When we left Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jason and I reviewed our itinerary, which was nothing more than our Air Bangladesh flight voucher. The extended version of it read something like this:
Arrival: Kathmandu, Nepal @ 15:45
That’s it. The only thing we knew for certain was we should probably find a place to sleep for the night being that we were emotionally shattered from traveling in Bangladesh and needed a good night’s rest. From there we could figure out what to do and where to go. Outside of that, about the only thing we expected was the unexpected. No plans. No physical or mental bearings. Definitely no command whatsoever of the Nepali/Hindi/Bengali languages. It was once again 110% “game on”.
I’ve mentioned this to a few people and I could almost literally watch their skin crawl right off their bones. They’d fidget around, uncomfortable at the thought of not having a steadfast plan or some idea of what to expect, especially when contemplating landing in a land halfway around the world without a clue how to communicate.
Scary? Hell yeah it is, but it’s also invigorating and soul-feeding like nothing else. Every one of your senses is exploding and you’re more aware of your surroundings than you’ve ever been in your life. Every minute detail is huge — the incessant honking, hordes of people screaming at you to take THEIR taxi, the smells, some good and some, uh, not so much — it’s literally like drinking from a firehose.
Could I avoid all that “trouble”? You bet I could. I could walk down to REI or ring up Backroads Adventures, plunk down about $5,000 and not worry about another thing other than making sure my passport was updated and getting to the airport on time. My transportation would be pre-arranged, my accommodation would be carefully vetted, my three square meals a day taken at “reputable” eateries and all the trophy sites reached by air conditioned transport. Huh, now, can you see my skin crawling off my bones?
I’ve been studying/contemplating the idea or concept of emptiness lately. It’s a funny term, “empty”. When you mention it to anyone, almost without hesitation most people will consider it with a very negative connotation — an empty glass, an empty heart, an empty gas tank, an empty life. Most people “think” they prefer to consider everything in life as “full”. “I want to live a full life”, “give me a full glass”, “my holiday itinerary is full”, etc. etc and will work hard to make sure everything in their life is, or can be perceived to be, “full”.
This has been an interesting word to study, but as I’ve come to understand the concept of emptiness a little better, I can actually equate it to my style of travel and why I prefer the style I do. Before I get into that though, perhaps the best example of my view of emptiness came when I thought about going to a movie. Suppose there’s this amazing movie I really, really want to see, say some kind of ski porn or climbing flick by Teton Gravity or Powderwhore Productions. When I get to the theatre, imagine I walk in and find all the seats are full and standing is not allowed. Full in this context is not a good thing. I would kill for one empty seat so I can get what I want — to see the movie. In the case of an empty seat, empty would be good.
Now, to relate a travel scenario and the concept of emptiness, say someone gave me a bucket, something like a medium sized pail, and said to me, “See all those pool balls over there, that big stack? Each one has some awesome activity written on it that you can do on your upcoming holiday. All you have to do is choose which ones you want and put them in your bucket until it’s completely full. Then, just bring it back to me and your holiday is all set. Once you choose though, you can’t change and put them back because we have to make reservations and make sure we can use your time efficiently. Oh, and keep in mind that once you pay, there are no refunds even if you decide you don’t want to do them”. Sounds pretty awesome, eh? Just fill that bucket up to the brim and get ready for a carefree dream holiday.
Now suppose after you fill your bucket with all your chosen activities, you’ve paid and you’re happy as a clam when all of a sudden you see another pile that has more activities that you didn’t know about, maybe an activity that would change the entire way you see all of life life. You look at your pail and see there is no more room for another ball. Damn it. But you really, really wanted one of those other ones. Disappointed with the lack of an empty space in your pail for even one more ball, you settle for what you have.
I know that some people, probably most people, prefer to cherry pick their activities beforehand, have a place to stay secured (especially in a foreign country) and have a relatively good idea of what they’ll be doing each day. Totally nothing wrong with that. It’s just a matter of choice.
For me, I can say with all honesty and absolute conviction that the most memorable and DNA changing moments of my life came via a path I hadn’t planned on taking. It’s the times when I had to use my skills as a traveler to adjust my view (not adjust the situation), go with the moment, adapt, contemplate, decide, trust…most times completely on the fly. I love stumbling on something completely unexpected and getting a taste of a culture I knew nothing about, seeing something interesting that’s far off the tourist track or taking a chance eating from a street vendor and having the best meal of my life. Risks in all this? Sure. But the rewards of it far outweigh the risks, at least for me.
So when we landed in Kathmandu, we had a completely empty pail. We’d made the conscious decision to stay true to our style of travel and for the next couple of months would fly by the seat of our pants, live in the moment and see where fate (and sketchy ass busses) would take us. I admit it took us out of our rather broad comfort zone from time to time and sometimes situations seemed very unsavoury. But, the amazing people we met and the experiences we gained could have never been replicated under any structured, “full” format of travel.
Something else about “empty” travel that proved itself out time and time again while we were bumming around Nepal and India was the reality of having nowhere to be and nothing to do. One night in particular that strikes me now was about a month into the trip. We had been roaming around the country for a while and wound up back in Pokhara (Nepal). We were staying in this tiny little Tibetan guesthouse and late one night we were sitting outside around a little garden table writing in our journals (Jason sketching in his pad). For some reason that night it hit me that I seriously had no idea what day it was and that we had no plans at all going forward, nothing — other than in a few weeks we needed to board a plane for Kolkata, India.
We talked for a while, sipped our masala tea and eventually Jason quietly went into the room and returned with our Lonely Planet books. We thumbed through them for a while, discussed a few places and eventually decided we’d hop a bus and go somewhere else the following day. The funny thing is, we’d never thought about that place until then, but since we had an empty pail, we could simply pack up our few belongings and go. If it was cool, great, if not, no harm and we’d move on. That place wound up being the most pivotal experience of my entire trip, but that’s another story. Had I not chosen to leave all my options open and just wing it from day to day, I may never have had my life changed in such a huge way.
Now, as I now start to put together ideas for my upcoming travels, I’ll naturally follow the same guidelines I’ve always used — always leave more than plenty of room to have nowhere to be, and have nothing to do.
Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big.