How Can Travel Help Us Change?

2023 04 25

This was my final essay for the course Travel Literature at Tufts University taught by Professor Janis Bellow.

It is easy to overlook all the ways in which your current residence influences your life. In my bedroom, there are two windows on adjacent walls. One faces to the northwest and the other to the southwest. My apartment is on the first floor of a large building surrounded by several large buildings. All of these things put together mean that not too much sun reaches my room in the morning, even with my blinds angled to let more light in. This has the effect of creating a rather somber mood in my room in the mornings. A feeling that does not particularly inspire one to get out of bed, except for the creation of a desire to escape it. What strikes me from this is how a simple physical layout of windows, rooms, and buildings can cascade into having a degree of influence over my emotions in the morning. There’s no doubt that the repetition of this dismal awakening would have an impact on the rest of my life; I must act to change the situation, lest I succumb to an existence of dreary mornings. Fortunately, a simple replacement of my ceiling lights with programmable colored lights allows me to simulate the optimistic colors I would want a morning to have and I, one human, can go against what many humans have conspired to create within this civilized nature where I find myself.

The physical layout of our everyday surroundings not only influences us through the arrangement of human-made objects but also the memories that we have associated with them. In our homes these memories are most often of the banal: the path you take to walk to the bathroom, the way in which you take food from the cupboards, where you know to reach for a light switch in a dark room. The longer you stay in a place the more automatic your behaviors become. Moreover, your identity becomes fixed within these actions too. For instance, you may have a place where you like to sit and read for a while. You might find yourself looking up at a picture. Something about the way you look at the picture from this chair reminds you of a time when you were also sitting in this chair, reading, and you looked up because you had an interesting thought related to what you had just absorbed. Perhaps you find yourself wishing that your current book was as interesting as that book in your memory. It might become the case now that whenever you look at that picture you find yourself drawn to similar reflective thoughts. Over time the picture begins to carry less meaning about its contents relative to the thoughts that you’ve had while looking at it. This is but one physical object in your living space. Imagine the associations you have formed with all the other objects in your abode. It becomes difficult to move around your home without having your mind drawn to previous thoughts you’ve had, and the cumulative effect of all of this is that your thoughts and actions are more constrained than they once were. All these associations make it difficult to have new thoughts or form new patterns of actions while in these spaces.

This idea, that your physical space takes on part of you, is becoming more popular in the fields of philosophy and psychology under the name of embodied cognition. In brief, we do not think solely with our brain, but collectively with our body and our environment. Our surroundings become an external memory store for all the things that happened in conjunction with our sensory perceptions. This idea has been more popularly understood from Proust’s experience with Madeleine and tea which brought out memories of his childhood that he thought were lost to him. Scholars in this field will argue that any discussion about one’s identity must include a discussion of their environment. I have concentrated primarily on tangible objects that our memories become associated with, but they may also become associated with dynamic things such as people. Most of us recognize how we act differently when among diverse sets of people that we know. Embodied cognition tells us that this happens because parts of ourselves are stored within these other people; not in a literal sense in that you could point to exactly where, but that attributes about these other people bring out certain memories. To see this just think about how your thoughts change when someone close to you makes an uncommon face towards you - one of sadness or anger perhaps. It should be apparent that your thoughts are reacting not only to the immediate events that may have influenced this face but also to thoughts from the times past when you have witnessed the same expression before. Environmental cues act as keys to unlock memories associated with them; this was the heart of Proust’s search for lost time.

An interesting thing happens when we travel: all the associations that we have in our everyday spaces are left behind us. No memories exist for you in a place that you have never been. Embodied cognition would ask us: if we think with our environment, what do our thoughts look like when the environment is wholly new to us? Travel makes us unencumbered in this way. It enables us to experience sides of you that were suppressed by the regularity of your normal life - there are no everyday associations to prompt your next action or thought. One is then also free to try on a new identity by acting deliberately, or placing them into a setting that they expect will have some desired effect on them. For instance: I went to Switzerland to see mountains every day, Cheryl Strayed went to the Pacific Crest Trail to “save herself”, Richard Byrd went to remote Antarctica to find idle time, and Noo Saro-Wiwa went to Nigeria in search of a Nigeria different than the one she knew from childhood. Each one of us chose to travel someplace new because we knew the experience would allow for some sort of change in ourselves.

