Be a Tourist in Your Own City

 

When was the last time you travelled, whether it was to a nearby province, or to a country right on the edge of the world? How did it feel as you strolled through the streets and just observed the people, humming, buzzing around you going about their everyday life? For me, that’s one of the wondrous things about traveling. All the literally butt-hurting bus rides, and anxiety-inducing trip-planning pay off once I get to observe people from other places in their very natural habitat, doing their thing, going to their usual places.

People often cite the ability to see another culture, other ways of life, or the beauty of surrounding nature as the main benefits they enjoy from travelling, and that’s true. I’ve had the fortune to travel to many different cities last year and though there were some big differences, most of the things were still the same compared to my own city.

People were still people. Dogs still barked. The air was still hot or biting. And there were still flowers of all kinds along the pavement.

For the people of those countries, life was probably dull until their next visit to some other places, maybe to my very own city. It used to surprise me how amazed foreigners could be with my dear old Phnom Penh. They would stop, stand still and admire an old rusty pagoda gate for ten minutes straight. The old porridge-selling lady at the corner of the street whom I’ve barely spoken 100 words with during the five years of my knowing her is a person of infinite interestingness to a foreigner.

 

I get it, grass is greener on the other side. However, apart from the external green grass, I think when we travel, we also switch persona on the inside. It’s as if once we put our foot on the plane, we embody this big-eared, huge-eyed, large-tonged person hungry for experience, for observation, for fun. We put our personal troubles, the complication at work, the unanswered texts from exes aside and be a sponge for a few days. In another word, #holidaymoodON.

 

The sad fact of life is for most of us, travelling a long distance a few times a month cannot be a reality. You might not have enough budget, or time to spare, and well, sometimes, you just want to live out of your closet instead of a backpack, you know. BUT the happy fact of life is you can always try to tweak your perception. Of course, you might not be able to physically travel into a new place, but that’s only half of the equation. You cannot change the outside, but you can damn well try to change the inside, to induce the feeling of being a traveler even when you’re not travelling to anywhere new.

Here’s what I’ve been doing for a few years now and have reinforced during the last few months: pretend to be a tourist in your own city. Mark off a day from your calendar as a trip day. Before the big day, search your city up on the internet and find interesting bits of information and spots to visit. Well, at least that’s what I do, anyway. Pack up your bag and go about the city as if you were seeing it for the very first time. Notice the people around you-  how they behave, how they talk, how they live. Give attention to the small kids playing along the pavement, or the lack thereof. Take notes of observations of the places you visit. Breathe in the fresh air in a park (or the foul air of a really small alley). Really taste the food you order for your mid-day break as if you might never come back to that restaurant again after your trip. Take the time to listen to your tuk-tuk rider’s story. Take pictures, loads and loads of pictures. Sketch a place or two. Go clubbing with strangers. Do whatever you normally do when you’re on a holiday in a strange land.

The cons of this is that you might have to spend say, $15, and not able to hang out or work for a day. But the upside? Well, the upside is that you can slow down, and really witness the great lumbering beast of a city you’ve taken for granted for too long and maybe come up with one or two fresh new observations of the people you call your neighbors, the culture you call yours, and the place you call your own.

(Featured image credit: Parinha Seyhak)

Complimentary reading on why you shouldn’t be too eager to travel out of your city)

Finding Sita

The air hung heavy with a mild flavor of coconut oil floating no doubt from people’s skin, and hair (and probably their food, too). Despite my exhaustion over the past 2 hours of standing on a roller coaster of a train ride, I couldn’t help but stole occasional glances to the mother and son on the left. The slender, tanned looking lady in plain orange sari next to me was hand-feeding her seven-year-old son a mixture of cooked rice and something smelling suspiciously like curry. I observed the way her fingers moved to collect stubbornly scattering pieces of rice, and made soft contact with her son’s luscious lips. Where were these two heading to, I wonder, on a Saturday morning no less. Were they travelling to see the father and husband who was probably slaving away in a distant province just so she could prepare homemade curry rice for her young son on a train where most people would rather buy lunch from the loudly, yet strangely melodically, yelling sellers instead? There seemed to be a certain degree of understanding between the mother and the son. The way his mouth opened, in sync with his mother rhythmic fingers.
Swirl, rice, pork, swirl, pat, feed.
Chew, open, chew.
Surrounded by such familiarity, by such synchronicity, one couldn’t help but felt, rather acutely of just how much of a foreigner one was.

