At long last, I’m coming home. My flight from Milan back to Boston was less than smooth. To distract myself from white-knuckling my seat as I flew over Greenland, I took some time to reflect on what I’ve learned this past year and a half. My experiences abroad forced me to confront unfamiliar things in a way that drastically fast-forwarded my personal growth. And as much as I hate articles like this one, I figured that it might be prudent to crystallize a few pieces of this wisdom I’ve gained and share them with you, for whatever they're worth. So what are my big takeaways after all this time?
1. The world a lot is bigger than you think
like, way bigger
In our digital age, it’s an easy thing to forget, especially since science puts so much weight on how small Earth is compared to the rest of the universe. Earth is still f**king enormous! It is nothing short of surreal that the same body that did all the things chronicled in this website is now sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville, Tennessee, safe and sound.
The longer I travel, the more aware I become of how much more there is to see. Before I left the U.S. a year and a half ago, I thought that I was decently well traveled. Man was I wrong! Now, a year and a half later, I have infinitely more experience with international travel, but I don't feel the sense of accomplishment that I had hoped for. Instead, I am acutely aware of just how much there still is to be seen. I may have seen more than the average person, but I have only just scratched the surface of what this world has to offer.
Another facet of this that never fails to blow my mind is how isolated most people are. The majority of people will die in more or less the same geographic place that they started. And every obscure place out there that you've never heard of has millions of people who call it home, most of whom have never even left. A place that is just a blip on the radar for you (maybe not even that), is the whole world for somebody else. These people have never had the privilege of viewing the world through any other lens than the one they were born with. It's incomprehensible just how many other perspectives and experiences there are at play on planet Earth.
Anyway, from my cozy little bubble at home, plugged into the worldwide web, it's easy to feel like there's no true exploring left to be done - that it's just a few decades too late for any real adventure. Well, the day may come when this is true, but trust me when I tell you that we aren't there yet. Not even close. There are still vast expanses of this planet without a Trip Advisor sticker to be found, or a Lonely Planet guide to hold your hand. Make no mistake: there's a big wide beautiful world out there, just waiting. It takes some serious gumption to get there though. Most people will never see it, but if you want it, it really is out there.
2. The world is a lot safer than you think
don't be scared
In the wake of something like the attacks in Paris, people get scared, and understandably so. It scares me too.
But here's the thing: I didn't actually see the attacks happen. Did you? If not, how can you be certain that it was a real event? To stretch this further, can you personally verify the existence of ISIS? Or even Antarctica?
The point is, we are 100% at the mercy of the media to supply us with information, and the media is a business just like any other, which means that they have an agenda. The goal of every business is to turn a profit, and in the case of the media, this only happens when people are 'clicking' and reading. The more sensational the headline, the more people will click on them, and the more money they will make. Sensational headlines breed fear by creating, broadcasting, and amplifying a sense of danger across the world.
I'm not questioning whether the attacks in Paris happened, nor am I questioning the existence of ISIS and Antarctica. I'm just trying to point out how much information we accept in good faith. I think that what you believe about this world is, to an extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pretty much everything you see on the news is bad news, so if we buy into the media's narrative, the world becomes a terrifying place.
Of course there will always be bad things that happen, but it's important to remember that we're in this life together. The vast majority of people in the world are not so different from you or me; they are just living their lives, getting by. Furthermore, they are equally, if not more afraid than you are.
I've literally traveled around the world now, and during my travels I've met a lot of people. Some of them were bad people, but the overwhelming majority of them were good. How do I know this? Because I've been vulnerable in some scary places, and in those situations I have received (and seen others receive) so much undeserved kindness from strangers that it has made me question everything I thought I knew about the world.
Bangladesh is a great example of this. The farther away I got from the 'beaten path,' the scarier I perceived my surroundings to be. Dhaka was absolutely terrifying to me for about the first 12 hours. However, after I got past my initial shock and began to delve a little deeper into what was actually going on there, I was surprised. The people were awesome! They were friendly and curious, and they never once treated me like a walking dollar sign ($$$). When it seemed like I might be in trouble, strangers would actually stop what they were doing to help me. In spite of the intense Islamophobic warnings I received before my arrival, people in Dhaka turned out to be nothing, if not welcoming. This is not to say I was never uncomfortable in Bangladesh, but I never felt unsafe. Honestly, I felt safer there than I do in some parts of America.
After that, as I ventured onward into India, I was increasingly comfortable with doing things solo and pushing the envelope. That lead me into the Himalayas, all the way up to the northernmost border between India and Pakistan. It would later lead me out into the Thar Desert all alone, near the southern Pakistani border. I have always suffered from anxiety, but out there in the unknown, along one of the most high-friction borders in the world, without a safety net of any kind, I don't remember feeling even a hint of unrest. And then, when I would return to civilization (and the internet), all of my anxiety would come swirling back to me.