There is an important quirk about traveling in relation to our identity: changes will happen to us even if we do not try to make any. The habits of everyday life at home are like well-established cortical circuits. They influence our actions in decision-making in ways that often seem invisible to us until something makes their presence felt. Torre DeRoche did not have many expectations for herself she set sail with Ivan from Los Angeles. She does not even have selfish reasons for wanting to take this excursion. She writes, in regard to her decision to go with Ivan from Cabo San Lucas across the Pacific, “In order to keep him as he is, there’s only one option: I have to tuck myself under the folds of his wing and soar into oblivion with him.” Her choice to travel was primarily selfish in her desire to be with Ivan - she had little thought about all the ways in which traveling may affect her. One way she changed was made apparent on the island of Toau when the Doctor arrives to treat Gaston. “Hi, I’m Doctor Glen. I’m a surgeon” he says to Torre. She is taken aback by this introduction as “it’s been a while since we’ve talked careers with anyone” she later writes. She responds to the Doctor, seemingly automatically, with her name and her working occupation as a graphic designer. Torre’s response exemplifies a way in which our lives at home create these circuits of behavior. She describes how no one out here seems to think of occupation; there’s no need when they mutually understand that their occupations are as sailors and their business is the routine upkeep of handling a ship at sea. Yet Torre does not identify herself as a sailor to the Doctor. I believe she didn’t consciously choose to say her occupation, but rather because the occupational response is one of these automatic habits that are present in her life at home. She had to go away from the world where such an introduction would be commonplace for her identity to change in a way that would make such an introduction seem odd.

Noo Saro-Wiwa’s travels are more nuanced; she intentionally chose to come to Nigeria as a tourist, but she was also born and partially raised there. She wanted to learn what it had to offer which made it interesting. After all, she writes, “how could a country of 140 million people, stretching from the tropical rainforest of the Atlantic coast to the fringes of the Sahara, not be interesting?” Unlike Torre, Noo has explicitly selfish reasons for wanting to see Nigeria as a tourist. The Nigeria of her youth depressed her. Being habituated to the pleasantries of everyday life in Surrey, namely cooler temperatures and working infrastructure, Noo’s summer visits to Nigeria offended her at every step. Her desire to go to the more acceptable and standard vacation sites like her classmates only served to lower her esteem of Nigeria. Only later in life, after seeing sights worthy of exotic vacation destinations in Western Africa, does she begin to think that Nigeria must have its worthwhile destinations too. Her trip is interesting concerning her identity in two ways that are in tension with each other. She wants to visit Nigeria as a tourist to see its sights as if she were traveling to somewhere completely foreign to her, but she also tries to blend in as a Nigerian at certain points too. It seems she wishes to be able to turn her tourist status on and off when convenient for her. While riding a bus home, after being a tourist all day in parts of Lagos that locals do not tend to go, she is asked where she is from. Noo answers with Nigeria, slightly bemused that she didn’t blend in and prompted someone to question her. The man is skeptical of her response because of the way she dresses, and more so since she was “staring out of the window” - the implication being that Nigerians do not want to look out at their disgruntled city and chaotic traffic. We see this identity trade-off throughout the book: Noo desires to be a tourist but is hesitant to look like one. She is however happy to stand out as a “journalist from London” when in the Muslim parts of northern Nigeria to be more comfortable while attending the Durbar. Contrary to wanting to be a tourist she enjoys the very local activity of riding the Okadas so much that she claims she would continue to use them even if she were a billionaire. Noo’s identity balances between worlds as she travels in a land this is both foreign and familiar to her. It feels that while she claims to be traveling as a tourist, there is a part of her that wishes to know not what it is like to visit Nigeria but to live there. To be a Nigerian without a history of violence perpetrated by the Government against her family. Ultimately she concludes that “the mirage of a Transwonderland-style holiday wasn’t worth chasing.” Noo was misguided when she came to Nigeria for this trip. She had initially thought she was going as a tourist, but it became clear that she was seeking reconciliation with the country.

