Why do we travel? Surely we do so to find the answers to our questions and face our fears. Nevertheless, I find there's a tendency in travel to mainly confront our inner yearnings through the good things. Bold bungee jumping escapades, exotic food discoveries -- these are typical tests of any intrepid modern day explorer who (naturally) documents her experiences through hashtags of happiness, of inspiration and of so much joy that you feel like your head might explode.
While it is undeniable that amazing things happen to us abroad, I personally believe that the focus on the positive or exciting things of travel is usually because we want to reinforce our choice to leave home in the first place and conceal any sign that we may doubtful, lost or just plain negative towards our experiences while travelling.
Certainly, I am guilty of this a lot of the time. I tend, as others do, to post an impossible amount of gorgeous and inspiring photos from my current home-away-from-home, Istanbul. For example, today as I crossed the waters of the Bosphorous I observed how the smoky air seemed to dissolve into the water, and how the mighty bridge was almost lost in a million shades of blue murkiness. How beautiful, I thought, and immediately found myself reaching for my phone, my thumb tracing the slick contour of my screen, the thought of snapping a quick shot filling my mind. Just as I was about to pull it out however, I suddenly held back. Breathe, Meghan, a small voice said in the back of my head. I tried.
Everything was so beautiful and mysterious but for once, I just tried to enjoy the moment for what it was. Nonetheless, as I got off the boat I felt disappointed, and scolded myself for failing to properly capture what I'd seen. Then I realized why I felt so frustrated at not taking my picture -- it was because I felt alone. While I'm overseas, social media is regularly my way of sharing my experiences.
Feeling alone is my hardest struggle, much more than facing the unknown. But loneliness is a near constant during travel and I've learned that it is more than familiar territory in this city. As inspiring as I wish it always was, rubbing up against a crumbling history can actually be quite disconcerting: at first, the decaying Ottoman buildings here can appear charming. But over time, they begin to serve as a reminder of what was great before but what was allowed to fall into ruin.
What happened to the people who used to live there, I have begun to wonder, and why did they let this happen to their home? If spirits live in Istanbul, surely they are as lonely as everyone else here at having to roam wild amongst the other abandoned treasures instead of being tucked safely into the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of this city.
Indeed, there is something about loneliness and Istanbul that seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps this is why Turkish people are so ready to be social at all times. I have a fond memory of a miserable day in the winter here last year and running into a friend on the street. Without saying a word, we promptly folded into each other and headed for the closest tea house, played backgammon all day and stamped our feet to keep them from getting too cold.
"Loneliness will kill you, you know," my friend said at one point, and I smiled back at him.
We had kept it at bay that day, but how often will it come back to visit us?
The answer is, a lot, and travelling has forced me to confront this reality. We all feel lonely however, even in our regular lives. Travelling has also taught me how universal it is, how eternal and essential it is to come together. As one Muslim friend once offered, loneliness is part of our human condition. She believes that we are all separated from the oneness we experience in another realm, and in this life we are forever searching for each other, like in that game from childhood -- blindfolded, stumbling, arms stretched out desperately seeking the touch of another person.
Through my travels, I've learned that it's not about eliminating loneliness; it's just about recognizing it in others and acknowledging it in ourselves. It's a sensitive place to be. In life, just as in travel, you have to a bit more careful, make a bit more conversation, smile a bit more, and try a bit harder -- even when you feel a bit tired. Travel, like life, is made up of all sorts of moments, and it doesn't just give you the easy ones. Make sure you're open to everything, including more than just hashtags of happiness and photos of unparalleled beauty. And if you ever plan to go abroad, be prepared to face your fears, and find some answers. Just not in the way you thought.
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