Back in April, I was sitting in an Internet cafe in Kathmandu. I’d just emerged from 10 days at a monastery and Facebook informed me that my yoga teacher from home would be leading a retreat in India around the New Year. “You in?” the post read. “Yes,” I commented without hesitation.
At the time, I was so damn close to India. A bus or cheap flight could carry me across the border in mere hours, and yet I would not go next week, or next month, but over six months later, after returning to San Francisco. My decision would’ve been ridiculous, if it hadn’t felt so completely right.
For my entire trip, I’d been engaged in an an internal battle — to go to India now or at some indeterminate point in the future. A voice inside, the not-so-nice one, really gave it to me, “What are you waiting for? If not now, then when? If you were a real backpacker, you’d strap on your pack and go…”
I had my reasons to hold off: The monsoon season was coming, I had queer weddings and family visits back in the States, I needed to forget what shitting my pants was like before I could get that sick again, India was not a tack-on but required a whole trip itself, and there was something inside of me that was still preparing — the willingness to look, the openness to feel, the courage to surrender — for what I believed India would ask of me. The voice of truth resounded underneath the reasons, “I’m not ready.”
My perceptions, preconceived notions, and ideas about India — from books, movies, and my fascination with how over a billion people could possibly live on such a relatively small piece of land — have been building since 2002, when I first traveled around Southeast Asia and began hearing the backpacker lore. It was not the stories themselves that impacted me, but the looks on the faces of the storytellers, the way their voices shifted and their eyes dropped all pretense. I was 24 back then, and it was the first time I recognized something in these looks that I would distinctly call “real.”
I’ve been on a bit of a quest to uncover and mine what is real inside of me, to listen for it and let it gently guide me beyond the objections of intellect, jeers of cultural-conditioning, and rut of habit. When I quit my job back in February, I thought I was just taking a short pause, a respite after writing and promoting a book, and a break to figure out what I would do next for work. I thought I’d go to Bali and Nepal for four months, come back home and ease into creating a life for myself.
There is a common metaphor (at least in the circles I run) about trapeze artists, and how they must let go of the bar, free floating in the air, before catching the next one — it is the idea that you must, despite the uncertainty and fear, launch into the unknown before the next thing presents itself. I’m not a big fan of this metaphor. I mean, the moment of flying through the air unattached, it’s so quick, it’s over before you know it. For me, the leap into the unknown feels more like skydiving. You take that first frightening step out of the airplane, and then you fall, and fall, and fall, and fall. You are flying through the air for a long time, long enough to consciously feel the rush and terror, to wonder if the parachute will open. Perhaps there’s a fatal flaw to this skydiving metaphor in that it lacks a “next” thing out there, another trapeze bar to catch, but when you’re truly floating in the space in between, there is no obvious “next” thing out there. That’s the whole point. Or maybe this is all my way of saying this short pause in my trajectory has become a grand pause; I’m still flying through the air.
For the past six months in San Francisco, I’ve been living like a nomad, carrying milk crates and garbage bags from house to house, and occasionally cherry-picking a few extra possessions from my storage bins. I ask myself regularly, “Do you want to unpack? Are you ready to settle down yet?” And despite my need for stability and security, the question itself is the answer. If I wanted to drop anchor, I would be slowly lowering the chain, instead of shying away from anything that could hook me into staying still.
Rather than look for a job, I accepted the first job that presented itself. Like many of my previous jobs, it is so far from removed anything I am passionate about that my friends laugh at the way I’ve compartmentalized, drawing clear lines separating All That Inspires Me from Work. While my job is temporary, my cubicle misery is familiar and falling into this type of situation is clearly a pattern.
The other day, I had lunch with an old co-worker and right before I left, he wished me well on my travels and said, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
I walked away wondering if I was, in fact, looking for something. I thought about the archetypal backpacker, hitting the road (often in a time of crisis) to do some soul-searching. I’ve traveled too much to believe in the romance, or the illusion, that I’d “find” something on the road. Soul-searching adventures teach you how to live with yourself, much like liberal arts degrees teach you how to think — the knowledge is experiential rather than tangible.
The very reason I travel is that it’s one of the rare occasions that I stop looking for something, when my curiosity, wonder, openness, and joy somehow overrides the discomfort, sickness, anxiety, and overall fucking struggle that comes with the journey. It isn’t always pretty, and it certainly isn’t easy. But it’s real. I’m ready for real. I’m ready for India.
This trip is my sixth extended get-away in the past decade. Looking back, I see that those trips all form couples, pairs of two, folding into each other nearly back-to-back. While I never planned them that way, it’s almost as if the first were a warm-up for the second, with a short break in between to take it all in. Lately, I’ve been attending a lot of meditation/yoga retreats, enough to learn that the most important part of a retreat is the first few days after, and that it takes many, many periods of retreating and returning to daily life to practice integrating the two.
I’m wondering if the mark of a true traveler is not in their ability to get-away but in their ability to get back into daily life with their traveler heart still intact. I’m thinking that the best time to ask me what I’m looking for is when I return.