The thing about living in a country is that you all too often fail to appreciate (or frequently even see) much of what makes it so interesting to the rest of the world. I think sometimes you just get stuck in the anecdotal rut and forget that there are people who travel halfway across the planet to see the sights that you are missing. Occasionally, when I remember this, it makes for a nice change to step out for a weekend and go and see the things that the travelers to my corner of the world get to see. I can report that it is a wholly satisfying experience.
This particular stepping-out started sometime late on Thursday, with the decision to spuriously take my loyal and long-suffering little car and drive it to somewhere interesting, remote and preferably beautiful. Spurious decisions are something I have come to delight in, as they more often than not result in the most interesting and unanticipated outcomes, which are surprisingly less catastrophic than traditional conservative wisdom would have you believe. John, however, was less amenable to deciding to voyage to the far eastern end of the country on a day’s notice – though not to the extent that a combination of minor nagging and repeated pressure was not able to overcome.
And so, criminally early on Saturday morning we departed, with a final destination of God’s Window (a stunning mountain top view in the eastern Mpumalanga province) and a night in whichever backpacker hostel thingy would have us, before returning early on Sunday. At this juncture, as a brief narrative detour. Yes, Mpumalanga (im – poo – ma – laan – ga) is a real name. Try and say that a few times quickly. Then get your friends to try. Then make a game of it. It is the home of old gold-panning towns, the Kruger National Park (a game reserve the size of Israel), breathtaking views and (in some instances) truly horrendous roads.
The eventual destination, God’s Window, is unsurprisingly not a religious site at all. It is a spot on top of a mountain range where you find yourself able to see for what seems to be eternity into the distance. It serves as a great spot for existential soul searching in a similar manner to Douglas Adams’ machine from Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – the one which makes its subjects appreciate in absolutely clear terms their relative importance in the wider universe. Which is to say not very much at all.
God’s window, though, is really just an indirect means of leading to the point of this post – and indeed the spurious journey as a whole. Of late, I have been doing a fair bit of existential pondering, helped (or is that continually provoked?) by a few close friends with whom I am able to have intelligent, inspiring, but all too often wanderlust-inducing conversations about what it means to live a meaningful life, or at least one which will be ever more fulfilling than the current one. Most recently, I have been wondering at length about this feeling of wanderlust that has been nagging at my heart for some time – worst usually after particularly interesting travels, but present even beyond them. What is it that sometimes makes routine seem less fulfilling than being able to get out and see new people, learn new things and visit new landscapes – and why does returning from adventures to the little hidey hole that is home always come with the emotional equivalent of the tide slurping back after a wave is finished pushing onto the shore?
It was a question I put to John during the course of the trip, to Jonathan many times in late night chatting and indirectly trying to find an answer to in conversations with others I have met over the days. Why do you do what you do? What about it fulfils you? Would you do this forever? What, ultimately, do you believe you exist to do? I ask because I want to know how you have answered these questions – hoping for an answer, somewhere, to that same nagging question in me. I don’t yet have one. I may never, but it seems senseless not to keep asking, trying to find out more and getting closer, story by human story, to some degree of peace.
And so this trip has left me with an interesting analogy which, although not an answer, may perhaps be part of one. It’s the idea that perhaps we live, in a sense, in little boxes. The boxes represent the worlds we know and have learned to master. It’s the world in which we are comfortable navigating. They are, ultimately, the security of the known. This wanderlust, the desire for new experience, may in fact be frustration at the constraints of this box. As Darwin so correctly observed – in an environment which offers no substantial change, there exists no more impetus to evolve. And so, in the absence of something to challenge you intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, you have stopped growing. You have not reached some final point, some ultimate definition of yourself except relative to your little box of people, places and experiences. When that box grows larger, so do you. When it stays the same, so it is with you. Put another way – what are your convictions worth, if they were formulated from the experiences of a limited world?
Wanderlust, perhaps, is simply that most basic motivation – to learn and grow – expressed in the shape of a desire to travel.
So how, in this obscure analogy, does wanderlust and that after-adventure feeling fit in? I have an inkling that we feel like we matter, as if we are growing and becoming stronger, when we are forcing our boxes larger. New people, places, and landscapes – new worlds – force us to adapt again who we are. To declare to a much larger world what our principles are and what makes us us. And that self – created to thrive in a bigger universe – can be so much stronger than the one we leave behind. Wanderlust, perhaps, is simply that most basic motivation – to learn and grow – expressed in the shape of a desire to travel. Not for pretty postcards or to say we have been there, but so that we can become better selves, able to say that we know and have chosen who we are under as wide a possible spectrum of understanding of the world as possible. Travel is not the only means of learning and growing, to be sure, but it is one.
As for the feeling of emptiness on return – that sense that the tide is pulling back after the wave? I suspect it is the consequence of falling back from the borders of the world we know for a time. Because perhaps we cannot always live on the edge of a continually expanding universe, we must occasionally return to paths we have walked so often and leave the new and barely explored for another time. I believe at last, that this contraction hurts emotionally.To have lived in a bigger world, as a stronger, richer version of ourself and then to return to one which cannot offer us the same freedoms is to constrain a spirit that has grown wings too large.
I don’t pretend to know the answer, but maybe, just maybe, it lies at the edge of the world.
Perhaps in the end all there ever was, was change