A couple of years ago, I decided to stop taking photographs. I’ve never been one to hold on to physical possessions. It only felt right, then, that I rid myself the escape of digital ones, too.
I remember the day: It was a quiet one — clear, blue sky; light breeze; and just warm enough to feel the heat. It took us four hours to get to the top of the mountain, and when we did, the air — as usual — tasted familiar but, at once, different: thinner and cleaner, more fluid, like it was a part of us.
I remember the impulse that ruined it, too. After walking up to the summit, we had taken a seat to absorb the view. There was a small town below us, with a glistening lake, and a range of trees and a barely visible outline of houses. It was then that I saw the floating bird — a strange sight, because when you see them above you, they always look like they are flying, and I guess they are when you look down at them, too, but it’s a different scene and it looks like a different motion — and it was then that I took my phone out to try and capture the moment, but instead of capturing the moment, I felt something leave it. Thinking about this later, I decided, from then on, that I’d rather have my eyes be my souvenirs.
Our memories are both the most prominent and the most subtle manifestations of our mind. They are the bedrock that we build our identity on. Sometimes, they are as clear as day, bringing back thoughts and smells and sounds with the slightest provocation. Other times, even the most vivid of signs can’t seem to remind us of what we are looking for. The only consistent thing about them, it seems, is that they are inconsistent.
I don’t miss taking photographs. While, yes, the decision was first made because I felt like I was cheating myself out of pure, unadulterated presence in every great moment, I now realize that there was another benefit: My memories of my travels are no longer dominated by loose connotations associated with frozen images; instead, the highlight reel plays itself. What I remember from each trip is what actually meant the most in each moment, not what I artificially captured and then reflected on.
In many ways, I’m lucky. Travel is a big part of my life, and I get to take enough trips that I’m comfortable with the idea that if, for some reason, I forget one of them and don’t have any photographs to go back to, it’s not too big of a deal. It will just mean that some other trip, maybe a better one, will have taken up that same mental bandwidth. It’s a funny thing, coming to terms with this realization, because it’s also made me ask some of the harder questions about why I travel and what it means and what I’m looking to accomplish by doing so.
Much has been written about the allure of leaving behind home to venture into the unknown — a different world, a new culture. There is a certain appeal to escaping the banality of a routine. Even if we enjoy our lives, and even if we live in a place with its own special magic, familiarization has a way of stripping away the spontaneity that makes you feel like you are really alive, like you are a participant in your surroundings — like you are changing and growing and becoming as you live out your days.
It’s no surprise, then, that the most common reason people give for long-term travel, for example, is a shot at — for the lack of a better expression— finding themselves. The mundanity of day-in-day-out becomes a distant past on the road. Every street is different, every smell is infused with a hint of what you don’t know, and every sight radiates novelty in a way that was only ever persistent in the freshness of youth. Whatever part of yourself you lost when you were busy living in real life can — it would appear — be found in the plot of somebody else’s life. Their world, I guess, is our lesson.
It’s a compelling narrative, but I don’t think that’s it. I think there is something else. In fact, the more I travel, the more it feels like it’s all a big trap, that — contrary to popular belief — there is actually nothing to find.
I live in North America, but I grew up in Europe. I spent most of my first two decades there in a few different countries. For some reason, though, it wasn’t until recently that I found myself wanting to go back. It had been eight years, and in that time, I had seen plenty of places on other continents, but the urge to return to what was once my home hadn’t been there. So, when it came, I went. I spent two months revisiting both the old and the new.
In that time, I was entranced by the architecture, a sustained reminder of the rich historical lineage flowing through European cities at any given time. I was taken by how, throughout the trip, both the idea of the past and the future seemed to melt away to leave only a hint of a present that felt eternal. On the odd occasion that I did leave the present, I was moved by the revival of a lost memory, and even more so, by the thought of a different life, unlived. It all fit together better than I could have hoped.
When I returned, however, any attempt at reflection led to the same dead-end that it always does: I didn’t have any profound lessons to take away, nor did I feel like I was changing toward any particular way of being. If anything, I returned confused. I had seen and felt so much, in so many different places, with so many different people, all from so many different cultures, that I no longer knew who I was. The result, if there was one, was that I experienced the exact opposite of finding myself.
In a funny way, this, I think, actually is the answer. The point of travelling isn’t to find ourselves, and it’s also not to run away from our problems, but it’s lose ourselves: to ignore the rigid stories about who we are that so strongly define our daily lives; to become unconditioned from the monoculture so deeply infused in our psyche that we forget that there are more ways to live than one; and to step away from the false subjective perception that insists that we — to you, it’s you; to me, it’s me — are at the center of reality and that what’s right here, right now, is the only thing that matters — a fact that’s almost laughable when you realize how small and insignificant you and your desires are in every place outside of your closed, intimate world.
We are all conditioned from birth in various ways, both big and small, both subtle and distinct, that have far more say in how we live life than any one of us would like to admit. Most of these relate to the location of our home. Every thought you have only makes sense in the context created by the backdrop of the culture that raised you. Every ambition you have is confined by the boundaries of what you learned to see as respectful and important. Every value you consider your own was gifted to you by an environment shaped by billions and billions of variables you have no control over.
Travel is one of the few ways to bypass the hold of this conditioning. For an hour, a day, a month, or a year, it forces you into a present moment so starkly divergent from what you know that you can’t help but lose a part of yourself. And when you do, it’s a great thing. Perhaps even the best of things.
People talk a lot about living authentically. But what they overlook is that the things most of us consider authentic aren’t authentic at all. Our definitions have been manipulated by a host of factors, most of which are determined not by us but by an accident of birth. True authenticity — and this is where travel, if done well, helps point the way — begins by first shedding the layers wrapped around us by our tiny sub-section of humanity.
You find yourself not by looking in unfamiliar places, but by first forgetting who you are. In the process of opening your mind up to all that the world has to offer — the good, the bad, and the different — you strip yourself down to the core of what it means to be human. From there, you might actually have a shot at finding something that can be considered authentic.
What I have realized, with time, is that not taking photographs has also helped this. Rather than using travel to capture memories that I can later enforce meaning on, I am now able to liberate the process to do the job that it does best: destroying memories. Every trip comes with it a loss — of identity, of a conditioned behavior, of an undue expectation. And I can no longer force myself to hold on to these things for the sake of comfort with the snap of a camera. Once they are gone, they are simply gone.
This, I have found to be supremely freeing. There is a touch of melancholy that comes with loss at first, of course, but once the value of this loss registers, all that is left is potential. We are able to shed the weight of what doesn’t matter to create room for what does. There is a lightness, a calm, that reminds us that things are okay — that you are okay. Once your mind is free from the burden of decades of conditioning, the world becomes a playground, one that is here not to tell you what to do but to support you as you find your way.
Travel is a simultaneous embrace of both everything and nothing. It is a heightened experience of touch, of sight, of sound, of smell, and of taste; it is our reconciliation with the fact that we have a mind and a body that, fundamentally, connects us to the rest of humanity and that, at the same time, still allows us to carve our own way as we live and as we breathe.
The point of all this has nothing to do with finding yourself. It’s about what you, as a temporary traveler, can do to lose what you don’t need.
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