“A danger of travel is that we see things at the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connection chain.”
I’ve been reflecting on this quote this past week, perhaps my biggest takeaway since finishing Alain De Botton’s fabulously insightful The Art of Travel.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Looking back on a potentially life-changing travel experience and realising it actually didn’t alter us in any profound way, because we simply weren’t ready for it? Whether that was because we were too immature, because we were with the wrong travel companion, or because we simply didn’t do enough research before we left home.
My most potent experience with this was in Egypt. I travelled there, to Cairo and across the desert to Sharm el Sheikh, back in 2008. I was 24 years old, and although I’d lived in France by myself for a year a couple of years earlier, I was still so naive and sheltered in so many ways.
I’d never travelled to Africa before. I’d never been to a third world country, in fact. I remember being petrified by the intensity of the traffic, and the sight of all those old, beat-up cars. I remember thinking it was ok to wear denim shorts and a tee-shirt, then getting upset when my two girlfriends and I got cat-called by the local men. I also remember getting into a shady situation after visiting the pyramids after closing time, thanks to a bribe we gave our guide, then having a rifle pointed at me when the guards discovered us inside the complex.
Although we had a nice, cruisey time by the Red Sea in Sharm El Sheikh (now apparently a ghost town after recent terrorist attacks), I left Egypt a little shaken and confronted. I don’t recall retaining any ancient Egyptian history; I doubt I even really listened to much of that. In fact, the most I remember about visiting the pyramids is how scared I was to be on the back of that camel, and how its saddlebags scratched my naked thighs.
I look back at all of this and cringe. I lament the fact – especially now that Egypt has become so dangerous to travel to – that I wasn’t receptive to all the riches that country might have bestowed on me.
I have a few photos of me at the pyramids. I have some memories of the glittery beaches of Sharm El Sheikh. I might still have a bit of sand I smuggled back to Australia from the Egyptian desert. But as far as lasting imprints of the country that altered my life in some way? I don’t really have that.
Then again, maybe that’s ok. Maybe, instead of lamenting the fact that my Egypt experience was as “useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connection chain”, I can rejoice in the fact that in the last eight years I have finally learnt how to process my travels. How to properly research and prepare for a place so I know what to expect when I get there. And once I am there, how to give that place my all, and soak up as much as possible of its history and its culture so that it might help me understand the world – and my own life – just a little bit more.