Short trip, important lessons

As a test run of a longer, world-spanning adventure, this 10-day trip to DC and NC has been a success. I've met with obstacles, adventure, and even peril on this relatively short excursion. And, something I didn't expect but should have, I've had a lot of new ideas about how the world works. Travel is not just an opportunity to experience new things, but it's a chance to observe what remains the same.

The Mechanics of Travel
First things first: lessons on the mechanics of travel. By tickets early. Check the tickets carefully or you will end up at the wrong gate, or at the wrong time. TSA hires morons to both write and implement security policy - just get through it quickly and try not to think. A map is the most important thing in a new place. Do not rely completely on technology to replace maps, phone, camera, etc: batteries run out and signals don't go everywhere, even in big cities. Also, it's tricky to use multiple apps on an iPhone. Even if you get a big room, don't unpack everywhere. Talk to strangers. Eat well. All problems go away with sufficient money: remember that travel is primarily a cost optimization problem, not a survival problem.

Relax, but keep moving forward. Be adventurous. Sometimes it's lonely on the road, but it passes.

Seek out local advice, but take it with a grain of salt. Often locals don't know as much about the area as a good guide book (I've learned a lot about my hometown through guide books!).

Washington, DC: shattering a caricature
Washington, DC is unique in that it is the nerve-center for the world's most powerful nation, a place through which trillions of dollars flow and momentous decisions made every day. And yet, for all that, it is still a city. People need to eat and live and laugh. The trash must get collected. And it's a city in the midst of a great deal of natural beauty: one can get lost in the woods within easy walking distance of the capitol building. I think I had grown to think of DC as merely the steps of the Capitol Building, and the Oval Office, and some vague "inside the beltway" place. But it is a real city with a real heart. Like DC, many places exist only in caricature, and I hope to change that.

Raleigh, North Carolina: alive and real
For me, the principal reason to visit North Carolina are the important people who live here, my family. It has been a great pleasure and privilege to stay at my sister's family's beautiful home and reconnect with my nieces. This will always be my chief (and happy) memory of this place, I think. But another facet of this place will always stay with me, I think: I have never been in a place so dense with life. Everywhere is endless life. It is almost oppressive in it's liveliness, as if there is no room for thought because that would take away from the bustling business of getting on with it. And yet the pace of human life here is undeniably slower than either DC or LA. I like the fact that, for the most part, the people here are concerned with what's in front of them, rather than the unreliable (and dangerously distracting) abstractions that preoccupy more "sophisticated" people.

The Why of Travel
Living alone for even a few days in a strange city creates a feeling of loneliness that I didn't expect. In the past I've traveled either with friends or, when traveling alone, to friends. And this is perhaps the most interesting effect of travel: when almost everything else changes, what is left is who you are. Identity in the absence of acquaintances and familiar places is a curious thing: without the reinforcement of others, identity becomes truer.

But who are you? This question can most easily be approached by asking the question, "why am I here doing this right now?" While this is always a good question, it seems particularly poignant on the road. "Because I can" is certainly a valid answer: flexing your freedom is a reasonable thing to do, I think. But what is really in this for me? Is the benefit of a changing world worth the cost of discomfort and instability?

My own answer is this: "because I don't know what I will find." I am firmly in Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns" territory. In a way, I am using myself as a guinea pig in a grand experiment and dis/comfort has little to do with it. I don't really know what I hope to find as I travel the world, but I have a great deal of confidence that I will find it. Perhaps it will be a strong set of insights, or ideas, or inspiration that I can use directly or indirectly to help others through my professional work. Or perhaps I'll stumble onto a culture or people that resonate strongly and beckons me to become a part of it. Or perhaps I will fall in love and start a family. These are only possibilities, and chances are whatever I find will not fit neatly into any category. If this short trip was any indication, the lesson is bound to be profound.

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