How Travel Helps us Keep Life in Perspective by elbi3sh


									No discussion about returning from a prolonged period abroad is complete without thorough
time devoted to reverse culture shock. And within the larger folds of a discussion about
reentry, the conversation inevitably turns to perspective. Specifically, that people don’t seem
to have any. Of course this isn’t a fair statement, but coming off of long-term travel to the
developing world often leaves you in a fastidious state of mind. However, there is something
to be said about travel also crystallizing your perceptions, honing suspiciously naïve
sentiments into firm sets of belief. Even within the context of culture shock, it can help keep
life in perspective. And if you concentrate enough, it can help mold you into the person you
strive to be.

During my time in Burma, I spent a week in a tiny town called Hpa-An. Staying put for so
long wasn’t in my plans, but something happened my first night in town that changed the
connection I felt to the tiny village in Burma’s Kayin State. That something was this:

I was exhausted when I arrived, coming off of a fairly ridiculous gauntlet of nightbus to
daybus to tuk-tuk. I checked into one of two places in town licensed to house foreigners and
joked with the other tourists that I was going to sleep at 7 and if they didn’t see me in the
morning, it merely meant that I was planning to sleep thorough another day. I went to sleep at
dusk and woke up to faint screams and panicked scurrying in the attic, the Rakhine boys who
worked at the hotel trying to stuff their belongings into a bag. Disoriented, my mind in still
cobwebbed from sleep, it didn’t register that the air was thick with smoke. I tumbled out of
bed and ran down the three flights of stairs to the street. Several buildings were on fire, and
given that much of the town was made of wood and that it had no fire station, people assumed
the worst. Next door to the hotel was a doctor’s clinic and women ferried in and out carrying
supplies to waiting trucks. Grabbing the most expensive ones they could find (a microscope,
medication, laboratory equipment), hoping to save what they could. One woman stopped to
catch her breath. “This is all,” she blurted out, roughly gesturing to the chaos behind her. The
hotel owner explained: no insurance, no savings. If her clinic went down, so did everything
she had.

One of my closest friends returned from a contract in Ghana only to find he wasn’t empathetic
to his friends’ complaints about the weather or traffic. They called him irritable; he called
them snobby, told them they lacked perspective. His friends did have perspective – it just
wasn’t along the lines of what he was prepared to digest. It was embodied differently: less
stark, less earnest, but nonetheless present. I gently suggested that he lacked some perspective
too; in straddling the world between Africa and the States, he couldn’t relate to either. Having
returned several times during my years of travel, I understood where he was coming from. I
remembered the frustration of knowing that my mental state didn’t jive whatsoever with those
around me. I remembered looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge and thinking “I’m over this.
Where’s the sticky rice?” But as I slowly seeped back into the world I used to know, those
ragged edges smoothed and conversations became easier. I learned to enjoy the Brooklyn
Bridge again. (But I still missed the sticky rice).

Which brings me back to Burma.

During that sleepless night as the fire spread through Hpa-An, the few foreigners in town ran
out to help. Of course we did! We offered to carry water, to help evacuate, to carry goods
from store to store. And as I ran around I told myself to remember this moment for when I got
home. Why? Because I knew that in going home I would get caught up in the resentment of
feeling like I didn’t belong. I knew there would be moments where I would fail to see the
forest through the trees. I wanted to remind myself of the invaluable perspective I gained by
being present in Hpa-An, that floating-above feeling of seeing one life as part of a wider
And you know what? When I lost all of my travel memories in a robbery back in the fall, this
is what I remembered. Hpa-An. Hpa-An and all of those other hairline moments, tiptoeing the
tightrope between life and loss, many of which I’ve never written about. It’s not a matter of
sanctimony – believe me, I cried serious tears when I found out those photos (along with my
laptop and camera and hard drives) were gone. But in keeping these moments close, in trying
to cross-reference where I am with where I’ve been and the lessons I’ve learned, I keep my
own perspective intact. Remind myself of what really matters in life. This isn’t why I travel,
but it is important; it keeps me calibrated. Whatever aggregate frustration or culture shock or
negativity I’ve built up, even when things feel like they’ve hit rock bottom, it could always be
worse. This is one of the many gifts that travel gives us. We always say “try to put yourself in
their shoes to understand.” But when your travels necessitate that you do so – be it for a
moment, or a week or a sleepless night in a tiny river town – the comparison solidifies into
something you can come back to, time and time again.

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