Having spent more than half of the last 3 years on extended to trips to Latin America and to Asia, I begin by asking this question.
In some ways the answer is not so different than the mountain climber who says he/she climbs "because it is there." In part then, my answer is that I travel because there is a world out there, far greater then my own, and I want to experience it first hand. Why not just read about it? Why give up the comforts of your own home and travel to out of the way places and put yourself out there? Why take those risks? Isn't that the point; to go beyond your comfort zone so that you can have a fuller understanding of yourself, and how you cope with experiences and cultures that are alien to you. How can you really understand your own culture without getting outside of it? How can you understand yourself?
So I travel to gain this understanding. An understanding that can only come from deliberate dislocation. This dis-location creates the space for me to see what I could otherwise only intuit; what it is like to be a foreigner, to be "the other." Of course, many people experience this as immigrants or refugees, often under duress. My experience will never be that, and yet it gives me some insight into their lives, not so different than my own ancestors. It is so easy to forget. I see the children of my foreign English students, already so American in the few short years they have been here, and so different than their parents, who will always remain foreigners. Perhaps if I was not two generations removed from that experience, I would not be so eager to seek it out. And yet, unlike my forebears and my literacy students, I can and do return home. I climb down from the rarefied air of the high mountains of travel, and return to the everyday, the mundane, the easy ways of the familiar. I bore my friends with stories and pictures of where I have been. I resume the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning, and the not so everyday projects of filling in a large area of erosion, and building a retaining wall so that the stream on my property does not swallow up more trees along its steep banks. I hurry to take care of other neglected areas, both inside and out, in order to maintain my old house before the winter sets in, and before I set out on my next journey.
I consider the ways in which my extended trips have changed me. I find that with the richness of my experiences of the past few years, the real question is not "why travel," but rather, why stay home? And home doesn't feel quite the same. Despite living here in upstate New York for more than 35 years, I find myself less attached. Perhaps it is partly cutting way back on my work life, but perhaps some of the bonds have been loosened by being a vagabond. The paradox is that I'm somehow more connected to any number of places, but less so to my home.
A question that I am often asked is, that after being away from home for so long, aren't I really glad to be back? "Well," I hesitantly answer, "in some ways, but not in others." "Aren't you glad to see your children, your family, your friends?" "Of course, but...." It's hard to explain to someone who has not had the experience of long term independent travel. Many of my friends have traveled, but not in the same way. The people who do understand are out there, working or wandering, and perhaps creating new homes in far off places. In some respects I feel more of an affinity for that community than to my own. Those folks understand the ambivalence of ending a journey and yearning to plan the next one. No need to explain. Perhaps some of them choose to become permanent expats, or else wanderers living on a shoestring, avoiding all but temporary attachments. Are they just running away? Some of them, but aren't all attachments temporary?
And my own attachments? My wife, Nanette, came with me when I traveled and my children visited me abroad. My extended family has never been that close. My close friends are still there, but the peripheral relationships seem less important. Yet I have made some new and important relationships, with the Burmese monks who are my English students for example, and with the local Burmese refugee community, which I never knew existed before now. My attachment to things, to stuff, was never that great, but it is even less now. Living out of a backpack and wearing the same clothes for months on end makes it easier to realize how little I really need. Ok, so I do have 4 pairs of skis in my garage. My house? Yes, I'm attached to it. It's been here a long time, 200 years or so, and I want to see it loved and cared for. Yet in some ways its become an albatross preventing me from getting away and taking up my time. My cat . She holds a grudge if you go to move her, and has been known to counter-attack hours later. She's mellowed some after I accidentally ran over my other cat Spenser, who was my favorite animal, always affectionate. I try to assuage my guilt by telling myself that he was old, and wouldn't have been around that much longer. Neither will I of course, so I can't wait too long before setting off again. A temporary, fleeting stage of my life? No question, but one that I feel blessed to have, thankful for what I have seen and done, and looking forward to the next great adventure.