I have a hunch. My hunch is that this phenomenon will only become more true the farther off the beaten path I get. It turns out that Peter's Big "Adventure" was mostly an adventure because I thought it was going to be. I had a lot of preconceived ideas about how the world was going to be, and those ideas did not go away easily. On paper, I did a lot of crazy things, but the truth was that, most of the time, I was surrounded by other westerners who were doing the same thing that I was. This would allow me to change my geographic location without ever really changing cultures. There were only a few times that I REALLY got off the beaten path, and you know what? I've honestly never felt safer.
The next time I have an extended period of travel, I'm going to put this hunch to the test, and get truly off the grid. I'm already excited for it.
3. America is everywhere
there is no escape!
I was sitting in a little restaurant in Rangoon, Burma, eating a plate of veggie fried rice, and on the radio was "Beachin'" by Jake Owen. That was just so crazy to me! And so random that it was Jake Owen of all people. I wonder if Jake Owen has any idea that his music is being played in Burma! I wonder if Jake Owen even knows where Burma is...
Furthermore, a solid 70% of my adolescent Vietnamese students, when asked about their favorite music, would proudly name Taylor Swift. I wonder if Taylor Swift realizes that entire schools full of students in Vietnam are singing along to "Blank Space," even though they don't know what the words mean.
The list goes on and on. In fact, there isn't a country I've visited that hadn't been completely infiltrated by American pop culture. It's actually insane. America is, indisputably, the biggest stage in the world, which is ironic because America is also very much a bubble. Inside the American bubble, few people are even aware of what is happening in the world outside, unless the American media has prescribed the information to them.
Of course, artists like Taylor Swift will tour Europe, and sometimes even Japan. And famous actors will travel to exotic places to shoot movies once in a blue moon, but the world is so much bigger than just that. I'd wager a guess that most Western celebrities don't grasp the scale of their fame.
4. People are all pretty much the same
in 1 key way
We all need to belong. We all need love. Does that seem obvious? Well good. I thought so too, until I left. After 8 or 9 months abroad, I slowly began to wrap my head around a surprising piece of insight into this facet of the human condition.
This need to belong, to be loved, can manifest itself in wildly different ways depending on a person's situation and life experience. Here's a couple examples to show you what I mean...
Speaking for myself, Middle-American W.A.S.P., I try to get love in a lot of pretty 'run-of-the-mill' ways – by trying to say funny things, by trying to look good when I leave the house, by trying to achieve, by going out on Friday nights, by trying to be 'cool,' by writing articles like this one – but when the details are boiled away, it's all a ploy to get people to love me. I want to belong, and these are some of the ways I attempt to pull that off. Some days it works, some days it doesn't.
Let's look at the extreme opposite of this though. There's a young boy in Afghanistan who loses all of his family in violence that was brought to his village by U.S. soldiers. He grows up alone, and therefore, unloved. But then he has the opportunity to join a community of people who have all had a similar life experiences, and suffered similar tragedies at the hands of similar military forces. In this community, he would have the potential to achieve, to fight for something, to feel valuable, and to feel like he belongs to something bigger than himself. This community is called the Taliban. Of course they do terrible things, but they are united against a common enemy, and they can give this boy something that he may never have experienced: a sense of belonging. Who am I to judge this boy if he decides to join? Who is to say that I wouldn't do the exact same thing if our places in life were to be switched?
America or Afghanistan, it was pure luck that I was born into the place that I was, nothing more. From my comfy little American bubble, it's pretty easy to condemn the actions of others, but harder to imagine what my life might look like if I was to trade places with them. I don't condone acts of violence committed by anyone, but I am much slower to judge people for them than I was before, because they could have been me. I could have been them, and I probably would have acted similarly. When you boil away all the details, no matter who you are, we are all motivated by the same thing. We're all humans, we all need to belong, we all need love, and we will all do (almost) whatever it takes to get it.
5. God can & does exist independent of religion
[This is the long one]
Do you even believe in God? Or maybe God was thrown out along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny a long time ago at garage sale one Saturday morning along with the rest of your childhood mementos.
If you don't believe in God, whatever. I'm not here to convince you. I don't care what your opinion is. I just care that you have an opinion, and one that you have put some actual thought into.