Similar to Noo, Cheryl Strayed chose to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail for selfish reasons. Where Noo had a clear vision of seeing Nigeria as a tourist, Cheryl has the ambiguous idea to save herself. Cheryl’s travels offer a perspective on the ways that going someplace else can affect one’s identity by their method of travel. In line with embodied cognition’s suggestion that our bodies are integral in how we think and perceive the world, Strayed attempts to solve her problems by thinking by moving her body along hundreds of miles of trails. Over the course of the book, we see Cheryl’s body continually adapt and strengthen to the task of the travel; much of her early walking on the trail is detailed in the physical struggles of carrying her bag and coaxing her body forward. Later on, her body becomes much less discussed to the point that it is mostly a tally of the trail versus her toenails. This parallels the growth that she experiences emotionally. Strayed does save herself not for any profound transformation or realization, but an acceptance that “I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true… It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.” Shortly before the end of her hike Cheryl states “even after all this way, with my body now stronger than it had ever been and would likely ever be, hiking on the PCT still hurt.” To me this again parallels how she grew with her body: no amount of preparation for anything will ever make hardship go away forever. But Cheryl is comfortable with this now. All that mattered was that she could know the hardship didn’t need to mean anything. It just had to be, it was hers, and that is enough.

The traumas faced by Cheryl provide another perspective on the relationship between identity and travel; Cheryl realized she could never return to Minnesota. I never expected to cry reading a book about someone walking along the Pacific Crest Trail and yet I did. Twice. The first time was early in the book as Cheryl described the process of losing her mother to cancer, and the second time was when she had to partake in the euthanizing of her now deceased mother’s dying horse. If it is so emotionally difficult to just read about these events, then it is even harder to imagine what they felt like to live through. Reading has some mercy on us by jumping enormous amounts of time and moving to what comes next in the story. Cheryl’s lived experience included every second of the pain. Every moment of anxiety wondering what would change next in her mother’s condition. Not even Proust would be able to describe the feelings that Cheryl must have had in these months of anguish. With these traumatic events and all the other struggles that she was having with her husband and remaining family members Minnesota had become forever stained by these memories. It is in this that we see Cheryl’s most clear reason for leaving. Her identity was trapped by a past that had nothing to motivate her to keep going. It’s no wonder that a guidebook to a trail could be so enticing to this shell-shocked Cheryl; a trail far from home with nothing there to remind one of life in Minnesota would be an ideal way to let go of it all and start anew. Just like Noo, however, Cheryl cannot completely leave her past behind her. She encounters some plains that are covered with plants and wildflowers, many of which she recognized and knew the names of from Minnesota where her mom would stop while driving to make a bouquet of these hardy plants from the ditch. It is shortly after this observation that Cheryl thinks “I will never go home… with a finality that made me catch my breath.” How telling is it that just when she is reminded of home it occurs to her that she must never return? It seems that sometimes the memories we associate with places can be so strong and restrictive to ourselves that the only way to escape them is to leave them behind forever.

