We are tossed out into the world like bag of unassembled parts and told to go to college, pay taxes, get a job and buy some stuff. And for the most part, we do.
We don’t know better. It doesn’t seem, at first, like anything is missing. We can now drink and join the toiling ranks and get in debt and look for that super special someone and maybe make some babies. But we are like children with chin hair. Nobody and no thing has called us forth from childhood in a powerful way, we are not initiated into life — we slink into a sort of adulthood and wonder what else there is and if we are doing it right, whatever it is.
Western culture has no elders, no ceremonies, no cohesive narrative and disparate attempts at guidance. We are left to fend for ourselves to become the women and men we want and ought to be. I think we call this individuality, which has a nice ring but is a lonely and confounding road. The lucky ones find a way into life, find a purpose, a narrative and a road that challenges and rewards. I consider myself lucky rather than clever, foolhardy rather than confident, and a product of happy accidents strung together like lucky-bastard beads.
I stumbled across my initiation into life though world travel and am now convinced travel can save us all.
The importance of initiation
Rites of passage, or initiation, are powerful and transformative experiences where an individual undergoes a dramatic shift in awareness and social role — immature youth to member of the community, from know-nothing to keeper of the secret doctrine. The crux of the rite of passage / initiation (terms we will use interchangeably in this article) is that on one end of the experience is the uninitiated person — the novice, child, commoner – and on the opposite pole of the experience the same person has become the adept, adult and insider.
In many cultures of the past (and many, though perhaps fewer, still today) everyone went through an important initiation experience before they gained full membership into the group / tribe / community / religion. These rites are important threshold events that prepare the individual for the next phases of life. We are very familiar with examples of ritual initiation as varied as the bar mitzvah, the hunt, body adornment such as the ta moko tattoo rites of the Maori and ritual circumcision practiced by African tribes, but the rites of passage have many forms.
There was no corner of my personality and worldview that escaped untouched by the travel experience.
Initiation almost always includes some kind of challenge, the attainment of new cultural knowledge and status and assuming new responsibilities.
Why world travel is the ultimate rite of passage
World travel is perhaps the best rite of passage for us amorphously cultured moderns. It is available to us now regardless of where we come from, how old we are and what ideals we hold. International travel was my initiation into the world-at-large and in many respects into the body of the human race. It brought me face-to-face with new lands, new cultures and new challenges that demanded that I become a new person. It was enlightening, beautiful, frightening, and at times painful — as the birth processes usually is. That is what initiation signifies, a rebirth.
1. You walk the earth ‘alone’
The Australian Aboriginal rite of passage known to us as the ‘walkabout’ is a awesome example of going out into the world alone to self-initiate. In a walkabout an adolescent may spend weeks or months walking the land. World travel means leaving the familial and familiar behind. Even if you have a travel partner or a group you are, in many important respects, alone.
Some degree of aloneness is faced by all initiates. Many people are uncomfortable being alone and the prospect of loneliness and exclusion from the familiar is painful to contemplate, let alone experience. But the reward that makes the aloneness bearable is that although one may experience solitude for a time, when you return you return expanded, new and welcomed into the family of those who have gone before.
Loneliness and aloneness is temporary, but the self knowledge you may glean will change you forever.
2. Your perspective is expanded
Rites of passage involve the expanding of perspective by subtle or forceful means and world travel certainly affords an unending parade of awareness expanding experiences. We receive an expanded awareness of other peoples, cultures, of history and perhaps most importantly of yourself and your role in the world.
This was the case for me. My initiation into world travel exponentially expanded my conception of the world and of myself to such a degree that the change was near total. There was no corner of my personality and worldview that escaped untouched by the travel experience. Travel gave me new eyes to see.
3. You are tested
Initiations are seldom easy tasks. They are overcome through a force of will, a physical act and a leap of imagination. Travel also tests us. It asks more of us and gives more to us than we expect or imagine – more courage, patience, warmth, humanity and self knowledge. The challenges may not be life and death, but nobody escapes the challenges and travails of world travel without a test or two.
4. You become a world citizen
In many cultures the Rite of Passage is an initiation into the tribe / group / community as a full member. The initiation experience grants access to a new community of peers.
I believe world travel as a Rite of Passage takes this concept to the highest level; instead of graduating into the tribe or religious class the traveler is initiated into the ‘World Community.’ My transition from well meaning colloquial hick from the wilds of Washington to world traveler made my world infinity bigger and gave me a tribe of 7 billion. As travelers our in-group is measured in billions. But there is only one way to join the tribe.
5. You gain ‘secret’ knowledge
All initiations and rites give the participant some new and otherwise unattainable knowledge. Some awesome esoteric kernel of info that was previously withheld. The Rite of world travel is no different.
The secret information of travel showed me that I really didn’t know shit. I showed me that the world was overflowing with beauty and possibilities, And I was given a clarity of purpose; I was supposed to be a traveler. The esoteric knowledge of world travel initiation will be different for everyone — but there is something there for everyone. You will learn something about yourself and the world, for better or worse.
6. Initiation by world travel is self imposed
In some cases the rite of passage is a sort of eventuality that is steered towards by the elders and the culture. You may not have a choice. Or your peer / family group has sufficiently pressured you to undergo the initiation and for all intents and purposes you have no choice.
Not so with the rites of world travel. You choose to go. It is a self initiation undergone voluntarily and perhaps with great personal sacrifice (you quit your job are spending all of your money). No one is pushing you over the edge, in fact people may be trying to keep you from leaving with bullshit scare tactics and every ultimatum they can muster. Still you go, in spite of, or perhaps bolstered by, the group consensus to stay.
7. The world is your teacher
In the rites of world travel the teacher / elder is the world itself — everything and everyone you encounter. The beauty is that you do not need to have a mentor or be a member of a special in-group, community or religion. You can approach initiation by world travel from exactly where you are, wherever you are. And you can go anywhere. I think it really doesn’t matter, there is no magical island. The land, the people, the animals, the history — everything — are teachers of profound knowledge, grace and of infinite perspectives.
Once initiated, world traveler is always experiencing the initiation, always being reborn.