It’s hard to say how the journey affected our personal growth. If we’d stayed in Germany for the last year and a half, we (hopefully) wouldn’t have just stagnated. You’re constantly gaining in experience as you go through life. Still, on a long trip you’re nourished by particularly rich soil, so in this chapter we’ve gathered together a few insights gleaned from our journey. One caveat: there were so many insights that it’s impossible to enumerate them all. The more we travelled, the wider and richer the world became. Above all, we learned that we still have much to learn.
The social insight
Normal problems at last
As members of a prosperous Western European society, our day-to-day problems are generally of the abstract variety. How can I explain the figures in the meeting? Should I get a Mac or a PC? Is that deal at the gym really worth it? Put in crudely simplified terms, that’s more or less how it goes.
Travelling forces you to contend with genuine problems and threats. How does the person I’m talking to feel about me? How can I communicate, when nobody speaks my language?
How do I react when somebody attacks me? Are there bedbugs in this mattress? You’re often preoccupied, especially subconsciously, with finding answers to those sorts of questions. It’s at exactly this point that insights tend to emerge. It’s remarkable, for instance, how far our familiar society back home is from the real, unavoidable challenges that people elsewhere have to face. You might know how to use Excel, but do you have any idea how to survive when there’s a mob of aggressive street dogs running towards you?
Fundamentally, there’s also a good deal of excitement to be had from finding a means of rising to this kind of primal challenge, when you’re unsure of yourself and find it difficult to read a particular situation because the culture is foreign to you. But these are exactly the moments that, in retrospect, become your most exciting stories, and which profoundly affect the intensity of a journey.
‚We’d been walking through the darkness for two hours already. We were obviously lost, when a car drove right up to us. The driver invited us to get in, but it was difficult to judge how trustworthy he was.‘ That’s how you tell it years later. ‚We took the ferry to Liberty Island. The Statue of Liberty was very impressive,‘ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Isn’t it crazy that the side notes, the ones about failures and threats and uncertainty, are more exciting than the experiences we actually made the journey for?
The sad insight
In a foreign country, you’re the foreigner
When you’re travelling you’re always moving in a vacuum. No matter how well you prepared for the journey or how many travel guides you studied, you’re always perceived as a foreigner, and therefore treated differently. It’s not too bad at first, and thankfully we were welcomed all over the world with kindness and open arms. In the end, however, the deepest insight you can gain from visiting a foreign culture is often the insight into your own ignorance. You can look around, amuse yourself, come up with an ‚image‘ of the place. Yet you remain an outside observer, interpreting things simply according to your own store of experiences, your own social constructs and, therefore, your own limitations. I always find statements like, ‚the people here are completely happy, even though they have so few possessions‘ rather bold. There are ethnologists who have to cut short years of unsuccessful research in foreign countries because, as foreigners, they can’t find a way in.
The personal insight
We like apples, oranges and exotic fruits
The internet is full of different types of traveller. It seems as if you’re supposed to assign yourself to a category as soon as you set off. Backpacker? Flashpacker? Couch-surfer? Package tourist? Escapist? (Digital) nomad? There are people who can’t stand the word tourist, simply referring to themselves as travellers. I can sort of understand that: obviously people who go to great lengths to push their limits and get to know another culture don’t want to be compared to package tourists. They’re like apples and oranges. Still – and this is a crucial insight – a willingness to slip in and out of those roles during the journey can genuinely enrich it. Monotony is never inspiring, and breaking out of your routine can have a thoroughly invigorating effect even when you’re travelling. Sometimes we’re in the mood for apples, sometimes for oranges, and sometimes even for more exotic fruits.
The cultural insight
Time isn’t always money
Wherever we go, we have to learn anew how to deal with time. Almost every country deals with time in its own way, though we’ve discovered that hardly anywhere is life lived as quickly as in Germany. Bus stops and timetables – precise to the minute – are the classic examples. In Indonesia we once got stuck for two days in a little town called Pare Pare because we couldn’t find out when the bus was leaving. The ironic thing was that we spent those two days sitting with employees in the public transport office, who couldn’t help us either. Instead they cooked for us and called in people they knew to keep us company, clearly enjoying the presence of two exotic foreigners in their midst. They took lots of photos. As day one neared its end, we trudged back to our accommodation with our rucksacks. Waving us off, the employees advised us that the next day we should stand on the main street instead. Maybe the bus driver didn’t feel like driving to the bus station.
In Germany we’re used to getting brownie points for being especially busy. Even the smallest windows of time have to be filled with useful activity.
Time is money?
Simply not doing anything, wasting time, isn’t exactly respectable. In many countries on our journey, however, it was the other way around: those who lumber themselves with too much work, making no time for conversation, family or relaxation, are pitiful weirdos. By now we’ve stopped thinking of our day at the public transport office as a lost day – after all, we spent time with nice people, chatting and eating together.
People who are constantly complaining about how little time they have and celebrate every spare minute might find that hard to understand at first. But having too much time can also feel like a burden sometimes. In the first instance, a long trip is simply an enormous, empty period of time, which you have to fill with activities. You’re constantly preoccupied with new sights, tasks and activities. For us, having no deadlines sometimes brought about a sense of inertia. Whenever we had an infinite amount of time, we forgot to really value it. It therefore seemed sensible to set ourselves goals and artificial time limits now and again. Once we’d booked our return flight, we suddenly started going about our business much more briskly again, dividing up our days very deliberately. Time had suddenly regained its value.
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