How Travel Helps us Keep Life in Perspective

No discussion about returning from a prolonged period abroad is complete without thorough time devoted to reverse culture shock. And within the larger folds of a discussion about reentry, the conversation inevitably turns to perspective. Specifically, that people don’t seem to have any. Of course this isn’t a fair statement, but coming off of long-term travel to the developing world often leaves you in a fastidious state of mind. However, there is something to be said about travel also crystallizing your perceptions, honing suspiciously naïve sentiments into firm sets of belief. Even within the context of culture shock, it can help keep life in perspective. And if you concentrate enough, it can help mold you into the person you strive to be.

Travel, Perspective, and Balance

During my time in Burma, I spent a week in a tiny town called Hpa-An. Staying put for so long wasn’t in my plans, but something happened my first night in town that changed the connection I felt to the tiny village in Burma’s Kayin State. That something was this:

big events as we travel help us keep life in perspective

I was exhausted when I arrived, coming off of a fairly ridiculous gauntlet of nightbus to daybus to tuk-tuk. I checked into one of two places in town licensed to house foreigners and joked with the other tourists that I was going to sleep at 7 and if they didn’t see me in the morning, it merely meant that I was planning to sleep thorough another day. I went to sleep at dusk and woke up to faint screams and panicked scurrying in the attic, the Rakhine boys who worked at the hotel trying to stuff their belongings into a bag. Disoriented, my mind in still cobwebbed from sleep, it didn’t register that the air was thick with smoke. I tumbled out of bed and ran down the three flights of stairs to the street. Several buildings were on fire, and given that much of the town was made of wood and that it had no fire station, people assumed the worst. Next door to the hotel was a doctor’s clinic and women ferried in and out carrying supplies to waiting trucks. Grabbing the most expensive ones they could find (a microscope, medication, laboratory equipment), hoping to save what they could. One woman stopped to catch her breath. “This is all,” she blurted out, roughly gesturing to the chaos behind her. The hotel owner explained: no insurance, no savings. If her clinic went down, so did everything she had.

sometimes it takes something huge to regain perspective

One of my closest friends returned from a contract in Ghana only to find he wasn’t empathetic to his friends’ complaints about the weather or traffic. They called him irritable; he called them snobby, told them they lacked perspective. His friends did have perspective – it just wasn’t along the lines of what he was prepared to digest. It was embodied differently: less stark, less earnest, but nonetheless present. I gently suggested that he lacked some perspective too; in straddling the world between Africa and the States, he couldn’t relate to either. Having returned several times during my years of travel, I understood where he was coming from. I remembered the frustration of knowing that my mental state didn’t jive whatsoever with those around me. I remembered looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge and thinking “I’m over this. Where’s the sticky rice?” But as I slowly seeped back into the world I used to know, those ragged edges smoothed and conversations became easier. I learned to enjoy the Brooklyn Bridge again. (But I still missed the sticky rice).

Which brings me back to Burma.

Hpa An Fire, Burma

During that sleepless night as the fire spread through Hpa-An, the few foreigners in town ran out to help. Of course we did! We offered to carry water, to help evacuate, to carry goods from store to store. And as I ran around I told myself to remember this moment for when I got home. Why? Because I knew that in going home I would get caught up in the resentment of feeling like I didn’t belong. I knew there would be moments where I would fail to see the forest through the trees. I wanted to remind myself of the invaluable perspective I gained by being present in Hpa-An, that floating-above feeling of seeing one life as part of a wider tapestry.

And you know what? When I lost all of my travel memories in a robbery back in the fall, this is what I remembered. Hpa-An. Hpa-An and all of those other hairline moments, tiptoeing the tightrope between life and loss, many of which I’ve never written about. It’s not a matter of sanctimony – believe me, I cried serious tears when I found out those photos (along with my laptop and camera and hard drives) were gone. But in keeping these moments close, in trying to cross-reference where I am with where I’ve been and the lessons I’ve learned, I keep my own perspective intact. Remind myself of what really matters in life. This isn’t why I travel, but it is important; it keeps me calibrated. Whatever aggregate frustration or culture shock or negativity I’ve built up, even when things feel like they’ve hit rock bottom, it could always be worse. This is one of the many gifts that travel gives us. We always say “try to put yourself in their shoes to understand.”  But when your travels necessitate that you do so – be it for a moment, or a week or a sleepless night in a tiny river town –  the comparison solidifies into something you can come back to, time and time again.


