By Lucy Spoliar
I remember, in my late teens, deriding the stereotypical “gap yah” vision of jetting off to some far-flung country and coming back months later with a tan, a lot of edgy photos, maybe even a cheeky little tattoo. When these people also talked about having ‘found themselves’ on their travels, it seemed to me to be smug, self-indulgent, and not a little pretentious.
But now, as a twenty-two-year-old adjusting to rainy old England after thirteen months on the other side of the world, I feel compelled to admit that there’s more to the notion of ‘self-discovery’ in travel than meets the eye.
I flew to Australia fairly shy, insecure and naïve – and somehow came back with a new energy, confidence and sense of interest in the world.
When I came back to England, everything felt foreign. It’s a very disorientating feeling, having become so acculturated elsewhere that you see the streets you grew up in with ‘new eyes’ – you really notice how the different parts of your city fit together, what kind of cars people drive, how people act on public transport, how people interact in general.
As soon as you return, to everyone else, you’re just an ordinary local; you have the accent, you know your way around, you have friends here. But you got so used to being ‘that English girl’ in a range of incredibly international groups of friends and travellers, you can’t quite remember how to configure your identity as just bog-standard, status quo. I think that’s where the idea of ‘finding yourself’ when travelling initially comes from: it lies in a sense of fear that maybe you didn’t find anything at all and you’re just the same person as before.
That isn’t something I thought as soon as I got back, of course. I was too busy showing everyone the photos, telling the stories, flaunting a modest tan and pondering whether I should have got that bamboo tattoo in Thailand.
All of these, on some level, in an attempt to make the people around me understand the experiences I’d had, to validate the new sense of confidence and identity they represented to me.
Of course, it was partly simply for the joy of talking about those experiences that I had loved so much. But I was away from England, overall, for 413 days. Rationally, I knew before I even left Cambodia (the last leg of my travels) that it would be impossible for me to fully describe every moment of 413 days of my life even to one person; not even a best friend or a parent lending a willing ear. It didn’t stop me drifting into reminiscences at any opportunity for the first month or so after my return to England.
What really interests me, though, is how my perspective on what I learnt and how I was ‘shaped as a person’ in those 13 months has gradually, almost imperceptibly changed since my return. When I think back on my time living in Australia and the two months I spent backpacking around Asia, it is hard to reconcile that with my current life in Durham, completing my undergraduate degree. The places, the people around me, everything is so incomparably different.
And what I’m gradually realising, to my surprise, is that the one source of continuity between these two lives is that they are both my experiences. In a sense, my life here and my life abroad were both dictated by an arbitrary mixture of who I happened to meet, what opportunities I was aware of and what the places I’ve lived happened to be like. But I have a growing conviction that that’s only half of it.
Because equally important is the way in which I choose to live those two lives; the people I choose to know, what opportunities I take, who I talk to. And that’s the same with travelling too – the half hour rambles about my two months in Asia, in which my friends here have indulged me, all revolve around the people I met and what they made me understand about their lives. Not other tourists whose experiences of the world are more or less the same as mine, but local people who understand the cities they live in better than anyone.
If there are two things to be drawn from what I’ve discussed, the first is that in order to let a place ‘change’ you as a person, you have to understand what it means to live there.
And ultimately, when travellers talking about ‘finding themselves,’ what it seems to me that they really mean is that they have begun to find out about the world and other people in it. They just haven’t yet managed to accept that they can’t construct a unique identity around the (admittedly very cool) experiences that they’ve had – and haven’t realised that there’s a whole lot more to life than being ‘ahead of the trend.’
Photograph: Sally Lanora Svenlén