Reality, really?

Just this week I booked my flights for a trip I’ve been thinking and dreaming about for a long, long time. Over the past several months, maybe even years, I’ve dreamt about what it will be like to set out on foot in the Himalaya with a plan consisting of nothing more than:

A)     Turn up in Kathmandu

B)      Walk around

C)      Figure it out

Until I hit the “Book” button on the airline’s website, it had only been a dog ear on another page of my things to do list. Now, it’s real.

I know I’m fortunate beyond fortunate that my current employer understands, or at least pretends to understand, that I’m not the kind of person who’s content to flit off to Cancun for a long weekend of pre-boxed, all-inclusive type vacations (not that there’s anything wrong with all-inclusive types of tour vacation, it’s just not for me). So, if you know me at all, you’ll know that every once in a while I get all itchy inside about traveling and need to step off the gerbil wheel in a big way. Even more fortunate for me is that my friend Jason, who will be traveling with me this time, is of the exact same mindset when it comes to striking out on an adventure with only a plane ticket, a backpack and a Lonely Planet book.

As real as it feels now that I’ve booked the flights, the true gravity of the adventure probably won’t settle in until I leave San Francisco and see nothing but ocean for the next twelve hours until we change planes in South Korea. From that point there will be no quickly bailing out and turning back. Even if I decided to abort the trip mid air and book a flight home from Seoul the minute we landed, it’d still take me more than a full day of sitting in a winged aluminum tube, hurling in the fringes of outer space at near mach speeds to get back to Colorado. To put things in perspective, the total miles Jason and I plan to travel during our trip (by airplane alone) currently stands at 23,278 — that’s not including the miles trekking, riding buses and catching trains. So you can see it’s not exactly the kind of trip that’s conducive to simply leaving a little food and water out for the cat while I’m away.

Yesterday a couple of coworkers asked me how my “planning” was coming along. Of course I cringed at that “planning” word but I was uber pleased to inform them that I had in fact finally booked all our flights. They asked what places I would be flying into and it made me smile when I blurted out the cities of San Francisco, Seoul, Bangkok, Krabi, Kathmandu, Pokhara, Dhaka and Chittagong (Bangladesh). Funny but I think I’d only thought about the individual legs for so long that I really hadn’t thought about the trip as a whole until right then. I’m still smiling by the way.

The next question from my coworker was one that I absolutely despise. They asked, “Won’t it be hard to come back to reality after a trip like that?” The reason it irritates me so much is because travel for me is a way of finding reality, not escaping it. I’ve written page after page in my journal about the difference between being a traveler and a tourist, but that very term, “come back to reality, represents the true apotheosis of the cavernous difference between the two styles of travel.

Every day when we pick up a newspaper, click on a news service on the internet or turn on the tele to watch stories about events around the world we unfortunately find ourselves being filtered and biased by our own surroundings. We can hear all day long about the violations of women’s basic human rights in Afghanistan, rape as a tool of war in the Congo, human trafficking in South East Asia, droughts in Africa, flooding in China or Maoist rebellions in Nepal, but the truth of the matter is that once we turn away from the story or turn off that information source, 99.9% of people will return to the usual grind without much more thought about those realities. The simple reason is that these stories are most always originating in a country without a face per se, so admittedly it’s hard, if not impossible to empathize without that personal reference.

Maybe it’s my insatiable sense of curiosity or my unquenchable thirst to look over the next horizon, but I personally feel a guttural need to put faces with those stories, to experience other cultures in a grass roots (i.e. dirt bag) style of travel without all those annoying filters, biases or tour guides showing me what THEY think I should see. I fortunately know and embrace the fact that reality is more than what my own life consists of…it’s a summation of every single person inhabiting every single place on this planet. When I’m in those faraway places I make it a point to be very cognizant that where I am IS reality, it’s reality for the people who live there and it’s my reality simply because I’m there as well. I desperately want to understand, empathize and accept but I feel I can’t properly do that without experiencing it firsthand.

Therefore, when I travel I know very well I haven’t escaped reality at all but rather just found a different reality 12,000 miles away…and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I can vividly remember exact times during my travels when I truly, truly realized that true reality is where you are at that very moment. For example, I remember a couple of years ago when we were sitting in a small open air café along the Chaopraya River, sweating profusely in the omnipresent heat and humidity of Bangkok. I looked out across the street and into an adjacent market to a virtual ocean of dried fish selections, overwhelming smells, desperately poor people looking through rubbish bins for anything to eat, mysteriously exotic fruits and vegetables, writing and symbols on signs I couldn’t decipher at all, obnoxiously loud tuk-tuks zooming past while emitting grey-ish blue tinted exhaust, literally thousands of bicycles and motorbikes everywhere and people speaking a language I couldn’t even begin to understand…and that’s when it hit me, it’s when it always hits me. I was exactly where I wanted to be, where I needed to be.

From that exact second I knew I could either take a balcony seat for this amazing opportunity or I could fully immerse myself in that different world, accept that things are different and that I’ll probably be a little uncomfortable at times. I couldn’t wait to let myself be completely absorbed into the vibe and rhythm of my current surroundings and become part of that reality. With no tour guide to get me through the language barrier, no concierge to direct me to the “best” places to see, I seriously couldn’t wait to dive in head first and wallow around wholeheartedly in my current reality.

It’s those moments when I can chose to be a traveler or a tourist. There will never be a doubt what choice I’ll make.

So no, it won’t be hard to come back to this “reality” when I return from Asia and the high Himalaya. Once I’ve expanded those horizons and experienced those different cultures again, my reality here will take on a completely new definition and I’ll be able to start anew with my new, bigger eyes…and that’s a good thing. Acquiring new eyes is why I travel to begin with.

Climb high, ski hard, paddle far and run long.

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