Monday, 22 December 2008

Travelling Engagement

In our recent travels, we’ve encountered many young people. Indeed, Antigua seems to be the portal of choice for Europeans and Israelis on the Great Central / South American tour. We met a number whose enthusiasm, commitment to immersing themselves in the culture and sheer adventurousness drew me like a magnet. For them, everything was new, an adventure, full of promise. They were open to any opportunity and feared nothing (probably due to lack of experience, coupled with an age-appropriate denial of their own mortality). Their energy was like a refreshing shower, and I was highly envious. My envy was no doubt exacerbated by my own history – accelerating through school to go straight to Oxford as an immature student, and then headlong into work just after my 21st birthday. I never took time out to grow, partly because it wasn’t thought of in the circles in which my family moved, but also because I saw it then as a waste of time when there was apparently so much more to do in the formal, serious world.

Given my time over again, I like to think that I would be amongst the throngs of such young adventurous and curious travellers, and sometimes I pine for the lost opportunity.

It was therefore somewhat a surprise to me when a young German lady told us that, though she was off on a fascinating adventure through colonial towns in Mexico, she was concerned over the cost and the consequent limitations of her trip, being a student, and she indicated that we, being older, were in many ways more fortunate.

There are, of course, some benefits to adventuring when you are older. You have accumulated a greater context with which to view the way other people live their lives. You can appreciate more the luxury of time to take it in, as compared to simply taking such opportunities for granted. You may have some more money (but, just as likely, you are far more concerned about losing it). On the flip side, though, having context also means that not everything is a brand-new and life- jolting experience, you are very aware of your mortality and you pay dearly for health insurance. Your tolerance of spartan accommodations may also not be as accommodating as that of a young adult. But most galling, for me, is that you don’t feel you have the youthful luxury of an open-ended fertile time of infinite possibilities waiting for you at the end of your travels in which you can grow and harvest the seed germs you collected in your travels. The end of your journey on Earth is visible, brought into high relief by the passing of parents and friends.

Maybe, though, on reflection, the real issue in benefiting from travel is not your age, but the mindfulness with which you travel. We encountered plenty of young travellers who were travelling with minds wide shut, only marginally engaged in the experience of which they could be part. Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, Mexico – it really didn’t matter. They were on a time out, and pleasure was their guiding principle. Families jet down to all-inclusive resorts in exotic locations just to chill out in sunshine and never see the country in which their pleasure palace is located. And at the other end of the spectrum, older people can cruise to many different countries and return with nothing more substantive than a few extra pounds and a collection of photographs to prove they were there in body, if not in mind.

I think that travel only broadens the mind if you let it, if you are observant and mindful of the differences and reflect on what that means to your life. You don’t need to travel endlessly to enjoy that dislocation. For us, the deep and colourful divergences in culture between North America and Todos Santos, and the more subtle grey shadings between Comox and life in the bustling city of Calgary, provide rich sustenance for reflection.

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