People who are not affiliated with a mainstream religion (a rapidly demographic btw) don't tend to like talking about God, and that makes a lot of sense. It's such a loaded issue that it's hard for us to think about it impartially, free from the negative connotations that have leeched onto the word. Talking about your thoughts on God also puts you at a high risk of offending people who disagree with you. Shit gets personal really fast. That's why talking about God is borderline taboo these days for many millennials like me. However, I think that it’s essential for us, as human beings, to talk about it anyways; talk about it out loud, with other people, soberly, regardless of the fact that it makes you squirm. What you say is less important, but we do need to talk about it.
Putting things (and people) into boxes
I grew up in an extremely Christian household, and, to me, the existence of a God always seemed pretty logical. The institution of religion, however, had increasingly become a source of trouble in my life. Why? To keep this short, because the experiences I was having, and the resulting beliefs that I held, conformed less and less to the world view I was prescribed by the church. The resulting behavior heralded a lot of judgement and rejection from my fellow church-goers, and became a source of intense guilt and shame for me.
The problem was that, in my mind, people fit into boxes. And, when it came to spirituality at least, the boxes were (roughly) as follows:
- Christians (my people, deeply bonded to me through the power of a common belief)
- People of other religions (to be respected, but strongly disagreed with)
- Everybody else: the unbelievers (atheist, agnostic, etc.)
The worst thing that could happen to me would be to slide into box number 3. This was woefully referred to as "walking away." If this ever came to pass, my loved ones, still safe in box number 1, would grieve for my soul because I would not be able to spend eternity with them in heaven. I would be living in sin, forever separated from God and the people I loved. It's pretty heavy stuff to sift through growing up, and the fear that came with it prevented me from ever genuinely indulging my doubts.
This is where moving abroad helped me out. As a teacher, I got a front row seat to watch my young students struggle to fit into the boxes their society had placed in front of them. Vietnam is, culturally, the polar opposite of America, and yet these kids were experiencing the same feelings of shame and anguish that I had when I was their age. Watching this as an outsider, it quickly became clear that I was no different than they were. We were in this together, victims of expectations. The only difference between us was the shape of the box were expected to climb into.
I didn't want to live inside a box. So decided to try something new and loosen the death grip I had on Christianity. Stepping out of this paradigm of eternal consequences and constant guilt for the first time in my life, I was able to take a breath and think about all of this for myself, logically, and objectively.
What did PETER think about God?
Well, for starters, I thought that it seemed pretty silly (and sexist) to assign God the male gender. Gender serves the biological purpose of reproduction. If God is immortal, this is clearly not a concern.
I started to suspect that maybe people need to be able to put things in boxes in order to feel comfortable with them. After all, the idea of God being a man is just a small part of the prescription pills full of spiritual doctrine and cultural expectation that are doled out by religious institutions. Why was God being dumbed down like this?
The conclusion that I came to, again, was that people are very uncomfortable with the unknown, and need to be able to put things that they don't understand into boxes. Because of this phenomenon, I had grown to think of God and religion as being inseparable, as if God had always existed inside the box we had assigned Him—no, sorry—It. The prospect of converting to another religion, to me, meant accepting a different God, rather than a different interpretation of God. This distinction was key. I had been conditioned to think of each religion as a road that lead to its own destination (only one of which could be valid). I think a more accurate metaphor would be to compare religions to different routes, all with the same destination.
Fueling this ideological shift were the following 3 ideas:
- God existed before we did
- We created religion, so God existed before religion as well
- God would still exist without us (and without religion)
Now, I had to get used to the idea of God without the use of the crutches and boxes that had been provided to me by the church. The truth of the matter is that words do not exist to construct a big enough box for God. When people vaguely say "I don't believe in God but I believe in something...," God is that 'something'! God is so large and all-encompassing that evidence of It can come from anywhere. God means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and none of the rest of us can ever be qualified to pass judgment on that. Because we can't know! God is an undefinable entity that exists outside the realm of our comprehension.
That said, I think that we have been given a lot of clues as to the nature of God, but these are just a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. The thought of a God that was totally unknown, and (mostly) unknowable to me was simultaneously terrifying and comforting. I'm still coming to terms with the idea.
Imagine a time before boxes
Grappling with something as abstract as spirituality is hard. We are like goldfish trying to understand what life is like outside of our bowl. When it comes down to it, we not only want answers, we want concrete steps that we can take to make sure everything is going to be okay when we die (salvation). Over the course of human history, people have had some conflicting ideas on how to achieve this and these ideological differences have consistently been the cause of war, death, and destruction. It's all so muddled and complicated now that it made me wonder how religions even got started in the first place. Do you ever turn on the news and just wonder "how did we get here?"
It was hard for me to imagine, but there really was a time before religions existed.
What did the world even look like back then?
