I used to think my traveling fell into a form of escapism, of running away from places and people that were small and constraining, places and people I perceived to be stunting a growth within me I didn’t even fully recognize I needed.
I was like a little bird repeatedly slamming itself into the walls of its cage, squawking and flapping furiously at every glimpse of sunlight, wind, and, God forbid, brother and sister birds that had made it out. I wanted out.
And I still want out. If I’m in a country for longer than a couple of months, I start to get trapped bird syndrome. I feel the impulse to learn a new language, cope with a new set of weird challenges, meet a whole new group of friends, take a new lover, and sleep under a new roof.
It’s not so much out that I want out, I realize, as I want in. I want the feeling of going into something again.
Like when I wade into a new body of water and it’s cold and my skin prickles and it takes awhile to muster up the courage to put my belly button, chest, neck, and finally entire head underwater. And then I emerge back onto the surface and my whole body is warm and acclimatized. No more painful chills, no more questioning if I was going to go for a swim at all.
Many people like the acclimatized feeling, but I like the feeling of wading in.
Just last week, I was in the midst of squawking for new shores when someone reminded me of the quote that goes something like, “You’re most yourself when you’re in the company of strangers.”
And I stopped banging my head against the cage for a minute. I thought, That’s it. That’s why I travel. Why so many of us travel. We say it’s because it makes us come alive and ignites our senses and challenges us and teaches us new things and lends a hell of a lot of perspective.
I think it’s really because travel surrounds us with strangers, and strangers provide the freedom to be our most authentic selves. Back home, you have to act and react in response to certain expectations. But “out there,” you act and react however you feel in the moment. You run on gut instinct, and instinct, I believe, leads the way to our true nature.
The little voices, the little impulses, that’s who we really are. But we silence those voices and temper those impulses when there’s people we know watching, because we worry, what would they think? I rely on them for love and acceptance, so will they still love and accept me if I act differently?
Travel takes me away from everyone who loves and accepts me, and I know that going in. I get on a plane to South Korea and I’m headed seven time zones away from anyone who actually cares if I live or die.
I never knew why that was so exciting until I heard that quote — because I’m taking a break from the push and pull of relationships that have stakes, relationships that turn down the volume of my true, wild nature. I hop on a plane and I’m turning up the volume on the human interactions that allow me to fearlessly express more of who I really am.
I thought back to the times I stayed in a hostel in a tiny town in Brazil for just one night, and had the absolute time of my life, running around and talking to everyone, dancing on the bar at 2am, and having soul-baring exchanges on the beach before sunrise with strangers whose names I can’t remember and who I’ve never seen since.
I thought back to why freshman year of college was the best year of my life, why I felt so alive having moved 14 hours away from home to be one of 25,000 students on a campus where I didn’t know a single other soul. I was happy because I could finally be whoever I wanted to be, after 17 years of being who people already expected me to be. That complete freedom and anonymity brought me into my truest self.
I thought back to 14 months of travel through Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, and Europe, completely solo except for the short periods punctuated by the company of strangers who would slowly turn into new friends and travel with me for awhile. I always felt at such peace with these new companions because there were no ulterior motives, no need to act a certain way to “keep the peace” because we’re family and we’ve got a long life ahead, or because we shared the title of “best friend” and I wouldn’t want to tarnish our history.
I thought back to my favorite romances, all of which occurred when there was a definite termination point in sight. I acted and loved with abandon because I didn’t care if they liked me anymore. The fact that we were both moving in different directions was a given, so I didn’t to act a certain way to earn their approval or commitment. I was just me.
After hearing that quote, I began to realize that people who “know me well” only know one particular side of my personality, one predictable pattern of many possible variations that I fall into when I’m with them out of habit, out of the unconscious need to confirm who they think I am, to remain consistent, because erratic behavior is not conducive to the reliable relationships we need to “survive” out there. Showing a yet unseen shade of my personality that differs from the one they’ve already accepted and loved is dangerous and makes me self-conscious, so I don’t take the risk. I keep that little part of me tucked away.
And I know that I’m doing the same with the others I “know and love” — I’m unconsciously measuring them against who I’ve come to understand they are. If their behavior continues to match my understanding, we’re good, but if there’s a huge deviance, I’ll feel a form of distrust (you’re not who I thought you were).
Close, intimate relationships clearly have a place in my life and in yours, too, so of course I’m not saying to reject or replace them and I’m definitely not saying to never get close to anyone new. What I am saying is that these consistent relationships may actually be suppressing an important part of your being that only strangers can unleash, that only travel into a strange and lonely land can awaken and liberate.
I will always have my trapped bird itches, and I’m guessing you will, too. But I think it’s not because we want to escape from anything or anywhere or anyone, but because we need the feeling of going into something again, of wading into a new ocean, of moving into a glass house and being around people who can see our truest selves residing there. People around whom we can stop acting, stop conforming, stop unconsciously acclimatizing to. People and places that, for a time, provide a space for our wildest selves to journey.
This piece first appeared on Life Before 30 and is reposted here with permission from the author.