I was on a bus in Europe with a friend that took me from the airport to his university apartment. It was 11pm and we were both pretty tired.
Before we talked about the general shape of our lives, he gave me an epic takedown of his time in Barcelona, where he had just flown in from. I told him a bit about Germany. We were 23, in the prime of our lives. Best friends on the road. An exciting 5 days awaited.
The bus continued meandering down Irish streets. I looked out of the bus and noticed that there were more bars than anything else. An impeccable gloom permeated. The conversation veered violently to the topic of travelling. It all started when I asked him if he was tired after 4 months of being in a foreign country.
“Sometimes lonely, yes. But tired? No. I think I’ve managed my travels well.”
“Is there a not managing well?”
He smirked at this point. The streetlights hit the raindrops on the window, forming ominous dotted shadows on his face.
“I’ve come up with this term called the Checklist Syndrome,” he said after some thought. “It refers to when people just travel to as many places and do as many things as they can in the span their exchange allows. I’ve seen a lot of it in my time here. A lot of my friends just hop week to week, country to country.”
I told him that this shouldn’t be surprising. That Singaporeans especially don’t have so many chances to go out there and see this part of the world because of the distance. “It’s like going to a buffet,” I said. “You save up for it with cheaper meals then you stuff yourself full.”
“But it gets pretty tiring, doesn’t it?”
The bus was on a highway now. Around us a perennial silence.
“I think it’s ok if you know why you’re doing it,” he said.
What did he mean by “know why you’re doing it”? I was about to go on my own exchange in the following semester to the East Coast of the United States. I felt like this was something I should listen closely to.
“You’d notice during your time in Singapore that your Instagram feed is flooded with photos of your friends on exchange.”
I nodded. I could already name quite a few.
“It all looks damn good right? The whole hopping from country to country thing.”
I had to admit that it did. Looking through the Instagram feeds of my friends was like stepping into a tourist brochure. Mountains of Germany, snow in Austria, Martian landscapes of Iceland, Mussels in Brussels, Canals of Amsterdam. I could see all that Europe had to offer from a classroom in Singapore and it all looked fantastic. More than just fantastic, it all looked flawless.
“The sights are amazing for sure, but the thing about Instagram is that it makes these sights seem like all there is to pursue in a foreign country.”
I asked him what he meant.
“As tourists I think it’s inevitable that we come to an unfamiliar place and pick out the highlights. But I think a lot of us forget that we aren’t exactly tourists but are here on a semester-long exchange. We have more time to just look around. There’s more to any place than good scenery.”
“So by knowing why you’re doing something it means…”
I thought about what I wanted from my own experiences. Something special to take home after it was all over. I wanted the scent on the place to linger on my sleeves. I wanted some inspiration that Singapore could not give. It was all so vague. I felt honestly disarmed at that point, unsure of why I really wanted to travel halfway around the world for. He looked at me and went on.
“To me it means that you settle down at where you’re living, and you really get to know the place. The history, the people, the culture. The sights look pretty, and anyone can see that. But not many people can tell you why a church was constructed the way it was, or what geographical phenomena created that sea cliff, why the people have certain accents or why a dynasty ended, what led to the end of it. An Instagram picture cannot help you understand these things. You need a keener eye in order to truly understand. You need patience, the ability to stay still. I’m talking about reading up, talking to locals, walking around places on your own and just putting your phone away when you can to just look.”
“So, stay put in a place is your solution?” Sounded a bit too extreme to me. When I think of staying still I often think of tunnel vision, something lacking entirely in spontaneity.
“No, I think for me, to be in a place and really understand it does not mean you forsake travelling around. To me, it’s all about pacing yourself and going where interests you. Aim to leave a place you’ve visited with a better grasp of it so when someone asks you in the future ‘what did you learn?’ that you can confidently tell them a good number of things about the place rather than, the sunsets are nice, or the glaciers are spacious, or that it snowed.”
Perhaps to him that was the spirit of travel and it has since rubbed off on me in little ways. To him travel was about knowing something and bringing that in depth knowledge home. It was about interacting with a place to the extent where that knowledge gained becomes imbedded, the way you cannot familiarise yourself with seeing as much as you can with doing. I think my philosophy slants a little away from this but leans towards the same sun. When I travel I want to keep an eye out for the insignificant, the often overlooked. I see a cobblestoned street and notice its pattern the same way I like it when snowflakes fall on my cotton gloves and struggle to stay solid. I think about the abandoned suitcases in Auschwitz labelled “Kafka” more than the Arbeit Macht Frei sign. I walk around alleyways because the dark and quiet is more conducive to thought. That’s just how I do things (but I try not to walk around dark alleyways anymore because I almost got robbed once). I look for little things because for some reason I still don’t fully understand, I want to grant these things a story. I want to find a way to weave these into a larger narrative and I do so in the only way I know how.
The bus jerked as it made another turn.
“The whole problem is not that people don’t have the right mindset when they travel for months on end,” he continued. “The problem is that with social media it all feels like an imitation game, everyone ticking one destination off their checklist and then another until they finally feel like they’ve been to all these places. I’m not saying that this process is meaningless for everyone but I wonder, really, just what everyone learns in the process. We focus on the exhibition rather than the experience.” (I do believe at times that the exhibition can be the experience but perhaps that’s for a different piece.)
The bus pulled up at the University, and we scrambled off. Outside the cold bit my ears. All around it was dark, and it was just my friend and I walking down a narrow path to his apartment. We walked up and down different paths, stone, pebbled, concrete. And then we arrived in a room smaller and cosier than I had ever known. There was nothing to tick off a checklist here. No marvellous sight. No Instagram post. He cooked instant spaghetti and terrible packet udon, the kind of food Gordon Ramsey has nightmares about. And yet. It was quite something to behold. Everything. The entire situation of us and the moment, and the time that stood still. If there was anything to understand about a moment like this, it’s to allow the moment to come and go. And reflect. And appreciate your being in that foreign place.
There is no checklist because in the moment, you do not chase. You know why you’re doing what you’re doing and the feeling remains.