In its essence, it probably just looked like a bunch of people who had questions. At some point in the prehistoric past, thousands and thousands of years before the birth of Christ, Muhammad, or Buddha, some of the more influential and existentially inclined people in early societies set out to find some answers. Early religions came about a result of these people's experiences / interpretations of these experiences. These people were all trying to explain the same thing, but as time went on, these interpretations slowly outgrew their status as "theories," and started to be taught as facts.
Cultures regularly interacting with each other is a relatively recent development in human history, and in the distant past especially, the world was very disconnected. This allowed religions (and the boxes that come with them) to develop in relative isolation. Fast forward tens of thousands of years, and now we have Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And today, when those same kind of existentially inclined people think for themselves and share their ideas, we dismiss them as "cults."
Life after boxes (for whatever it's worth)
You can and should believe whatever you want to, but you shouldn't do it without seriously considering all of this stuff. How will you ever figure out what you believe if you never indulge your doubts? If you don't like certain parts of the religion you were assigned at birth, then why stake your life on it?
It's true that doubting can be scary. What if you don't believe like you thought you did? Will your loved ones still accept you if your beliefs change? Is it even worth the risk? Does it really matter in the end?
I don't know. But, personally, I think that it matters and I think that it's important to think about these things. Ideologically speaking, things might feel messy, especially if you compare yourself to people who are already members of large religious institutions, with God's cliff notes outlined for them in a book. Religious texts save us the trouble of digesting the big questions for ourselves and skip straight to the part where we know all the answers. Without one of these texts at your disposal, you might feel like you don't have any of the answers, but don't think for even one second that it means you have failed in any way. No. It means that you think for yourself. It means that you aren't afraid to ask the tough questions. And when you finally do find the answers you are looking for, those answers are going to be a lot more meaningful for you. The real failure would be never to give the issue any serious consideration in the first place.
So for all of you who grew up like me - being spoon fed the answers to questions you hadn't even thought to ask yet - don't be afraid to think for yourself! Think outside the box! Criticize! Doubt! And above all, be aware of the outcome that you are hoping for! This self-awareness is the key to objectivity. Maybe in the end you'll end up believing the same things that you were always taught growing up, and that's great, as long as you've chosen that for yourself. But, in the event that you decide that you disagree, I'm going to tell you something that I wish somebody would have said to me a long time ago: THAT'S OKAY!
It's 100% okay. But now you have a new responsibility: defining your spirituality for yourself. It's tough because you'll never know for sure if you're even on the right track. You'll be alone, off the path, with nobody to guide you.
Are you up to the challenge?
I'm gonna give it a shot.
Peter's Big Adventure's New Logo
Here's a fun fact: I only wore 1 pair of shoes during all of my travels. During almost a year and half of intense traveling, my only shoes were a pair of Vans knock-offs that I got at Old Navy for like $20.
Among other things, these shoes survived...
- Getting inked by a squid in Vietnam's Ha Long Bay
- Riding hundreds of miles through Hanoi's apocalyptic hoards of motorcycles
- Hiking through the mountains of remote Northern Vietnam to spend the night in an isolated, mountain-top H'mong Village
- Getting covered in shaving cream and glitter by a mob in Ho Chi Minh City
- Bribing Indonesian police officers
- Almost sinking on a terrifying, storm-filled voyage through an Indonesian island chain
- Seeing Komodo Dragons in the wild on Komodo (and Rinca) Island
- Riding elephants in Ayutthaya, Thailand
- Exploring the ancient Angkor temples in Cambodia
- Running aground on a boat on an off-shoot of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake
- Having their owner (me) get worms
- Going to the highest open-air bar in the world in Singapore
- Exploring ancient Buddhist ruins in Bagan, Burma
- Feeding crocodiles in Rangoon, Burma
- Living in the slums of the world's "least livable city" (Dhaka, Bangladesh) for a few weeks
- Almost having their owner (me again) get beaten up by Bangladeshi police
- Driving over the highest motor-able road in the world in Ladakh, India
- Riding a Bactrian camel across the world's highest desert
- Riding an Arabian camel across the dunes of the Great Indian Desert
- Exploring Mumbai's notorious red-light district
- And lots of other stuff...
Here are a few snap shots of their exploits...
I'm back in the U.S. for the time being, but this is by no means the end of Peter's Big Adventure. Articles will be a bit fewer and farther between while I'm state-side, but stay tuned. I'll be taking a short break, but up next will be articles about Boston, Nashville, Savannah, and Toronto. Stay tuned!
That said, you should know that I will be leaving the U.S. to live abroad again, and then the flow of articles will pick back up.
For right now though, I need a break.