On the Trans-Siberian Railway, somewhere between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk.
Today I read this blog post by Jodi of Legal Nomads where she commented that traveling gives her a feeling of connectedness – “that we are all connected in one way or another, and we are all more alike than we think.” She also discussed the “overview effect,” a cognitive shift in awareness that many astronauts and cosmonauts report experiencing after seeing the Earth from space. This prompted a day-long introspection as I’ve just recently come off the road after adding another bullet point to a long list of life-changing experiences I’ve had via global travel.
You see, I’ve been a traveler for most of my adult life. I’ve done multiple backpacking trips in Europe since I was a teenager, and I’ve lived/studied/worked abroad in various countries for a combined timeframe of three years. I just finished spending a year and half living and working in France. After I left France in October of this year, I traveled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, then I caught a ferry to Japan from Vladivostok and traveled up and down the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido for a bit before finally flying home to San Francisco.
For me, the seed was planted early when I started reading my father’s National Geographic magazines as a child. I’d sit in his study on rainy days and go through the yellow magazines, marveling at the faraway places and the people in them, and wanting to see them in person. When I travel, I experience a profound shift in my awareness when places, objects, and people that I have read about suddenly become tangible right in front of me. The way the world just opens up in front of me, how the pages of a magazine suddenly come alive, all the scents and tactile experiences factored in this new equation – these sensations have never diminished in over twenty years of traveling. They are the dopamine that I chase. I still have the same childlike wonder when I arrive somewhere new. There is an inexplicable sense of connectedness I feel with the world and its inhabitants due to traveling.
When I start out on a trip, I have a mental picture or idea of what it’s going to be like. Once I get there and the reality is swirling around me, it’s overwhelming and so much more than I could have imagined. There was the time I was at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and all of a sudden, the swinging cupboard that concealed the staircase to the secret attic was right in front of me. Instinctively, I reached my hand out to touch it, to make sure it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. As my hand connected with the wood, it was as if I had suddenly made this palpable connection with the book I’d read years before, the layers of history in this building, and the people who were here before. In Marrakech, I was most surprised and enchanted with the scent of orange blossoms that hung in the air and darted in and out of the velvety nights, following me like some djinn.
And then there are the people I’ve met. I am deaf, which already limits my options in the number of people I can effectively communicate with in my home country, so you can imagine what the odds are in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and the body language and gestures are so different that trying to communicate via pantomiming isn’t always successful. And yet somehow, in spite of these obstacles, I’ve had tremendously profound interactions with people around the world. Traveling on a train through Croatia years ago, I shared a compartment with a Croatian family who spoke no English, yet they insisted on sharing their fruit and sandwiches with me and we looked at the same things out the window of the train, then looked at each other and smiled, knowing what the other was thinking without saying any words. At a ryokan I stayed at in Japan, the nakai who brought my dinner to my room shared a bottle of sake with me while I showed her my pictures of Russia on my mobile phone, and we laughed and enjoyed each other’s company without communicating a single word.
Traveling pushes me out of my envelope, opens my mind, and fills my heart. Each trip changes me and I’m never the same person again. I’ve reached a state of consciousness that I wouldn’t have attained any other way. And as exquisite as it has been, I know I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve come nowhere close to the “overview effect,” or to savikalpa samadhi, a state of spiritual consciousness that astronaut Edgar Mitchell used to describe his experience in seeing the Earth from space. He said:
["Savikalpa samadhi] means that you see things as you see them with your eyes, but you experience them emotionally and viscerally, as with ecstasy, and a sense of total unity and oneness.”
Traveling keeps me alive, and keeps me connected to this Earth.