Travel and transformation

Transformation! Such an overused word… light enough to be tossed around like a frisbee, yet heavy with the gravity of possible meanings. It suggests the process of turning into something completely different, which sounds pretty scary… and fortunately untrue. A caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, but its essence is still the same. The outer appearance and its capabilities are different, but the butterfly already exists within the caterpillar, encoded in the DNA.

Unlike the caterpillar, however, we must make a conscious choice whether we’re willing to undergo the change. That choice may simply be to engage in an activity — like travel — that serves as the trigger or catalyst. The DNA does all the rest, for those who are willing to let it work its magic.

Personal transformation

On a personal level, transformation is about moving through stages of growth, shedding what no longer serves us, and evolving into greater freedom, self-expression and whatever success means to us.

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

 Marcel Proust (1871-1922),
French novelist

Do you remember the joy of being a kid? I suspect that’s when we were most real, most authentic… and over the years we accumulate baggage, masks, entire costumes born out of fear and shame that hide our true selves not only from the world, but from our own awareness. We develop these skins as a form of self-protection from a world that asks for conformity… to be somebody we’re not, to not speak too loudly, to not gain too much attention to ourselves because who we are is “not ok” to people in our families, our cultures, our societies. Often this process is entirely subconscious; it’s our way of fitting in to our tribe.

Our costumes are safe. And yet after a time, if we’re lucky, they start feeling itchy and uncomfortable… and it’s time to take them off. To stand vulnerable, naked in spirit, which enables us to truly stand in our power.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis… have you read it? One scene keeps coming back to me from the Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Eustace, having been turned into a dragon — partly due to his own choices, resulting in a situation where he loathed himself and what he’d become — is turned back into a boy by Aslan the lion. That process involved shedding skin… not just the easily-peeled first or second layer, but cutting down to the core. I’ve added the entire excerpt at the end of this post, if you haven’t read it yet.

I’ve spent years peeling off layers and layers of this suit that was tailored for someone else. Meditation retreats, coaching, Marie Kondo’s “does this bring my joy?” self-inquiry, coming out as LGBT, owning the fact that my neurodiverse brain is simply different, not wrong or right… it’s all been tremendous progress. And yet I could feel there were more layers to peel.

Becoming a nomad was the only logical step for me. I now own nothing except for what lies within a couple suitcases and a box. I go to places where I am a stranger, a wanderer. I no longer have my old routines and patterns; everything is fresh and new. Like Eustace, I submitted to the painfully blissful process of dragon-skin removal, and I’m starting to see and hear myself clearly for the first time in years.

This is the beauty of travel. It’s not usually necessary to take the radical jump of selling everything, as I did: the simple process of getting out of our comfort zones can be enough. To be around people, practices, cultures and languages that are unfamiliar is a way of recognizing that there is no one right way to move through this world. We see that the programming we received growing up is simply one kind of programming among thousands. Traveling uncomfortably — meaning: not conforming travel to our programmed realities, but instead immersing ourselves into new realities — is a process of opening up to all the possibilities in the world. It’s liberation.

Solo travel is even more radical; we don’t have the crutch of a familiar travel partner. We’re pushed into unfamiliar situations with nothing but Google Translate and our own wits. We learn how much we can rely on ourselves; we discover how much confidence and strength lies within us. And we allow the solitude to work its alchemical magic.

Our powers of intuition are also nurtured and developed. I rely on my gut instinct daily, from what country to visit next or whether I should wander down this particular street after dark. I’m constantly asking myself, what am I being drawn to (do/be/learn) and why? It’s this process of discovery — not only of a new place, but who I am and who I become within that new place — that is worth its weight in gold.

It’s no wonder that more women are traveling solo than ever before. The Facebook group The Solo Female Traveler Network has 271,000 members. The Female Digital Nomad group has over 50,000 members. Nomad Women 40s & Up has over 4,400 members. These adventurous women from every country in the world become our new tribe.

It’s fascinating to see all the comments and posts from women who no longer feel at home in the place that they’re from. They report that they’ve grown… that their horizons have expanded so much farther, without them even consciously realizing it. The measure of common ground with a particular place, people and culture shrinks, which can be uncomfortable for some and not others. Some women express a lot of discomfort with this process and decide to end their travels early. We all respond differently to the effect that travel can have.

Societal transformation

And of course when we start healing the divides within ourselves, we’re able to see that the divisions created in our societies are artificial constructs designed as protective mechanisms. Just like dragon skins, they are thick and safe and ugly. They hide our shared humanity.

I like how Robert Reid phrased it in this article on how travel makes you a “liberal”:

when the world starts to see itself more this way — as a unified “tribe,” not split by its ethnicities, nationalities, religions, persuasions — it gets along better….

Taken at its ground-floor meaning, “liberalism” reflects a willingness to accept different ways of doing things than your own. Which sounds a lot like a great way to travel.”

I took my first big solo journey a couple years ago to the mountains of Ecuador. Within those two weeks I developed a real love for the people: kind and happy despite the poverty, strong family values, and incredibly high work ethic. So you can imagine my dismay upon returning to the US just as the immigration debate was heating up. Not the legal debate — yes, there should be a legal process — but the underlying “us versus them” mentality, the unfounded judgments, and the occasional hatred towards people who are different.

As frequent travelers could likely attest, perhaps the answer to world peace is simply more well-worn passports.

What do you think, dear reader? Have you experienced transformation due to travel? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Addendum: The transformation of Eustace

“The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could just get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first.

I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means that I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — “You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down flat on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like the billy-oh, but it is fun to see it coming away. …

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. …”

THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, C.S. LEWIS

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