, and realizing that I have so much more to read about them.
“And the one thing that I have learned is that transformation comes when I’m not in charge, when I don’t know what’s coming next, when I can’t assume I am bigger than everything around me.”
I believe this ties back into the need to embrace uncertainty and the challenges and blessings that come with it. It’s crazy to think back to how meeting one guy on my tour in Jordan resulted in us going on an unexpected fully-guarded trip to Egypt for a few days. Last year, upon arrival in Macedonia, with no plans for what to do or how to get to my desired destination of Montenegro, I joined forces with a Danish guy on my bus from Thessaloniki. We ended up successfully storing our luggage and grabbing breakfast in downtown Skopje before we happened to meet a local university student who took me around the city the entire day. Her last gift to me was ensuring I got on the right bus bound for Montenegro that night. This student’s genuine kindness came with no expectations – something we should aim to emulate.
When we let things just happen, or remain open to the unexpected, we give ourselves a chance to understand those who are unlike us or who may challenge us to be better. Then, after all, maybe we’ll stumble upon a shred of learning that unleashes the real avalanche of everything we still don’t know.