The Unbearable Lightness of Travel

Levi is an American traveler and talented writer who's riding his bicycle through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Kenya. His dispatches from the road are worth following if you read travel blogs.

In a recent post he first covers the liberating freedom of not owning much stuff. Things are a burden: nice and expensive things come with the stress of potentially losing those nice and expensive things. I know more and more people, including non-travelers, who have gone minimalist and report great improvements in psychic calmness.

In the second half of Levi's post he reflects on the flip-side of a life free not only of material stuff but also a regular schedule, regular commitments, regular friends, a regular bed:

at some point, you begin to wonder what you're doing. you begin to feel you don't have a purpose in society, that you are peripheral to the movement of every day life. i think this happens around the time that all the stress you had saved up from whatever you left has sloughed off, and your mind and spirit are a bit free again. the immediate purpose of escape, of release, of experiencing freedom is fulfilled. then if you are still on the road, the question is, why?

there are surely many answers to it: having always wanted to see such-and-such a thing; or doing what you're doing as a challenge (this probably applies a lot to bicyclists); having someone to meet or something specific to do later in the trip, etc. but there are also surely many travellers–like myself–who have no such answer. we are on the road, travelling, without really being able to say why is we are travelling. at least, there's no immediate answer.

and i have more to say about what kind of answers come, and what you can learn from travelling beyond the obvious seeing of sights, tasting of foods, learning of new languages, etc. but what i wanted to mention today was how extended travel can be the needed spoonful of sugar to make regular life go down. when you travel, you are always on the peripheries of regular life: you are a customer but not a worker, a guest but not a regular, a new friend but never an old one.

that life on the periphery–travel–makes you want a place. it makes you want people around you that you've known and will know for some time, some work that you can do every day, a regular bed to sleep at night with a pillow you're used to. it makes you want a home, to go home if you have one, to go make one if–like me–you don't.

and travel that way is a natural end to itself, and support to regular life: it puts you on the outside, free, and after awhile you want again to be inside, confined but comfortable, knowing your place in the world.

This is the classic heaviness/lightness dichotomy that was first popularized in the Czech novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being and more recently in movies like Up in the Air. George Clooney's character gives speeches about emptying your "backpack" of obligations and being totally and completely free. It's a good life, until we see Clooney in the end craving "heavy" commitments like a real, rooted romantic relationship.

The highs and lows of travel follow this all the way: the free spirit in you loves the opportunity to escape and explore and the freedom to live day-by-day, but ultimately the lightness becomes unbearable, and you must find a home, and stay there.

(thanks to Maria Pacana for the pointer)

6 Responses to The Unbearable Lightness of Travel

  1. Craig Mische says:

    Thank you for sharing this Ben. I would have been interested in his site regardless but having recently traveled to Tanzania I am even more interested.

  2. Jackie D says:

    I relate to this all too well. When a rootless life becomes intolerable, the urgency of attaining stability can overwhelm a person. The relief of arriving at a more settled life is exhilarating.

    All that said, the experience of going through all this is hugely rewarding; certainty is not often felt so concretely as when you realize what you really do not want in your life.

  3. 8020 says:

    Very profound post.
    I’m not done with being ‘on the periphery’ yet – but maybe one day I will be.

  4. Shefaly says:

    I think if you don’t already know of him – I think you do – then the life of management guru (oh how I hate that word!) Ram Charan may interest you. He owns no home, lives in hotels and I think spends an improbable amount of time travelling. He says he likes it that way. From a “Hindu” lens he has achieved total detachment except from his work, of course.

  5. DG says:

    I see the “heaviness” / “lightness” concept as a continuum, where the real benefit can come from being aware and having experienced both.

    Then you can make the decision of how you want to live, what jobs you take, and what kind of relationships you have, etc. It seems like it comes down to where you’re at in life and what your priorities are.

    In my experience, it’s one of those things where the grass seems to often be greener on the other side ..

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