Freedom is a drug – paradox of the traveller
Guatemala. Another trip, another life, another set of people. I had left my stressful previous job, trapped as I was in an economically ruined UK with few options for change. I came here to look for work, improve my Spanish, gain some experience in the international development sector. But most of all, I came to escape from a land of diminishing opportunity.
I came to search for a freer life. But I had forgotten, though, in that search for freedom, the dangers and temptations of that sweetest of drugs.
As I left Antigua for the shores of Lago de Atitlan, the familiar buzz of excitement rose in my stomach, plastered all over my face in a foolish grin as I chatted animatedly to the driver about nothing in particular. He was reserved, had heard it all before no doubt, these excitable (and likely interchangeable) gringas who drift through his daily work.
Once again the beauty of the soaring green peaks beggared belief as we drove past. I thought of the people I had met in Antigua, the places I’d seen. The ugly and the beautiful. Those I had admired and despised. All to be left behind for pastures new, starting again. The possibilities once again opened wider than a new horizon. As wide as could be imagined.
When you step onto that bus, that plane, that boat, that donkey, whatever, everything changes. All the scenarios, good and bad, become nothing more than stories to tell. Embellishments on your existence. The good you can cherish, retell again and again, nourished warm in your heart and mind, sustaining you for the future. Keeping you going when times get rough. The bad too become stories, stories to laugh at because they are no longer real and threatening. They no longer hold that very present power over your life as they did when you were still walking past the same streets, catching glimpses of the same people. And if you really want to forget, you can forget. Perhaps not completely, but more so than in ‘normal’ life. There are no physical reminders of unhappy, painful, or shameful events travelling by your side (unless you were unlucky enough to get scars). There are no witnesses to remind you. The story is yours to retell, yours to rewrite. As the stories are retold again and again, sometimes they shift a little in meaning. And what you retell, is what you remember. Even the memory itself can be rewritten, if you retell it enough, subtle tiny changes over time, without even realising. And no one will know, not even you.
It amazes me when I reread my old travel diaries, to see what I have forgotten. The stories that I didn’t tell, or told only to myself, in writing, and quickly forgot. The ones I didn’t repeat to the next batch of new travellers as a way of breaking the ice. So much that I don’t remember, and it’s not a coincidence. Things I didn’t want to remember, or things that didn’t seem worth remembering. Things that didn’t fit my narrative of who I was and where I was going.
Travelling gives you the freedom to forget; the freedom to retell. Reinterpret. Even if we want to be faithful to the truth, our minds will twist it without us even realising. That is what memory does, create a narrative, including some things, excluding others, according to criteria we may not even be conscious of.
You can see why it might be addictive. It’s a dangerous freedom. It’s a freedom from consequences. When you can rewrite or recast your stories, you don’t have to face up to the bad or the ugly in yourself. There is no one around to give the lie to the lies we like to tell to ourselves, about ourselves. About who we are. The countless little hypocrisies that we all indulge in. If it looks like they will, we can just ditch them, move on, new place. New, new, new; forget, forget, forget.
Freedom to make your past. Not wholly, but enough. Enough for it to feel different. Enough for it to make a difference. Enough to not have to think about it too much. When you can just leave, you never have to think too much about that bad taste in your mouth, which quickly fades upon distance. You don’t have to face the person who gave it to you, or what part you played. Just start again.
What does this mean for looking forward?
Every new meeting, every new person, is a chance to be someone else. You become very aware of projecting yourself to others, because you are meeting new people every day. Every day you have to give people a snapshot of yourself, something that will make people ‘get’ who you are. When you start to have to think about that, you become more aware of the person you want to be, the person you want to look like. You don’t have to think about that with your family, your friends, the people you’ve known for years. The people you’ll have to stick with. In this way, it’s almost like living in Facebook, as you cultivate your ‘profile’.
This is addictive too. Encourages us to lie to ourselves, to create an image of ourselves we admire and pretend it is true. When you only stay with people for a few days, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t true. It doesn’t matter, the vulnerabilities and weaknesses that lie underneath your image and theirs. You only know each other long enough to see the best of each other. The bits that you want to see and want them to see. And these become your new reality, the one that travels with you. That reality is golden, that reality is beautiful, as addictive and life-affirming and ultimately destructive as the strongest drug. A reality where you never see the bad side. And usually… you don’t even notice you’re doing it.
These processes are of course linked. You rewrite your history in the image of this ’someone else’, the ‘you’ that you wish you were. Past and present, united and flowing in this half invented narrative, where truth and fiction are never quite distinguishable.
There is a paradox, though. The constant change can be wearing. Everything starts to look the same, everyone starts to look the same and sure as hell those damn traveller conversations always were the same. Change becomes monotony, the conversations meaningless. The disposable intimacy of the traveller flings starts to pall. It’s tempting, to build something a little longer, a little safer, a little closer, in the midst of all those instant moments. Something a little more long term. A connection. Meaning. A relationship, perhaps. Someone to travel with, to stick with, to share your stories with.