Yes, I was racially foreigner, and alienated appearance-wise- the only slant-eyed Chinese looking Asian in this sea of wide-eyed, heavy-lipped, Indian looking people. But there seemed to be another factor of difference, bubbling from deep within. These people had their own rhythm of traversing and conversing. Me? I was still largely lost, both metaphorically and literally. I was lost as to what I would like to do with my life after the trip, and lost as to what station I should leave the train owing to the absolutely unhelpful English announcement from the train radio which sounded neither Sri Lankan, nor English.

Having caught a slightly uncomfortable shift in the eyes of the busy mother, I knew she must have caught me staring. How rude of me. To avoid further embarrassing the unsuspecting mother and child, I averted my gaze to the square box of scenery, running indifferently at the son’s left instead. Green, brown, blue and white shapes mashed together, barely distinguishable from one another. I recalled the brilliantly lit jungle of Anuradhapura with occasional bands of wide eyed monkeys and white birds circling never faraway from me yesterday. This was the famous land of Lanka, with its rich jungle, and richer inhabitants. This was where Ravana, the demon king, lived and cried, and fought. This was the land where Sita spent a large potion of her life being imprisoned, waiting for her husband, Rama to rescue her. And at that instance, I realized,

I was Rama, full of hopes and dreams, cocky to a certain limit, seeking something (happiness? fulfillment? love?) in the vast island of Lanka.

I was also Sita, abducted, lonely and lost, full of regrets for past foolish mistakes, waiting for a redemption, a salvation from the current episode of nightmare.

I was both lost and seeking at the same time, depressed, and hopeless and headstrong and hopeful.

I was Rama and Sita was me.

Happiness Tour Package

2016 has been a year full of new, exciting travelling experience for me. I mean, it literally started with a domestic solo trip, followed by a few more international solo adventures. Though I’ve not achieved the ultimate backpacker status by visiting the entire world this year, I believe I’ve gained enough insights, well, enough for a short blog post anyway. Essentially, this experience just confirms my suspicion that travelling advertisements are definitely too good to be true. In a typical exotic island advertisement you see on the internet, there is always that one typical girl doing yoga on a rock with a smiling face, and a hot guy sunbathing on the beach with heaps of alcohol involved. The catchphrase is always about experiencing something amazing, wonderful and can ultimately bring us happiness.

Now, that’s the deceptive promises that travelling agents give us. Book this flight, they say, your happiness will be guaranteed. Well, guess what? It’s not. I’ve written about the arguments for and against travelling with some supporting researches here, so this is just a more personal complimentary reflection.

You see, I believe happiness (here, loosely defined as having pleasure and satisfaction) generally comes from two sources- outer and inner ones. Outer sources of happiness may include a nice weather, a comfortable bed or an air-conditioned atmosphere. We may also get the sense of wonder and awe from seeing the stunning arrays of colors from a sunset on a mountain peak or a three-thousand-year old man-made structure that embodies the heart and soul of the civilization that created it.

The thing is, yes, you can get this kind of happiness from travelling. Book a trip to, say, Egypt and its most luxurious of hotels and you’re all set. The problem with this though is that you need money. Without money, you can’t get in close and personal with anything of typical natural or cultural value. Going to the museum, getting into a world heritage site and sleeping on the softest bed you’ve ever lain in cost you bucks. Even camping and mountain climbing needs you to spend for the trip and preparation. If you don’t have the money, mate, you’ll still be deprived of such happiness-generating factors no matter where you are. Just take a look at the poverty-stricken local people in your destination. They are literally living in the most magical place (you think) day in and day out, yet they are still miserable as long as they don’t earn enough to cover their day to day struggle.

The second type of happiness- the more personal, more sought-after happiness is the one that comes from within. It’s a person’s ability to see, understand and appreciate the things around and inside of themselves. Needless to say, this is definitely not dependent upon the environment. You can be as contented in an old hammock in your backyard reading the afternoon away as you are trekking in the famous jungles of the beautiful Amazon. It’s obvious that if you want to escape demon inside your mirror, travelling will probably fail you since that demon also travels from one mirror to another, following you to every corner of the world. If you don’t acknowledge and make peace with it, you will never escape its wailing cries, no matter how many exotic islands you’ve scuba dived in.

