How Travel Expands the Mind: Edges of the Known World
I love maps. A pocket atlas I had as a boy counts as a major inspiration for my travels—I loved leafing through the little book and dreaming of visiting all those distant places some day.
Among my favorite maps to contemplate as an adult are those on which blank space represents areas of the globe unknown at the time. On these old maps, boundaries of the known world fade into blank space and only a blurry line separates humanity from nothingness.
The mapmakers who were uncomfortable with the void imagined the features of unknown areas and some even embellished their creations with mythical creatures like mermaids and dragons.
I love these maps because they show the limits of humanity’s understanding of our own world and suggest the progress since then. And the 13 year-old in me loves picturing the adventures of explorers as they stepped or sailed into the unknown; I still want to be one of them when I grow up.
To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. —Aldo Leopold
Blank spaces on the mental world map
In my mind I carry two images of the world. The image of the cartographic map tells me what the world looks like and shows me the places I can go. My mental world map traces my own travel experience. The known world consists of all the places—countries, regions, cities, nature destinations—I have visited. In each country on the first leg of the 2013-2014 Where Is Your Toothbrush? World Tour (the Netherlands, France, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina) I was able to at least get by speaking the local language. I’d been to all these countries, they were my known world.
The blank space on my mental world map represents the places I have never been. As soon as we entered Greece, I crossed that invisible line into the unknown. The dragons took the form of an unfamiliar script and an unknown language. I felt an unfamiliar unease at being unable to understand anything, at being out of my element. Thailand multiplied this feeling exponentially: my mind became overwhelmed with stimuli that bombarded the senses at every step. But as soon as I settled down a bit, I realized my childhood dream was coming true. At last I had become an explorer, if only of my mental world map.
Exploration and the end of mystery
With continued exploration and conquest cartographers filled the blank spaces: Lewis and Clark trekked across North America to the West Coast; Captain Cook landed in Australia; Magellan’s expedition circumnavigated the globe. Then, sometime in the 19th century white spaces vanished from contemporary maps altogether. When maps were completed, the idea of the Earth’s geography finalized in humanity’s consciousness.
The completion of the world map ended further exploration: with no blank spaces to fill, there was nothing to discover. Cartography then had to occupy itself with enhancing the maps’ detail, improving the accuracy of projections and the measurements of Earth’s surface, and improving materials used for making maps. Maps and the world they represented lost forever the mystery that had shrouded them since the first map was drawn centuries before.
How travel expands mental blank spaces
Travel fills in the blank spaces on the mental world map. But the parallel with the two-dimensional map ends there: travel expands the mind, multiplying its blank spaces. Once in Greece, my mental world map lost a chunk of blank space but a much bigger space opened up: there was so much to learn about the country’s customs, cuisine, and culture overall. And when I left I knew I’d barely scratched the surface. The experience repeated and intensified in Thailand: because the contrast with my own culture and experiences of cultures I knew was greater, the newly opened, unexplored space was much bigger than in Greece.
They say that travel broadens one’s horizons, and it is true. Yet it’s bigger than that: travel opens entire new dimensions. For example, before the world trip, I considered food as fuel. Historically the Slovak cuisine is based on starch (potatoes) and fat (cheap meat) that provided peasants with energy for work in the fields. I now appreciate food as an experience in itself: I wanted to write a poem for a cheese in Greece; I fell in love with a soup in Malaysia; and I can’t wait for what Argentinian steaks and wine will do.
The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know now and how little I will ever know. Travel expands the mental blank space so much it can never be filled. But I’ll be damned if I don’t try.
Travel lessons from a world trip
It’s been two months since I returned to the U.S. after the round-the-world trip a.k.a. the 2014 Where Is Your Toothbrush? World Tour. The dust of resettlement has settled, the destination portion of this blog is winding down, I’m adjusting to life back in Portland (looking for a job, reconnecting with friends, sampling microbrews), and learning how to live like a perpetual traveler. Similar to many travel bloggers after they return home (see here, here, here, here, here, or here), I also reflect on what I learned on/from the big trip. No, I hadn’t set out to gain any of these insights—these travel lessons came as epiphanies.
Travel lessons: I took things for granted
After repeatedly going over to the dark side of traveling during the trip, I understood I hadn’t properly appreciated some of what my life in the U.S. provided. It was the little things, for example:
- clean underwear
- a hot shower with decent water pressure
- decent wifi
- decent pizza
- espresso or just good coffee
- no touts in front of restaurants or taxi stations
- no sewer smell on the street
- drinking-safe tap water
as well as the big ones like health, time (see below), and money.
I’ve learned to value what I have when I have it because not only most people on the planet don’t have the same ‘luxuries,’ I myself may lose them at any time, especially when traveling. I returned transformed: more humble, more appreciative of everything.
Travel lessons: I need less than I thought (and less than I have)
I set out to travel lightly, bringing only essential gear in a 44-liter / 2,650-cubic-inch backpack and a shoulder bag weighing a total of 14 kilos / 31 pounds. But barely halfway through the trip I realized I still carried too much. I downsized to a 32-liter backpack and a smaller shoulder bag (I never got to weigh myself with the new combo) with some room left over, and after a few months I felt I could go even smaller. Many travelers learn this and exhort others to pack little. I learned, as the common advice goes, to buy whatever I lacked and then shed it, usually by leaving it behind for whomever comes after me or throwing it away, if necessary. I believe this can only be truly learned from personal experience.
