Travel forces you to grow, there’s no doubt about that. Travel ripped off my clothes and scrubbed me raw like a Moroccan woman in a local hammam, splashing the sleep from my eyes as she flung buckets of tepid water at my face. It didn’t force me to grow in a #travelphotooftheday #livingmybestlife kind of way. No sir. Travel took me apart and taught me a motherlode about freedom, including that it wasn’t an escape from myself.
Let me explain.
I was 22-years-old when I boarded a one-way flight to Lisbon and put Table Mountain and the rest of South Africa in my rear view mirror. After many late night ‘study sessions’ as an armchair adventurer of Instagram, I binned a promising future in medical research and left my family, friends and boyfriend of three years. To say that I was terrified beyond my wits would be an understatement.
Up until then, much of my life had been like stumbling around in a dark room filled with inescapable traps of self-doubt, insecurity and paranoia. I longed to learn how to let go, be free, experience raw, breathtaking adventure and answer the question that had become too loud to ignore: Who am I? With my pink Moleskin diary and analogue camera in my backpack, I was all set for carefree adventures. Or so I thought.
People laugh when I tell them this, but it’s the honest truth: I thought that by ‘leaving it all behind’, my mind, negative thoughts and anxieties would stay behind too.
Those first few months abroad were the toughest of my life yet. People laugh when I tell them this, but it’s the honest truth: I thought that by ‘leaving it all behind’, my mind, negative thoughts and anxieties would stay behind too. In April 2015, I began a five hundred kilometer pilgrimage across the north of Spain, hunching my forty-six kilo frame under the shadow of a twelve kilogram backpack. Yet it was the immeasurable weight of anxiety and heartbreak that made me stumble, always postponing harmony to the next town, to the end of the day’s walk or to the bottom bunk. Over six months I traveled in Portugal, hiked across Spain, taught English in summer camps in Italy, and explored the turquoise beaches in Corsica and Sardinia. Yet wherever I was, I was convinced that happiness lay in Budapest, under the Northern lights in Norway, or back home in a relationship. Here I was, thousands of kilometers from home, free to go wherever I wanted, yet still I felt more trapped than ever. After six months, I ended up in my uncle’s spare room in Lisbon, exhausted from the never-ending conflict with myself (“why can’t you just be happy, dammit?”) and unable to leave the apartment.
You see, the glorification of travel is driven by the idea that quitting your job and traveling the world will bring the ultimate freedom — freedom from insecurities, anxieties and responsibilities. The yellow bikinis and crystal blue waters of Instagram convince us of this constantly. And so we cling to travel as our way out, our “I know I’ll be free if…” card. I know I did. And coupled with that, we tend to confuse happiness, peace and freedom with ideas of pleasure, constant gratification and the removal of obstacles. But long-term travel is not an escape from life, nor is it constantly gratifying, because while you may be able to escape [insert burdensome commitment here] for a while, you cannot escape the mind, life or its challenges.
Your mind’s conditioned patterns will travel with you until you have the courage and wisdom to see them, accept them and let them go… over and over again.
It’s true that travel is a life-changing experience: exotic landscapes put your place in existence into perspective; interactions with people of different cultures instill a deep understanding that all human beings are born equal and gratitude flourishes as a result of becoming intimate with the world and her people. But you can never outrun your problems. (Trust me, I’ve tried. A lot.) Your mind’s conditioned patterns will travel with you until you have the courage and wisdom to see them, accept them and let them go… over and over again. No plane ticket will do that for you.
It was only when I relinquished all control and stopped resisting Life that I was able to flow with it. I finally understood that it was my own clutching and splashing at solutions outside of myself that brought on the swell. When I was able to quiet my tantrum and reign in my limbs, the movement of water subsided until all that was left of the tempestuous ocean was a pond. The stiller I became, the smoother the surface, reflecting all the things around me I wasn’t able to see, including myself. I exhaled a deep sigh and felt the ghost of weight leave my body, realizing that all I’d searched for in my grasping had been here all along. I’d just been too busy making waves to realize it. This wasn’t a once-off flash of realization. It’s something I relinquish again and again.
It’s already you, baby. You have everything you need.
I once heard the analogy of learning as ascending the spiral staircase of a lighthouse: as you go up, you see things from different perspectives, observing all the facets. As I climb through life’s lessons, I keep learning that real freedom is not a matter of geography or circumstance and can’t be acquired through searching, striving, or achieving. Travel made me realize that I don’t need it or anything else to be free. In the moments that I feel trapped, whether abroad or at home, it’s always because I believe there’s something I have to do or a circumstance I have to create, whether it be through yoga, meditation, a perfect relationship or success, to ‘become’ free. But really, freedom is our nature. It’s already you, baby. You have everything you need. And with that there is only one thing left to do: just be. Consciousness occurs as effortlessly as breathing. And therefore so does freedom.