Additionally seeking isolation, Byrd suffers his own traumatic experiences in Advance Base at 80 degrees 08 minutes south and, while not stated in the book, still returns to Antarctica - the source of his trauma. Byrd comes to Antarctica in Alone as a veteran of expeditions to harsh climates. He states his intentions for this plan travel plainly: “one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are. It was all that simple.” This would sound fine enough if you expected someone to be going to a resort where they could keep to themselves and have their livelihoods looked after them, but we must double-take at the simplicity Byrd claims this is all done for. There is nothing simple about living alone further south than literally anyone else on Earth in conditions more inhospitable and unreachable than anywhere else. As we know, Byrd’s attempt at understanding solitude is short-lived. He spends most of his time fighting in various ways to remain alive and due to this comes away with some discoveries that he had not set out to find: “appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values.” Byrd claims that four years since the incidents at Advance Base he had not changed in these ways. He still “live[s] more simply now.” A significant difference between Byrd and Cheryl is that Byrd’s traumas were consolidated into a smaller shelter tucked into the expanse of ice. His perspective is more or less the same in any direction and were he to travel even a moderate distance from the shelter he may lose it completely. The ambiguous nature of the surroundings may make it difficult for memories to take association. What is there to associate with anyways? On the other hand, the interior of the shack provides where the Antarctic landscape lacks. The creeping of ice up the walls of the shack as he battles between cold and carbon monoxide poisoning is indicative of his deteriorating physical and mental states; the higher the ice rises up the walls from the floors, the worse off he is. Byrd writes that “part of me forever remained at Latitude 80˚ 08’ South: what survived of my youth, my vanity, perhaps and certainly my skepticism.” Perhaps because his traumas could be tucked away and lost to the ravages of Antarctica they were easier to mentally discard than Cheryl’s. Intriguingly, as another parallel to Cheryl, Byrd writes near the beginning of the story a set of conclusions that match closely with Cheryl’s: “Yet, I do not regret going. For I read my books… and listened to my phonograph records… All this was good, and it is mine. What I had not counted on was discovering how closely a man could come to dying and still not die or want to die. That too, was mine; and it also is to the good.” This ownership of one’s life and the realization that, in a sense, that’s all you can really have for certain. Neither Cheryl nor Byrd came to these conclusions in a vacuum but needed the catalyst of travel to give their minds and bodies the space and experience to synthesize what may be a universal truth on some level.

Torre dramatically left Ivan before they made it by boat to Australia. This incident occurred after Torre had spent a few months during typhoon season with Ivan and her family in Australia, which turned out to be a sort of travel of its own. Having broken up the Pacific crossing with a stay in Australia allowed her to contrast her life at home with her life at sea. While Torre was no sailing expert, she had grown adept at it and saved the boat in situations where Ivan struggled to act. So, she was not choosing to leave now for reasons that she might have at Cabo San Lucas; she was leaving because of a change of character. Making across the most desolate parts of the Pacific and earning her salt as a sailor gave Torre the confidence to take on challenges in life. It also gave her the confidence to know that a life at sea was not for her; being in Australia had reminded her of how much social relationships with friends and family mattered to her. She would not be able to live a life of a vagabond, and she was sure in herself that she wanted to tackle new challenges. Those beautiful islands and idyllic life at sea are not lost to Torre forever. She could always choose to return to sea should she wish to, but she knows that a directionless life at sea is not going to provide a fulfilling life for her. In this way, Torre too owns her life as she charts her course without the need to tuck herself into the wings of another.

While in Switzerland I was greeted each day by a view of majestic mountains from my bedroom window each morning. Every night the valley situated between the mountains I was residing on and the mountains opposite would fill with a layer of clouds. It felt a bit like standing above the shore of some strange sea with unknown land across the horizon. The clouds hid the valley below with all its reminders of civilization. I felt as if I were in a world apart from the one I knew and was a part of. Each day I was charmed again by this view. It had a profound effect of making all my time feel magical while there. I was reminded by past experiences I had that reminded me of these feelings: when I was in Florida a few years prior and could wake up each day, brew some coffee, and then set out for the beach to read, or when I was in Maui and could watch the sun draw color down from the peaks of the mountains like paint slowly spilling down a canvas. In all these moments I was filled with such joy and gratitude for the day. It only occurred to me in Switzerland to think: why shouldn’t I seek something like this in my everyday life? Byrd and Cheryl both found that one should own their life, and I’ve only just started to realize that for myself in this way.

In all of these books, we see the traveler affected by their adventure. Their identity is altered, but most often in ways that help them crystallize as a more true version of themself. Through my travels, I too have come to experience my changes of own. I often find that travel is what elicits these changes most within myself. Theoretical frameworks like embodied cognition help us to understand how the simple act of changing our physical location can change our entire way of being—dramatically in some ways, but subtly in most cases. Our way of thinking extends out into the world and one of the simplest ways that we can form new thoughts and ideas is to take our bodies to places they have never been and observe how we change.