This year’s adventures have freed me from the illusion that I can become a happier person just by travelling alone. No, I can be a happier, more contented person if I have enough money to spoil myself during trips. And to seek for an inner happiness, my boring old balcony is as great as any place to do so.

So in conclusion… travelling serves no purpose then?

Definitely not. Go pack your back and book your flight because despite everything, travelling still provides you with a unique opportunity to explore a different way of life, and meet new interesting people whom you would never have met otherwise.  It will force you to listen and trust your survival instinct and learn to live independently. Rest assured that you will definitely change as a person after an adventurous trip, but just remember that happiness? That’s definitely not a complimentary feature in your travelling package.

Magical Travelling Dust

I believe part of what makes travelling so magical is the fact that it forces us to really appreciate our surroundings. Who knows? Maybe this will be our last time being in the suburb of a foreign beach soaking up the sun with a stray dog dozing off peacefully near us. Or maybe till the next time we are here again, say, 10 years’ time, this place will no longer be the same as it is now; and neither will us.

This sense of urgency- the sense that if I don’t soak it up now, it will be gone forever- forces our scattering minds to retreat into its child-like state again- curious, inquisitive, and hyper aware of all our surroundings. This will not last, might as well as drink in as much as we can for now, right?

It makes sense that these fully utilised attention and awareness brings appreciation and ultimately happiness because it coincides with the notion that mindful living- the act of being aware of what’s happening today instead of worrying about yesterday or anxious about tomorrow.

I don’t know. I just think travelling is so appealing to so many people partly because it forces them to be mindful which in turns brings about a sense of slowed-down time, and clearer mind.

That begs the question, why can’t we always practice this sense of ultra-awareness and indiscriminate attention in our everyday life? After all, wherever we are, there’s always the urgency of death, hanging upon our every breadth. This life, no matter how ordinary, will cease to exist in the future. This moment, no matter how mundane, never happened in the past, and will never happen exactly as it is now ever again.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this trip in Sri Lanka, it is to really commit to mindful living because life is way too short and precious to only be alive during the holidays.

If you’d life to explore more, read my take on the art of slowness here, Slower, Harder, Better!

Mismatch

They say the first traveling experience abroad should make you feel scared, but oddly enough, as I was looking out of the taxi window carrying us from Da Nang to Hoi An in Viet Nam, I didn’t feel scared, or excited, or anything at all, really. Oddly enough, it felt calming.

The weather was mildly pleasant. I was 21 and I was alone in another country for the first time in my life. Just like any other 21 year-olds, I was lost, stranded at the crossroad of destiny, pulled by different, often contradicting passions of life with absolutely no clue on what I should choose.

Walking through the small ancient town that was made up of a dozen intersecting blocks brought a nostalgic feeling of the past. There were the familiar French buildings, with its peeled yellow paints, and flowery parlor over looking the small, crooked streets. Amidst these buildings, one could also spot creeping Japanese, and Chinese influences in the form of small squared residences with curved, mossy stone roofs. Then there were the mutants, houses with signature French yellow columns, a Vietnamese interior garden, but adorned with Chinese inscriptions. Drunk in the beauty of these mismatched styles, I inhaled the scents of fresh pink flowers peeping on the sidewalk, enchanted by the bustling murmurs of tourists around me. And at that moment, I felt okay. Maybe being pulled by so many different passions was not a bad thing. Maybe it was the very ingredient that would make my life unique. Maybe I was just a Hoi An town in construction. If Hoi An could end up being this beautiful with its mismatched, un-uniformed architecture, then maybe so could I.

 

Let’s Not Travel

As most schools signal the end of a semester, and send out their caged, drained-out students into the world again, I notice most of the people around me are making plans to go here and there, wishing to be off wandering around the world.

tumblr_nmssphwczq1rsm369o1_500The “hippy wanderer” trope has been spreading around the world for many years, and is hitting hard on Cambodia. Young people, like me, can never wait for a chance to take a break to be sitting in a midst of a sea breeze, or lost in the multi-colored sights of a strange new place. I’ve been in this trope since the day I earned my first month of salary. In fact, my dream, at one point, was to travel the world. Countless attempts and a huge percentage of my pay check have been used so that I could taste a new dish, meet a new face, and see a new sight in another place. That is, until I came upon this quote from Bertrand Russell in his book, The Conquest of Happiness:

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“Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place.”

