Two months into my trip across South America, I’ve visited quite a few archaeological museums and seen my fair share of mummies. It’s hard not to be reminded of my own mortality when staring death in the face, albeit hundreds of years old and enclosed in a glass case. I’m reminded of the rows of skulls in the catacombs of Rome that told me, years ago, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” How reassuring.
Yet in The Odyssey, the ultimate story of travel (if only Odysseus had lived in the time of the internet, his would have been a worthy travel blog to follow), the immortal nymph Calypso expresses her envy of Odysseus’ mortality. The fact that he will die, and his time, therefore, is limited, gives his life more meaning: his choices become more important, precisely because he can’t do everything.
As children, we believe we can do everything. Death is far from our minds, and a whole world of endless possibilities exists on the road ahead. We’re encouraged to dream, we’re told we can be, and do, anything we want. I was going to be an astronaut, a princess, a film star… But very quickly those imaginary doors are quietly shut behind us. They’re closed by the expectations of society and of adulthood – “You shouldn’t study that, it won’t lead to a good career,” “That sounds far too risky, you’d better stay where you are,” “Don’t give up a good salary” – and by our self-limitation. It’s easy to blame our parents, or our teachers, for steering us in one direction or another, though they usually only wanted what they thought was best for us; but there comes a point when we need to take responsibility for our own lives.
As a Libra – yes, of course, that explains everything – I’ve struggled in the past to make important decisions. I took the IB so that I could study six subjects instead of the usual four at UK A-Level; I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, due in large part to the breadth of the course versus a single subject; I continued with a graduate degree in Geneva more because I didn’t know what else to do than for any particular passion.
I recently learned of a fabulous German word that captures this perfectly: ´Torschlusspanik´. Apparently it originates in the feeling of panic experienced by medieval peasants when the castle gates would close ahead of an enemy attack; I see it more as a desire to keep different options open for as long as possible. For a long time, I didn’t realize that inaction on my part often led to those decisions that I feared being made for me. Instead of me choosing which doors to close, doors would gradually be slamming shut all around me until there was only one path to take. This approach may be an easy way out, but it’s one that will leave you with a life that you never chose.
Travel, I think, opens up some of those doors again. You meet people with different lifestyles, you see places you didn’t know existed, you experience things you never even considered. In fact, this can make life choices even harder – more possibilities can make you confused and overwhelmed by all the different options that are available.
Wouldn’t it have been easier if you had grown up in a small village, married your childhood sweetheart, and lived and worked in your birthplace until you died? Easier, maybe; comfortable, definitely; and probably full of meaning in its own way. But once you’ve opened Pandora’s Box, once you’ve eaten fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, there’s no going back. Living the dream becomes an actual possibility, and one that you need to seize with both hands. Your eyes have been opened, and the road ahead is limitless.
In my case, taking a three-month sabbatical to travel alone in South America seemed like a huge decision. People around me were surprised, they told me I was brave, and it felt like a big deal. Within a few weeks, though, I was surrounded by people of different ages who were traveling for six months, a year, forever even, and had quit their jobs back home. Now, my little three months away along with the security of a guaranteed job when I return seems almost trivial. But it hasn’t been trivial for me, it’s been just what I needed. And while I don’t have all the answers (and I no longer want to be an astronaut), I’m beginning to ask the right questions, while feeling much more comfortable with a degree of uncertainty. I feel happy, and relaxed, and I feel free. And I know that I’m going to be making some changes, closing some doors while opening some new ones.
But in my wisdom at the grand old age of 30, I’ve also come to the realization that it’s not about the big decisions in your life, about the one big dream – The Career, The House, The Husband, The Children – at least, it’s not just about those things. In the words of the musical Rent, it’s about the 525,600 minutes of the year. It’s about the little moments, the experiences, the chance encounters. And traveling is a fabulous way to create more of those moments, have unforgettable experiences, and meet people you otherwise would never have met. So whether you go on a short holiday or you opt for long-term travel, whether you take a backpack or a suitcase, whether you travel alone or with friends, travel can give you inspiration and new opportunities, as well as confidence in whatever choices you do decide to make. Even if one of those choices is continuing to do exactly what you’re already doing.
And, in the end, we shouldn’t over-think these things. Maybe the job won’t work out, maybe the relationship won’t last, maybe you’ll want to move again. Maybe the dream you’ve worked towards for so long wasn’t the dream after all. But life is what happens while you’re busy making plans, right? So I for one am going to be enjoying all those little moments along the way, the good and the bad. And I have made one big decision: when I die, I’m going to be cremated, so that no one puts me in a glass case to be stared at hundreds of years from now.
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