58 thoughts on “How Travel Helps us Keep Life in Perspective”

  1. Jodi, this is beautiful and so important to remember when traveling. I’m speechless at just how succinctly you put such a hard concept to grasp into words. Well done!

    1. Thanks Sarah. I know we talked about this during the Bangkok protests, something we both felt had a similar effect (and also involved fire and loss). I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Very well said. Often for me just seeing how people live in other places makes me appreciate my own home countries and stress less about things. I need a refresher from time to time, though. It had been a few years since long-term travel before we set off on our current journey, I definitely found myself being cranky the last year or so. Now that we´re back on the road I´m reminded.

    1. It’s true that re-started travel again is a refresher course, both in the whole “don’t sweat the small stuff” thing, and in regaining a sense of perspective. Both are related of course, but I find it’s the latter that comes in handy when I come home. For whatever reason, it’s a lot easier to not sweat the small stuff when you’re on the roof of a minivan than it is in the middle of a more stable routine. :) Thanks for reading!

    1. Thanks Gray. Over the course of our friendship, how many times have you said this? At least a few :) Looking forward to hanging out in BTV sometime this summer, and happy blogoversary.

  3. Thanks for this post Jodi – I just returned to the states after 7 months in Chiang Mai and am suffering through so much of what you touch on in this entry…thanks for your, well…perspective! :)

    1. Thank you Jessica. As someone who will be in Chiang Mai for a few months less than you, I’m sure I’ll be rereading this again upon my return in June. :) I’m glad the post resonated with you. Any plans to return to Thailand?

  4. Breathtaking…well written. It helps reentry to remember the artist’s defination of perspective: the technique of depicting spatial relationships on a flat surface. One needs distance to see them correctly.

  5. Such an incredible post and wise words! I’ve always felt it such a struggle, one I resist to no end, to try and maintain the perspective you gained while having those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.. You come back adamant you will not forget what you’ve learned, or let the ‘old you’ and the ‘old life’ come gushing back too quickly or at all.. and alas, life keeps on going. Life after travel and epic life-experiences. Lovely post, definitely one that hits home!

    1. Hi Grace. It’s true that keeping our experiences fresh, even ones we *swore* we wouldn’t forget, is an effort. As I said to Martin below, it is easy to get lost in the tiny details of home life again. I try to fold in all the new bits and memories from recent travels, but it takes an effort and of course I forget sometimes. As you’ve said, life does keep going. Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. This is a great post, beyond anything. But there still is something I just can’t seem to shake off.

    “Whatever aggregate frustration or culture shock or negativity I’ve built up, even when things feel like they’ve hit rock bottom, it could always be worse. This is one of the many gifts that travel gives us.”

    I can get the sensation that things could always have been worse without traveling as well. There is enough misery and bad luck around me in Holland/Belgium where I live. Furthermore, I feel that traveling in itself is the gift. The one thing that allows me to travel is my bank account. Something I most probably would not have had if I were born in countries that I traveled to (like Guatemala, China…).

    So when I witness less lucky people’s lives in other countries be shattered to pieces (or in fact not really getting anywhere at all, just because of lack of opportunities), and feel lucky that that I do have all kinds of insurances so that this kind of stuff can never happen to me, I wonder if it is in fact not kind of sad that we rich people need poor worlds to “keep calibrated”. Would it really be that hard to keep seeing thins “in perspective” if there would be no third or second world countries (anymore)?

    1. Hi Martin, I’m glad that you brought this up because when I was writing the post, I had a conversation with a friend to this very end. Notably, that it isn’t only within travel that we can get a perspective such as this one – of course there is plenty of sadness and (as you say) misery in our home countries.

      To your point, I think that it is harder to keep our worlds calibrated without a contrast, at least one as visual as the one above. I agree with you that it’s a shame this is the case. And the experiences I had at home often related to 3rd party countries too: working on the legal case for asylum seekers to the States, for example. It was in NY, but it still related to a world far away. Yes, we can remind ourselves to keep perspective and not get lost in the minutiae of our own lives. But it still “takes reminding” if we sufficiently isolate ourselves from things that are hard to see.

      Whereas on the road, I think you can’t shield yourself so easily, you’re forced to digest the whole picture. And that’s why I say that (for me at least – I certainly can’t speak to everyone) it provides an instant recalibration, even in recollection.

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. Much appreciated.

  7. Jodi,

    This is a beautiful post that helps remind us all to think of what is really important. Even in the most frustrating moments, there are things that many of us can take for granted that others can not, and we should remember how lucky we are.