The point was driven home again when I returned and looked at the little shed at my mother-in-law’s where Lindsay and I had stored a few boxes of personal stuff we wanted to keep. I went through every box to select what to bring with me back up to Portland. Ninety percent of the things made me wonder, ‘Why did I keep all this?’
Just like tasks tend to stretch themselves to the time allotted, the amount of stuff tends to accumulate in the space available. But no matter how small or large the space I live in, I need less than I think and most likely less than I have.
Travel lessons: It happens when it happens
I come from a punctual culture. When I’m late for anything I feel a great deal of anxiety. Vice-versa, I hate waiting. And now I live in a culture where ‘time is money’ and real-time (as in now) rules. Yet, in most of the world, or at least most of the places we visited, time flows differently.
Though I was familiar with the concept of event time—’it happens when it happens,’ or, ‘whenever it happens is the right time’—as opposed to my own clock time conception, it was only on the trip that I truly learned to appreciate it and enjoy its advantages. Ever since I started letting things happen on their own schedule (I’m not talking about business appointments here, but rather about things I have no control over), I am calmer, more level-headed, and happier.
Traveling is my life
When I was a teenager I dreamed of a life in which I would live in a different country every 6-12 months. In college and for a few years thereafter I traveled a good deal, mostly around Europe and the U.S., so much so that my Serbian friends, whom I met traveling, gave me the nickname Petar Jebivetar (Peter the Windf#$&r). Then I moved to the U.S., and with just a few exceptions spread over a decade, I only traveled to visit family and in-laws.
On the trip, in Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, and Australia, I reconnected with friends I knew from my previous traveling life, and made a few new ones. I reconnected with the traveling version of myself, resumed the love affair with travel that had made so whole, became younger even as days kept adding up toward the ultimate Finish line. When I realized this was happening, about 4 months into the trip, it was an epiphany: traveling is my life. In fact, it is, as George Santayana points out, life itself.
Travel lessons: I am nothing
We humans tend to think we each are the center of the universe, but in the end we’re all unique just like everyone else. I passed through a lot of places, traveled more than 40,000 miles, saw a lot of people and a lot of natural and man-made things. When I placed myself next to all that, to all the humanity and its creations and to all the planet’s beauty, I felt small, nothing even. This was more immediate than the kind of smallness and insignificance one feels gazing at the night sky. It was a physical, visceral experience, that shook my body and mind into knowing that in any grand scheme of things I don’t matter. Just the thought of it now makes me once again bow my head in humility. It’s a good thing.
Childhood inspiration for travel
Many travel bloggers/writers claim that their love of travel springs from childhood. Books, souvenirs, or other objects sparked something within them that, years later, finds expression or fulfillment on the road (see examples here, here, and here). I can trace my desire to see the world and the love of travel to a handful of childhood artifacts.
Childhood inspiration for travel #1: Jules Verne’s novels
As a boy, I devoured books by Jules Verne. I particularly remember Five Weeks in a Balloon, Around the World in 80 Days, The Children of Captain Grant (aka In Search of the Castaways), Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, Two Years’ Vacation, and The Lighthouse at the End of the World. Over the years, perhaps from ages 7 to 12, they opened new horizons for me and showed me there is a world out there, ready to be explored and full of adventure.
Childhood inspiration for travel #2: The Pocket Atlas of the World
The 7th edition of the Pocket Atlas of the World, published in 1984 by Slovenská kartografia, succumbed to my thumbing fairly quickly. I kept it together with copious amounts of transparent tape and learned to handle it with care.
In 1986 when Corazon Aquino became president of the Philippines, I crossed out Ferdinand Marcos’s name on page 104 and wrote hers in. Soon I realized I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the changes happening in the world and that there isn’t any room amid the tiny, dense print for too many updates anyway. When borders in Central and Eastern Europe started to change after 1990, the level of Pocket Atlas’s outdatedness reached hopeless. The large-format atlas that replaced it never captured my imagination the way the Pocket Atlas had.
Childhood inspiration for travel #3: Evening Television Newscasts
After Czechoslovakia’s 1985 gold medal at the ice hockey IIHF World Championships, at which point I realized there is a real, big world out there, I started watching the evening Television Newscasts on Czechoslovak Television’s first (of two) channel. Domestic news bored me most of the time since they were full of reports from this Party meeting or another, this agricultural or industrial succes or another; news from abroad fascinated me. I even professed my wish to someday be president because all he does is travel and shake hands.
This Television Newscast from November 20, 1989, shows extensive coverage of the “tense political situation” as what later became known as the Velvet Revolution began to unfold.
More childhood inspiration for travel
Sleuthing through memories while I was writing this post brought up more sources of inspiration for travel:
- Trips with parents to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and, most frequently, Hungary as well as around Slovakia.
- Train rides mostly to Babka’s in Spišská Nová Ves, but anywhere really.
- The aforementioned gold medal Czechoslovakia won in the 1985 Ice Hockey World Championship.