YongHeGong temple detail

Been There. Learned – Nothing?

For somebody whose “business” the diversity and fascination of this, our world, is, I have a pretty bleak view of much of what passes as traveling. Rather than because of the whole matter of carbon emissions from plane travel, it’s because escapes from this world have come to appear extremely problematic to me.

Traveling somewhere to escape your problems? At least half of them are probably a matter of your attitude, thus just taken with you. Just look at the, apparently pretty large, number of couples who go on a vacation to finally spend time together again, see to it that everything wrong magically gets fixed – and decide to get a divorce afterwards.

Looking deeply into the bottle to drown your troubles? Like traveling to escape, once you get back to the everyday, your problems will be right back there waiting for you. Sure, you felt good, you had fun, but the problems didn’t go away. They probably even multiplied because of the time you spent away – or “away,” as it were.

The opposite also applies: People don’t really have problems, they want to see the world – and so, they go and travel. Those who make it to mini-retirements and location-independence, free of the fetters that bind to a place, are seen to have won. Maybe, the pinnacle is achieved when you want to visit every single country in the world.

ChuYi in Temple
Paying Homage to Buddha on First Day of Chinese New Year (in YongHeGong, Beijing)

Just as problems will not necessarily disappear when they are just avoided, so travel will not necessarily be of the best effect it can have when you think that it just so happens.

Visiting many places will mean that you have gone many places, but it does not really mean that you have been there. Problems need to be faced, and travel to be a deep encounter, not just a skip over the water.

When you go somewhere else to just lie on the beach, secluded in a beach club at worst, you may have been on the same geographical coordinates as the people who live there, breathed the same air, experienced the same weather – but you haven’t even started to arrive.

Now, if that’s all you want, fine – but you could have sun and fun cheaper, staying closer to home.

When you go on a tour somewhere, visit the tourist spots, it gets a (very) little bit more interesting. You get to see well-known (or maybe not so well-known) sights for yourself, at least. There is a certain power to that.

Venice looks a lot more romantic in “The Tourist” than it does in life, though; and the “Mona Lisa” that has taken on nearly mythic proportions in one’s mind turns out to actually be rather puny. Wilderness, too, tends to be a lot more bothersome and less gratifyingly exotic and fascinating when you are in it than it is in the BBC documentaries…

There is a way to really be *there*, though.

YongHeGong temple detail
Touching. YongHeGong, Beijing

Learn some of the language beforehand. By and large, skip the guidebooks. Better read about history and cultural anthropology of where you are going.


Find a place to stay. Eat where the locals do (though if it’s a McDonald’s or the like, skip it).

Go to local markets and see what’s on sale, and how it’s sold. Push on the subway, skipping the line. Or remain in line and let yourself get pushed in. Whatever’s the local habit.

Chat up whoever’s up for it. Stare back if you get stared at. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Remember that you are the stranger now, anyways.

Let the impressions and perceptions flood over you. Stay for a while, walk around, get to know a small part of the place intimately.

You’ll find that people are people, no matter where you go. And you’ll be all the wiser for having really experienced life in another place.