Every Vacation Must End

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

TRAVEL. If you resonated with the “Experience Economy” that David Brooks described and I referenced in my previous post, then you probably have a not-so-secret obsession with traveling. There are several common reasons we humans travel: business, study, leisure, opportunity. But another reason–and one that is in my opinion the most magnificent stepchild of modernity–is to simply adventure; to explore a jungle or hike a mountain; to go on a safari or see an ancient ruin. I woke up Monday in a Korean bathhouse in Seoul (that is a whole ‘nother story) at 7:00 a.m. and by 1:15 p.m., I was sitting in my Chinese writing class in Washington, DC, taking a quiz about Sun Yat-sen. The world doesn’t miss a beat these days. Chris Guillebeau likes to say that if you save just $2.00 a day for two years, you can buy a round-trip ticket to most destinations in the world. And you could do this about twenty times in your working life.

So—we get it—-if you prioritize spending your money on travel, then you should have no problem making it to exotic, far-flung destinations.

But is it really worth all the hassle? I read this article about travel about two years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. Psychologist Jonah Lehrer, who I mentioned first in the post about New York City, has this to say about traveling (it’s a little long, but believe me it’s worth it!):

Travel…is a basic human desire. We’re a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here’s my question: is this collective urge to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know–still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat, one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun then I think the TSA killed it.

The good news, at least for those of you reading this while stuck on a tarmac eating stale pretzels, is that pleasure is not the only consolation of travel. In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away–and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going–is an essential habit of effective thinking.

The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close”–and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional–get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful–it allows us to focus on the facts at hand–it also inhibits our imagination.

if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d’ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here’s the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can’t solve.

The larger lesson, though, is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar.

Accordingto the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as acompliment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat.But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn’t good enough to finish.

Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to re-alize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpret-ing the world.

The same details that make foreign travel so confusing–Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?–turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.

So in the spirit of reinterpreting the world, I present to you (drumroll please) the second, far-less-profound-and-interesting half of this post: a few travel notes from Indonesia and South Korea.

Starbucks in Insadong, Seoul

1. The U.S. gets around. But it’s not just Starbucks and McDonalds In the streets of Seoul, a CouchSurfing friend from Britain commented that there are two types of Americans in South Korea: English teachers and soldiers. And you don’t get the two groups mixed up very often. At the first bar we walked into in Hongdae, there was a large group of crewcut guys sitting in the corner and singing along to the 90’s Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. songs playing on the stereo. Later, the same guys could be found chasing Korean girls in the streets. In Jakarta, there was a meeting at my hotel between the U.S. and Indonesian navy to plan their next round of joint exercises this spring. To me, as an American, I don’t really think twice about seeing servicemen and women abroad, but I noticed that the reaction of travel-mates from other countries was more pronounced. And you might be able to imagine, if you were Chinese and you heard U.S. analysts warning that China is disrupting international security and the established order with its maritime strategy, you might say:

“Well, our options are rather limited, don’t you think? The U.S. has joint exercises with South Korea and Indonesia, a mutual security pact with Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines, a maturing security relationship with India, and significant bases in Japan. This is our backyard, and it’s awfully crowded, so the only way we can make room for ourselves is to build up our naval capacity–at least a little.”

I’m not saying we in the United States should dismiss Chinese naval modernization as inconsequential, just that we shouldn’t be surprised.

2. In Southeast Asia, there is a battle between geography and government. In the United States, the rallying cry today is to assert that the federal government is bloated and has grown far too large. In Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, the government is often fighting just to stay alive. The central governments don’t have enough power and authority to carry out basic tasks, like ensuring the rule of law. And it’s not always that they are corrupt (though that may be the case sometimes), but in other cases it’s that it’s just too damn hard to centralize some of these places.

To be sure, geography and demographics do not make the job any easier. Indonesia has 17,000 islands. There are 820 indigenous languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, a country with a population comparable to New York City. (Dividing the total population by number of languages, you get roughly 8,000 people per language). Papua New Guinea shares an island with part of the Indonesian archipelago, but one of the government ministers from PNG said in Jakarta that this was–I’m not joking–the first time he had ever been to Indonesia, much less Jakarta. Can you imagine if Hillary Clinton had never traveled to Canada? . Robert Kaplan reports that “half the people in the world who live within seven miles of an active volcano live in Indonesia.” I heard hotel staff in Jakarta and beach bums in Bali both complain that their government was not serving the interests of the people–that they were in the pocket of the wealthy and would throw money out of helicopters to buy votes (I doubt that last part is true.) But I kinda sympathize with whoever is the president of Indonesia–how can you represent the interests of the people when it’s hard to know who some of the people even are? And Indonesian democracy is barely a decade old, and so maybe it’s just in that ‘teething’ phase when institutions are not yet capable to meet societal demands.

In many cases in Southeast Asia, geography trumps government.

  1. Sport cars and prayer rooms

3. Islam can be very moderate. Please forgive me for suggesting in the title that the existence of moderate Islam is a revelation. I’ve never been to a majority-Muslim country, so my impressions come mainly from U.S. media, from the one “History of Islam” course I took at Georgetown, and from an email listserv of commentary by John Esposito. But if you want to challenge your ideas about Islam and culture, to challenge the inevitability of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ spend some time in Indonesia. Kaplan describes it much better than I can in his book Monsoon:

“The future of Islam will be strongly determined by what happens in Indonesia, where Middle Eastern forces from puritanical Saudi Wahabi groups to fashionably global Al Jazeera television compete for people’s hearts and minds against local forest deities and the remnants of polytheism…Islam came to Indonesia not through military conquest as it did almost everywhere else, from Iberia to the Indian subcontinent, but, starting in Aceh in the Middle Ages, through seaborne Indian Ocean commerce...Islam became merely the top layer of a richly intricate culture…What is so striking about Indonesia, and Aceh in particular, precisely because it is the least syncretic and therefore the most Islamic part of the archipelago, is how, without any prompting, Muslim scholars champion a liberal vision.”

Indonesia is, to resort to a cliche, another melting pot of the world. I remember sitting on the beach talking with my surf instructor Judah, a Christian with family from Northern Sumatra and southern Malaysia. We were in Bali, just feet away from a statue to “Balinese Hinduism” in this majority-Muslim country. Managing diversity is an ongoing challenge in every country, but Indonesia–at least so far–seems to have struck a successful formula.

Balinese Hinduism

And finally, since this post is far long enough already and you probably are not even reading anymore, I finish with something Judah-the-surf-instructor told me when I asked if he planned to teach surfing and live on the beach in Bali forever. He stopped drinking his Bintang beer, smiled, and said:

“Life slows down here. There is no worry about climbing the ladder, no social pressure. I go back home and get stressed out in a few days. But you can’t live forever on the beach. Every vacation has to end. It is easy to enjoy a vacation, but harder–and more important–is to enjoy your everyday life.”

To that, I say, Amen, and happy travels.

**Sorry for the lull in blogging throughout the past two weeks. I kept intending to sit down and crank out a post and then I would either fall asleep or get distracted, but here I am and now it is March and, after being back in the United States for four days, I’m technically already on Spring Break. Life is tough, eh?**


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