We talk about what we know
Once, while traveling, I met a philosopher. He’d been on the road for three years, at a time when I had only been out there for a mere three months. This number interested him for, according to his experience and observation, “At three months the journey stops being a trip, he said, and becomes a lifestyle”. I took note of this and started asking other travelers, until I felt the idea somewhat confirmed. Some of them casually referred to this moment as the “three month crisis”. Its effects though, I'd rather them call the Traveler’s curse. Yet it was only after looking at this phenomenon through the glass of Echeverría’s ideas that I could understand and explain some more of the reasons behind this.
In his essay “Juego, arte y fiesta” on culture and society, the late mexican/ecuatorian philosopher Bolívar Echeverría explores the notions of temporality and historicity through the juxtaposition of the common and extraordinary experiences. He defines time as the combination of routine and rupture. On one side we have routine: the moments of automatic behavior, when there is no questioning of attitudes or codes of conduct. And on the other hand, there are those moments of play, of party: the times of uncertainty. Rupture he presents as the moments of joy, of shadow, of unknowing: they are situations during which the history, values and identity of a community may be changed, rewritten. Or reflected upon at least.
Echeverría thought of whole societies; he wrote about their collective experiences, however, I find it that his ideas may be applied to the individual experience too. I find it particularly interesting to analyze from this point of view one of the “extraordinary” experiences of most intensity and transformation a person can experience. Travelling.
A voyage is, by its very nature, a constant onslaught of novelty for the traveler. Leaving the comfort zone is always difficult for us human beings. Yet even if the change is only geographical, the experience tends to be rewarding. It is even more so when we exit our own culture and encounter different worldviews, idiosyncrasies, and languages. Few things force to introspection and thinking as much as a nearly absolute incapacity of communication with the surrounding people.
He explored three types of rupture moments: playing, party and art. I shall now explain what his three concepts have in common with travelling.
The main element of his definition of play as a rupture in routine is his take on ludic pleasure. Just as some spicy food drive the senses wild, the tongue not being able to define whether salty, sweet, sour or just what, play intrudes into the historicity of daily life. The notion of linearity takes on a secondary note and “the impossibility of establishing whether a fact owes its presence to a causal linking of previous facts, or precisely to the breaking of such causal linkage”, generates an extraordinary moment: it ruptures the flow of time.
Now, coincidence is the queen of traveling. Lack of communication, language barriers and such difficulties, make meetings with people of similar backgrounds something of special importance, even if only for the common language. This encounters shape and redefine the experience, shaking up set plans and opening new paths of exploration to the point that, when looking back, seemingly random encounters tend to feel as predestined. To try and analyze the chain of events leading to, say, two acquaintances to meet on a road on the outskirts of Berlin, or high school friends to bump into each other someplace in Thailand, it could drive someone mad. It becomes easier to just accept the happenstance and enjoy the moment. Thinking decision followed which and affected what is nonsensical, and in this respect traveling has a lot of play in it.
There is also a lot of party, or festive rupture, in the travel context. In this kind of rupture with regular time, the burst of the extraordinary moment occurs during a ritual ceremony, as Echeverría calls the height of the moment. It is an event during which all social values enter in a state of suspense, during which the routinary way of existence is compromised. During this instance, he says, a sort of “fullness” may be glimpsed; it is a sacred experience, a trip onto the land of imagination, to the world of objective and subjective purity, a place to just “let go.
Because of the constantly present onslaught of novelty in a journey, this kind of festive experience occurs during the exploration of new places. The recurring encounter with different ways of living, thinking, eating and dressing expose the own values and worldviews. The traveler naturally enters a state of epojé, of suspension of judgment, which brings her closer to that pure, sacred and ritual, experience. The daily routine is so broken that the everyday is exceeded, it becomes an extraordinary moment full of creative potential; a festive rupture.
And third, art, or the esthetic experience. This moment is much related to the two previous ones. It is not perhaps an activity in of its own, rather the interruption in the daily, for an instant, of that almost divine world of purity and imagination. It is catharsis, and the reconstruction of everyday life around this moment. The search for this rupture is not performed through substances, ceremonies or rituals, but rather through other techniques that project the essential into this functional, pragmatic world.
In this sense, one might think of a journey as a prolonged esthetic experience. Daily life is reconstituted around the encounter with novelty, with judgment-free purity.
So now, back to the “three month crisis”. This moment occurs when one walks through the mirror, so to speak. It happens when, during a journey, poles are inverted. Traveling is the greatest rupture of everyday life; an adventure that has no place in the daily life. But when this experience is prolonged, extended, then things change. Through repetition, everything loses its novelty. Even novelty itself.
Events and moments that were so impressive at the beginning of the journey become commonplace. Deciphering a map, looking for a place to sleep, meeting new people, new strangers, finding one’s bearings in a new city… By being met them time and time again, this experiences lose their edge of extraordinaire. It is now that the traveler longs for home. She misses not having to introduce herself again on every conversation, even meeting someone more than once becomes precious. The traveler becomes sullen and introspective. She will miss her having her own space and to just do nothing for a day. Friendships with people in a similar state will bloom very fast and conversations will turn deep in no time. As both parties tend to be tired of introducing and defining themselves every single time, social norms and procedures lose importance, and the experience takes on a whole new level.
Suddenly, people with whom the traveler has shared just an instant, a few hours or a drink maybe, they become friends for life; even if they may never meet again. The bonds created thusly become stronger than those developed for years with some others. Coworkers, schoolmates, even family may lose their place to someone that is, by any usual standards, a complete stranger. And so, the traveler loses part of her roots, detaches herself from the past and drifts away from her history and all she’s known before.
When, eventually she returns to the everyday life, old friends are met again, family embraced and the traveler thanks the routine just as much as she acclaimed novelty at the beginning of the journey. Everything falls back into place and it feels great to be back. That is, until all becomes commonplace again. It may take weeks, months, even years but one day she will find herself longing for open spaces, seemingly random encounters and unending possibilities. The adventure, the rupture will call to her, and her heart will find no rest at home.
And such is the traveler’s curse. It is this cycle of nostalgia, the paradox caused by the normalization of the extraordinary and the longing for the routine, which makes the traveler a traveler, and no longer a tourist. It makes her gaze return always to the horizon, for she’s realized that she’ll always be far away from someone, from somewhere, no matter where she may be.
I had this words somewhere in my backpack, I think they're better here.
Here's Echeverrías essay, for you spanish readers: http://www.bolivare.unam.mx/ensayos/Juego, arte y fiesta.pdf
And a good related read! Georg Simmel's essay on Adventure: http://condor.depaul.edu/dweinste/theory/adventure.html
Thanks for reading!