I’m two hours into my 15-hour flight from Hong Kong to Chicago. I’ve got a window seat on a fancy airplane on Cathay Pacific, and despite it technically being before noon, I’m sipping my second glass of French red wine. Hey–especially when traveling, it’s five o’clock somewhere. I’m trying to grasp the weighty significance of being on my way home.
Thanks to the endless in-flight entertainment choices, I’m watching a documentary about Sonam, a Tibetan nomad. Before the film started, I knew he was Tibetan by his name–“Sonam” means “gift” in the Tibetan language. I know this because four months ago, I traveled to Tibet and booked a hostel by the name of Sonam. I later stayed in a nomad tent, and the caretaker was too named Sonam. Later yet, in Nepal, I’d spend entire afternoons whisper-chanting “Soham,” a variation on the same word.
The film’s images of spinning prayer wheels, wind-chapped children’s cheeks, prayer flags flapping in icy wind, and vast frozen plateau are familiar to me. Just six months ago, they would have been utterly foreign and impossible to imagine. But sitting comfortably on this flight, between spoons of Haagen-Daaz and nestled under a complimentary blanket, I can look at this Sonam’s weathered face and recall the salty, stale taste of Tibetan bread, the bone-chilling cold ripping through my body in the nomad’s tent one early winter night, the endless expanse of sky high on the plateau, and the trance-like chanting of Om Mani Padme Om by young monks in maroon robes.
This journey is over. I’m on a plane leaving Asia, headed for the US, and it’s an indisputable fact that the journey IS over. Six months have passed. Twelve countries and three Chinese terrorities have been visited. All my colorful visas are expired, used, stamped and final. I start paying rent in Pittsburgh again in two days and next week I’ll be on a sunny beach in the DR. This journey at hand, then, is over.
Or is it? I can’t help but feel that it’s not, somehow. I can’t really explain it. Maybe I’m just desperate to cling to the dregs of these six months, refusing to realize that now, as my Hong Kong departure stamp says, “Journey completed.” Or maybe I’m so used to constantly shifting locations, currencies, modes of transport, that boarding this morning’s flight simply felt like another stop on a long list of destinations.
Or maybe the trip isn’t really over in the larger sense. After all, the present is really just a complex product of the past, and undoubtedly my future will be a product, in many ways, of this present trip. Maybe, just maybe, I can hold on to this trip and prevent it from slipping into the past and becoming an seemingly impossible dreamlike memory. Is it possible to make the past six months part of the present and future? It feels like the only choice.
Looking back, I can’t remember why I did this. I spent more than a year scrimping and pinching hard–saving $10,000 of my measly $24,000 income–with a vision of a six-month trip of a lifetime. People asked warily if it was a “find-myself” thing. I insisted it wasn’t. People asked if I was looking to “meet someone” while on the road. Again, I insisted I wasn’t. People asked if I was insane. I insisted I was quite the opposite, but was admittedly less certain on that point.
Undoubtedly the trip changed me. I’m different than I was before I left, which, naively, I didn’t expect. I’d traveled enough previously to recognize that I would emerge on the other side of these six months as basically the same person. And that’s true, to an extent. But what I failed to realize is that I was a product of my past travels and experiences as well, the same way I will be a product of my more recent ones. I AM different, though please don’t ask me to eloquently explain how. Physically, I’m the same, save for a few minor battle scars. Socially, I’m still outgoing and friendly. Intellectually, I think I’m essentially unenhanced. Idiosyncratically, I’m as batty as ever.
But what’s changed is that intangible self that we all struggle to know, somewhere deep inside. It’s the core of our beings that is stirred, sending ripples to our outwardly manifested selves. The bumps and bruises; the oddly-inflected English expressions; the tendency to immediately identify north, south, east and west when disembarking from a train in a new place; the irrational hoarding of rubber bands and plastic bags–these are some of the sillier signs of an internal seismic shift. The more real signs emerge over time and with reflection. But despite the intangible self being the most profoundly changed part of a traveller, it’s simultaneously the most inaccessible and elusive piece of ourselves to understand. It’s the part we most desperately want to grasp and look in the face; paradoxically, we never will despite what great lengths we go through to try.
In everyday life, I’m the same person. I want the same things I wanted before I left: A job I care about, friends I love, a partner I trust, a future I anticipate. I want to sit on my roof on a sunny day. I want oatmeal with frozen berries in the morning and cheese with apples and honey on fancy date nights. I want a gin martini, up with a twist. I want to ride my bicycle, work at the bookstore, meet new people, continue growing and pushing myself. But the inner self, the one I wake up to and negotiate everyday, has moved a few steps to the left (or east, maybe) of where I was six months ago. To the human eye, it’s imperceptible, and even introspection does little to reveal what’s been altered. Maybe there’s really only one reality, but learning to coexist with a soul that has recently been pushed to know new existential horizons–sheesh, now that’s heavy stuff. How to re-enter the world I previously inhabited, as though the windows haven’t been throw wide open?
I’ll be processing this experience in writing and daily life for years to come. I don’t expect for the big picture to emerge immediately, if ever. But in the moment, on this plane watching the Tibetan nomads spin yak wool into shelter, I am humbled and grateful. I once read a line–“My soul knew ecstasy.” Ecstasy remains elusive, but joy, faith, exhilaration, freedom, happiness? Absolutely, and gratitude in spades. I’ll never be able to give to others what I got in these months on the road, but I’ll try every way I know how to pay it forward.
So for Sonam, for all the travellers, for the hostel staffs, the flight crews, the kind-faced strangers, the familiar faces from home, the street kids, the women in sewing co-ops across the continent, and even the circling urban vultures–thank you. You gave me an incredible, indelible experience. But more importantly, you shifted the center of my being permanently.