It certainly hit home. Why did I seek to go to Hoi An, Vietnam to sit in one of its numerous coffee shops and expected to enjoy it more than my old favorite café in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?

Doubts started to creep into my mind regarding my innate desire to be always on the move.

I had to stop planning my break-vacation to Laos, and spend some time thinking it through. Is it worth it? To spend time and energy travelling instead of say, pursue writing or creative painting at home? Thus, my researching journey starts, and here is what I found.

First of all, let’s take a closer look at the main (quite obvious) stated benefits of travelling, the ones that I had 100% confidence in just a few days ago. There is no doubt that travelling is beneficial. I have no doubt you have read and actually realized the transformational power of a good adventurous travel. People often cite knowledge or experience as the number one gain from travelling to a new place. Let’s take an even closer look at it. The researches cited are from a literature review conducted by Matthew J. Stone and James F. Petrick (2013).

There are three main types of knowledge that are cited to be earned from travelling, and they include:

  1. Intellectual growth:

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The number one reason many young people travel is to extend their own bank of knowledge. Research seems to back this up as Chieffo (2007) found out that 85% of exchange students learned new information about political/social issues, people, geography, history and culture of another country even in a short-term study abroad. It seems true enough. We learn some pretty interesting facts along the way of our travel.

  1. Personal growth

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for travelling is that people, the young ones especially, believe travelling can make them a better person, more-equipped to take on the world, and they are not wrong in their beliefs. Lasubscher’s (1994) study found that both objective and objective-less travel lead to personal development, new perspectives, autonomy, independence, self confidence and many other generic skills.

  1. Cultural appreciation

Cultural tourism is one of the most prominent kinds of tourism. People flock to the Himalayas, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, or the pyramids of Egypt because they would like a taste of an “exotic” culture. Travelling certainly makes you step out of your normal comfort zone, and living another culture first-hand.tumblr_m480x91rym1rqjtg1o1_500

Now, there’s no doubt being on the go and experiencing new places are a great source of knowledge and experiences that have the potential to transform a person. It makes a very strong case for travelling because some of the educational benefits (such as confidence and autonomy) might never be earned if you go about your daily routines every goddamn day.

However, you can’t just decide to travel the world, and expect to gain a worldly wisdom as a result. According to Kolb (1984), the experiential learning theory holds that a combination of experience perception, cognition and behaviors creates learning.

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Fig. 1: Experiential learning theory

Do you know what is a pivotal point of knowledge attainment in in this learning theory? It’s reflection. Without reflecting upon the information you’ve received, you have by no means gained any knowledge. Some young people travel as if they are on a race with the speed of light, always on the move to the next exotic place, rarely stopping to reflect upon what they have seen. That might lead to a lack of reflection that is crucial for conceptualization. You might end the trip with hundred of photos, yet barely hold any memorable lesson from it.

The other benefits of travelling that most people seem to instinctively know is that it positively affects our well-being. Just how true is it? There are two types of well-being, emotional and physical. The researches cited for well-being are from a literature review conducted by Chun-Chu Chen and James F. Petrick (2013).

Now, let’s examine them more closely:

  1. Emotional well-being

Many people would occasionally hop on a plane for a 1-week vacation wishing to burn off the stress they have accumulated from school or work for the past months. That seems reasonable enough. In fact, many researches from de Bloom (2010); de Bloom (2011); Etzion (2003); Westman and Eden (1997) have concluded that travelling can make us better, mentally. Employees report lower level of stress, burn out, and absenteeism after even a short trip. However, there’s a catch here. These researches also found that the positive effects induced by travelling wear off two or three weeks after the trip. In some certain cases, the effects only linger for a few days as employees come back to their “real life”, and try to catch up with the work that has piled up in their absence. It seems that there is not any research that indicates travelling leads to a long-term positive emotional impact.

  1. Physical well-being

Although people seem to perceive that they are in a better shape after a trip, there are not many objective research that finds links between travelling and actual better physical health. The result is still inconclusive.

Now, what to make up with all of these? It seems to conclude that even though there are bursts of happiness we can get from travelling, they may not last that long.

Alright, let’s examine the other side of the argument- the disadvantages of travelling. There is not many research on this topic; therefore, I will use common sense and findings from famous books to make the case instead.

First of all, it’s a known fact that travelling needs money. I know more than a few people who have used more than half of their earning income on travelling (as do I).

It is also physically and emotionally exhausting to be always on your backpack, going from one place to another.