At first it is perfect, still living in the golden reality. You click and you laugh and you enjoy each other’s company. But soon the edifice starts to crumble.
Now there is someone to give the lie to your lie. And you give the lie to theirs. Whose image will survive? That depends on who is more sure of themselves. Who can either lie harder, or who was more honest in the first place. Who has a stronger grip on their own personality, whatever version of it there may be.
The less aware you are of the edifice which you have built for yourself, the worse it will feel. The harder it is to understand what is happening. Because you didn’t realise you were lying. And now you have to live up to this ‘you’ that you’ve created for yourself, this person, this stylised version that never really existed. You have to try and be them, for real. And it doesn’t work, because real people never look that good. And it hurts. And you don’t know why. And you get confused. Confused about who you are.
This can be a torment. Once you start to get confused, everything starts to break down. Maybe the relationship isn’t going so well. They say things about you. Things you didn’t think were true, but now… how can you tell? You liked them so much at the beginning. You got along so well. What has changed? Was it them or was it you? Reality becomes clouded. You argue. Who backs down? In this powerful, emotional, isolated island of a relationship, where only the two of you exist, moving along in the backpacker slipstream… you have no standard by which to judge. You have no social context to remind you who you are. You do not have your friends, your family, to say, what are you doing? Why are you letting this happen? This isn’t who you are. You only have the word of the person there in front of you, and your own judgment in your own head. Your reality then becomes a product of a battle of wills to define what’s true. Who started the argument. Who is reasonable. Who is being logical, who is making sense, who is telling the truth. Who is crazy and who is sane.
This is a very dangerous place to be. This can drive you insane, destroy your sense of self completely. And once that’s lost, it can be very hard to leave.
This is the paradox of the travellers’ freedom. Though you can reinvent yourself at will, if you do not have a strong grip on who you are, who you really are, inside, you can end up in the opposite of freedom. Living in the tyranny of someone else’s judgment of you, unable to even distinguish for yourself what’s real and what’s true about your own thoughts, your own self. And worst of all, unable to leave, the greatest freedom of the traveller, lost. Because leaving requires faith in your own judgment. And that’s precisely what you lose, in this kind of tyranny.
That was the story of my first trip six years ago, and I’ve seen it play out in other people’s trips, to some degree. Of course, not everyone falls prey to this process when they travel. But it’s hard, hard not to. Because it’s so easy, that freedom, that drug, the rush beckoning like the sweetest high. And like addiction, it’s so dangerously easy to lose yourself. Lose who you are.
I sat on that bus to Panajachel and I felt that rush. The temptation to screw it all, live the backpacker circuit, let it all drift, live for the moment. For the instantaneous hedonism and the sweet rush of that special brand of traveller freedom, where life is just a chain of moments where nothing really matters. Anyone can be interesting for the first hour, or day. Many can be fuckable, for a little while. There are always new people to meet. Some even make it to a week before their gold starts to pall and they are discarded along the road like so many others. Discard without malice; make no mistake, there’s no ill will. But discarding is just what a traveller does when things aren’t golden anymore; it’s the flipside of the traveller’s raison d’etre. To move forward, continue the journey, to seek experience, seek pleasure, you must discard. And as long as you hold on to your power to discard, you’ll stay free.
But it’s an empty freedom, even if we can hold on to it. Even if we don’t lose ourselves in someone else’s power, the someone that the emptiness drives us toward. That emptiness too can be destructive. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the people I’ve met who’ve been on the road for longest have also been the most egocentric. Because you don’t have to learn to see anyone else’s point of view when you travel. You can, but you don’t have to. You can just leave instead. And leaving means no dialogue.
For freedom without consequences is a meaningless freedom. You are free… to achieve nothing. When you travel, life is an etch-a-sketch. A single shake, you rub it all out and start again. But there’s only so much you can draw with an etch-a-sketch. And there’s only so much you can live in a collection of moments. You don’t build, you just collect… stories, experiences, notches on the mobile bedpost.
The most challenging things in life, are the things we can’t rewrite. The truths we have to face and negotiate with. The things we can’t erase. The people who are too important to erase. The relationships it would hurt to erase. The things we have to make work, for better or worse. The things we have to build slowly, day by day, piece by piece. These are the things that make us grow, and ultimately, that give us fulfillment. These are the things which really make us learn, force us to reflect, on ourselves and on other people. The things that are wider than just ourselves and our own experiences.
I sighed as I felt the rush, and smiled to myself as I let it slide past. Smiled at past folly and lost illusions, smiled at the hope for something more. Smiled as I let go of the temptation, smiled at the thought of a struggle to bite on rather than a cloud to drift through. Smiled, as saying no to that addictive freedom felt more like freedom than indulging it ever did.
This is just my story, this is my philosophy. I cannot speak for all. But I know I’m not the only one.
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