For 147 days I’ve been a wanderer. To some that may seem like a small feat, too others it may seem unfathomable. To me it’s a bit of both. The culture I was raised in doesn’t take well to wanderers. We prefer that people have a plan: an education plan, a health care plan, a career plan, a dental plan, an insurance plan, a workout plan…Really we are just a lot better off if we know where we are going and how we are getting there.
So while wandering for a short time may be a component of a plan, it certainly isn’t a plan in itself. And it’s true. Even for me, this current phase of wandering isn’t going to last forever. But what things about wandering are worth incorporating into my otherwise planned life?
1. Relaxing amidst imperfection. Usually, I like for everything in my day to look and feel perfect before I invite others into it. There must be enough food for dinner before inviting guests. The house must be clean before family arrives. There must be a plan in place before going out with friends. While traveling, I noticed that abandoning perfection rapidly increases human bonding. On countless occasions, I found myself invited into less than perfect situations, and learned to embrace the discomfort. In Budapest, a host was adamant that eating alone was rude, so he didn’t hesitate to offer us a portion of his reheated leftovers. In Pamplona, we had gathered a group 20 or so pilgrim friends for dinner, but when we realized that none of us had an actual plan for the event we started a spontaneous fake free walking tour and eventually the laughter overwhelmed our grumbly stomachs and tired feet. In Muiden, a cake was baked with less than half of the required ingredients and both new friends and old took part in the experimental taste-test. Let’s cut the crap. None of us are perfect, none of us live in perfection, so let’s be imperfect together.
2. Reimagining personal space. Before this trip, I was someone who needed a lot of personal space. While growing up and going to university, I almost always had my own room. On occasions when I have had to share a bedroom I would sigh with relief when my roommate went out for a night of fun, just so that I could read or write in the comfort of my own company. While travelling these opportunities are even fewer. So I have redrawn my personal space criteria: a journal, a water bottle, a soft scarf, my phone, and some headphones. These are really the only things I need to create my own space whether in a bumpy bus, a crowded dorm, or a sub-standard Airbnb. I imagine that my inventory will change with each stage of life, but the truth is: I don’t need as much physical space as I once thought.
3. Rethinking introductions. In the comforts of planned life, one of the first questions that arises when we meet someone is: what do you do? As in for money. While traveling, this question is rarely relevant. Much more frequently I will find out where some one is from, how many siblings they have, what they like to do for fun, what sort of music they like, how they drink their coffee, and whether or not they snore, before I have any idea if they might work in an office or a kitchen. What a relief! My own career status isn’t exactly a conversation starter.
4. Recognizing strangers. Before travelling I usually kept my interactions with passing strangers to a minimum. Of course, I would extended some social effort to the lucky person who occupied a plane seat beside me (and got to monopolize our shared arm rest), but I see no need to interact with every passerby. Until I learned to love the “bon appetite” and the “buen camino.” Both of these are simple phrases, they don’t take a lot of effort and they’re not intended to start a discussion. They are more like blessings than conversation starters. In France, it is considered rude to walk by someone who is eating without wishing them “bon appetite.” Until I learned this, I just thought that everyone was really friendly and happy to see me enjoying my baguette. On the camino in Spain, everyday was punctuated with dozens of “buen camino”s. On a particularly difficult day, one of our pilgrim friends exclaimed, “I don’t want to hear another f***ing ’buen camino’ I just want someone to say ‘I feel bad for you, you sorry bastard.’” But isn’t that what a blessing is? It’s a way to tell a stranger, even if you don’t speak the same language, that you see them, you recognize their experience, and you wish them well for their day, or their journey, or even just their lunch. I think I’d like to share more of these passing blessings, even though I’m not quite sure what that will look like in North American culture.
I can’t keep backpacking forever: my shoulders are tired, I’m sick of peeing in other people’s toilets, I miss having Q-tips, and I would love to wear shoes that actually match my outfit. But maybe in a few small ways, I can keep wandering, on purpose.