In his book, The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell says that fatigue is a modern illness. Although, we are working lesser hours than people did in the past, most of us feel like we are perpetually tired. He claims one of the reasons behind such seemingly unexplainable fatigue is the love of excitement.

“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually strong stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”

It’s darn right travelling gives us excitement. There are always fresh sights, sounds, smells, faces, and fresh acquaintances to be made. It gives us a high. However, when we don’t travel, it makes our real life duller in comparison. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Can’t we just become nomads, jumping from one pleasure to another, exhausting world wonders and never stop? That way, we can always be high. That sounds very tempting, for sure, but if we consider the fact that no great work can be done without us being bored at the job more than half the time, we realize maybe pleasure-seeking is not the sole reason to live life. Look at the great work of human civilization, were they made on the go? Socrates spent most of his life quietly with Xanthippe, and the company of a few close friends. The revolutionary biologist,  Charles Darwin spent the rest of his life in his own house producing the famous book, The Origin of Species, after his trip around the world. Jane Austen, a virgin who rarely travelled, with only her family’s sitting room, and books as her source of inspiration was able to produce masterpieces such as Pride and Prejudice out of her own reflection. These works are the products of dedication, and hours upon hours of grinding until they almost reached perfection. Would they have achieved it if they were always on the go? What would have happened to the Origin of Species if Darwin had spent his entire life travelling around the world?

M0003078 Interior of Charles Darwin study
Darwin’s study in Downe, Kent where he worked for 40 years and died in 1882.

Perhaps, no one knows the pain of overwhelming influx of information during a trip than a travel writer. In his book, The Art of Stillness, the famous travel writer, Pico Iyer concludes that only by going nowhere can one really achieve a deeper sense of appreciation. He has been to every corner of the world, yet, he still advocated for people to stop, take a step back, and look at the big picture instead of getting flooded with all the sights and smells of the travel.

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“It’s the perspective we choose- not the places we visit- that ultimately tells us where we stand. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.”

(Watch his TED talk on the subject here)

These ideas also make perfect sense with the experiential learning theory. One can make sense of one’s experiences, and thoughts and consequently create beautiful conclusions and work only after reflection, sometimes for days, months, or even years. To be constantly moving from one place to another make us shallowly taste the milk of life because we’ve only got so much time to churn our reflections before the next feast of senses start.

So, what is the point of this post? I just want you, my readers, to ask yourself as you are planning your next trip to this island or that country what the purpose of your trip is. Stress release? Sightseeing? Making new friends? Adrenaline rush? Self transformation? Or are you just running away from your problems, just to face them yet again when they come back? Are you doing it for an awesome Instagram post so that people can be jealous of your perfect life? Is your purpose worthy of such time, energy and capital resources? Will the happiness you get from such trip be long lasting? Or will you have to set out again when the high comes off? If you feel like you are perpetually stuck in this cycle of pleasure seeking, consider reading the famous Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell which seeks to give us a better way of finding a longer-lasting state of happiness. Hint, hint: travelling helps, but not very much.

Also, take a look at this beautiful poem.

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All the researches mentioned here can be found at the “references” section of these two journals:

Chen, C., & Petrick, J. (2013). Health and wellness benefits of travel experiences: a literature review. Journal of Travel Research, 52 (6), 709-719. Doi: 10.1177/0047287513496477

Stone, M., & Petrick, J. (2013). The educational benefits of travel experiences: a literature review. Journal of Travel Research, 52 (6), 731-744. Doi: 10.1177/0047287513500588

How to Write New-Year Resolutions

So now you are really ready to do it. 2016 is coming round the corner, and you find yourself all hyped-up, being more than ready to tackle it, and (FINALLY) be productive this time.

This is it. This is the year. I can feel it,” you told yourself while thinking back to all the times in the previous (and many more previous) years when you have failed to keep up with your new-year resolutions.

Obviously, new-year resolutions are super hard to keep. That’s why you need to be very thoughtful from the very beginning.

I have followed through with most of my 2015 resolutions which is why I have the audacity to post this in the aims of giving you some tips, to hopefully guide you toward one of the right directions. Since we are different, of course there are many more ways out there to write new-year-resolutions and keeping them. Again, this is the method that has worked for me, and the most hopeful I can get is to get you to try it. Just try it out. Continue reading How to Write New-Year Resolutions