“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” (TS Eliot: Little Gidding)
I enjoy travel because it restores a sense of wonder, a sense of being continually on the verge of seeing new and exciting things that you had not anticipated. It is a part of what I suspect makes childhood such an entertaining period in you rlife, before you settle into knowing enough about the world that you have explanations ready for most occurrences – not having to re-examine every situation from scratch.
There is an exciting awe to seeing something new which you battle to understand or fully explain at first (walking into a Buddhist temple for the first time, visiting a monument or museum to the history of a people you had no idea existed). Even the little things, like strange soft drinks or brands in another country can be a confounding adventure, where they cannot immediately fit into a predefined hierarchy of class-appropriateness, brand meaning or any of dozens of associations we could unwittingly bring to bear to explain a food or label which we are familiar with back home.
The interesting result of this inability to simply squash new objects and experiences into our existing hierarchies is that as a traveller, you are less prone to avoiding people and experiences on the basis of class appropriateness, perceived coolness or any other local knowledge surrounding the thing that confronts you. Admittedly, this frequently leads to ‘stupid’ tourist behaviour (witness the tonnes of baubles and silly treats shifted in Khaosan rroad in a month). Typically, as a trinket buying tourist, much of the dumb stuff that you buy is a consequence of the novelty or exotic value of the items you are buying – the fact that there is ‘nothing like this at home’.
What is an even more interesting note to this point is the fact that even at ‘home’, in the set of people and experiences that define our non-travelling selves, we have not exhausted the set of things to see, of new experiences to be had. We just sort of settle into seeing only what is familiar, becoming blind to roads on the commute home from work which might lead to interesting places, or going right past a building that, were it anywhere else, you would have stopped and noticed. The reason for this – and I am far from the first person to comment on it – is because the idea of a ‘world’, whether your home environment or a back alley in Hong Kong, is a constructed perception. These worlds are contained entirely in the set of things that you are aware of and are able to notice in the course of doing what you are doing. Obviously. It seems, though, that w ehave a saturation point, after which we eventually become blind to new objects, people and experiences as we have filled out perceptal filter completely with the stuff we need to see and know to do what we need to do. To make this more explicit, take the example of the urban worker bee. Going to and from work, there is no need for noticing galleries, museums, places and people of interest as these are not things which have any impact or relevant value to the person’s life (defined by the need to get to work and the details of doing to). A tourist travelling that same route would be largely oblivious to filling stations, shortcuts and breakfast stops, but would remember the area principally for the places that have interesting people, museums, churches or other points of social, historical or cultural interest.
Contrasting these two cases, what is interesting is how your perception of the surroundings is determined more by your self-assigned role in those surroundings than by the artefacts which are objectively present in it. This in turn suggests that it would be possible to have a new and diverse adventure in your known environment by simply changing your reasons for being in it for a day. So instead of being a braai-on-the-weekend and work-in-the-week suburbanite, try taking a day to be a tourist and try to see the world and your options through a different pair of eyes. Are taxis and trains really that off limits? Are the townships threatening or fascinating? And how much of your area’s cultural history do you know? How many places indeed, could you visit to answer those questions.
You would find yourself ultimately changing how you seee the world. And new and interesting places and experiences would come crawling out of the woodwork at you. So ask those little questions of your snug and familiar world. The answers may just posibly excite you.