    Thanks, it made me think today.

    1. Thank you Micah. When the chips are down, it’s always more difficult to claw toward the positive and remember how lucky we are – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try :) I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. As always, beautifully written Jodi; absolutely heartfelt. I went back to the States this past December to visit my family over the holidays and it was exceedingly difficult for me. I hadn’t thought about the problems being perspective, exactly; for me it seemed that everyone had such an attitude of entitlement coupled with ingratitude. I constantly wanted to scream, “Don’t you people understand how lucky you are?” Just walking into a grocery store was an exercise in sensory overload.

    But as I reflect on that last visit, I think that the crux of the matter lies with belief systems. As Buddhists, or even Hindus, the residents of Asia have mastered the are of being mindful. They live in the present moment and therefore enjoy each moment. When I return to Western society, the present moment is lost in the abyss of working hard to make money to acquire material things that, if we are to believe the advertising messages that constantly bombard us, will make us feel better about ourselves. I simply can’t live that way anymore.

    BTW, I am yearning to know how the fire ended. Was the town lost? I hope they were able to save it.

    1. Hi Barbara. I think you hit on something important – there is certainly something to be said for the underlying message of Buddhism or Hinduism. However, if you look at many of the modern day Buddhist /Hindu societies (take Bangkok for example) that ‘presentness’ is often missing. You only need to get on the BTS and be bombarded with ads for beauty products and fancy cars. Perhaps it is both an East/West divide but also a matter of income and simplicity of living?

      In many Eastern societies, making money to acquire material things remains a preoccupation of the middle-to-high class. However, many (obviously not all) from the West who can afford to travel and write are in those middle classes at home and conversely exposed to the more poor groups of people on the road. If we integrated ourselves at the same levels that we left, I think we’d find the same materialism, the same preoccupations with status, etc. But we rarely do, which makes the culture shock of ‘the return’ harder to digest.

      The fire did not burn the town the ground, happily. Here’s a photo of one building the next day – Many like this, side by side, but in a section of town.

      Thank you for the kind words and thoughtful comment. I’m so glad we had a chance to meet and talk in Chiang Mai.

  9. This is definitely a tough subject to put into words but I think you did a great job. I’ve had similar feelings of frustration like your friend who returned from Africa and couldn’t empathize with people’s pet peeves and complaints. I just visited Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago and was talking with a friend back home, trying to tell him about how nervous I was to visit this place where there is still lingering tensions from the horrific ethnic clashes in June, and he could only make comments about the wi-fi availability or USSR jokes. On the one hand I wanted to yell at him to read the damn news every once in a while, but on the other hand, it’s so completely irrelevant to his life and who was I to force this issue on him?

    I think travel does alter my perspective on the world, but each time I “re-enter” my life in the states it’s also taught me to be more open and patient with how everybody has their own perspective and how it may be radically different than my own.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kirstin. I’m glad you left it because I hopped over to your blog and see that you’re also obsessed with food – looking forward to reading more. During the protests last year in Bangkok, another blogger said to me “the world doesn’t begin and end in Bangkok, you know”. But for me it did; it was my every moment of every day. How to explain this to someone who isn’t there? I guess you don’t. I tried, but it got me nowhere because ultimately he didn’t think it was relevant to his life. So I understand what you’re saying about your friend in Osh and being of two minds in how to react.

      It’s true, as you say, that coming back to North America is itself a lesson in tolerance and self-control. Do you try and treat North America as another place you visit when you return there? I did so last time and it made coming back easier, though still a shock to the system. :)

  10. Stellar, Jodi. Just stellar.

    I nurture a few treasured memories from my as-yet-limited travels, plus a few dark ones from my past, to keep me calibrated and grounded.

    But there’s so much about the topic of keeping perspective that makes me twitch. I worry that there are some people (let’s call them “idiots”) who go travelling, find such events and then bag them, Pokemon-style, to use in social situations as evidence that they’re somehow better human beings. I’ve seen that kind of thing in non-travel circles and it’s always ugly. Perspective as a tool of moral superiority. We Brits used to do something like that with our aristocratic traditional of Grand Tours – go see the strange foreigners, become a more rounded person, come home, whips the servants and enter parliament.

    That said, I’ve yet to talk to anyone in online travel who has fallen prey to this kind of nonsense. But I’m sure they’re out there.

    And you hit nail on head with the other thing about perspective that worries me – getting so much of it that you become untethered to where you originally set off from. Adrift. I’ve experienced a little of that and it did my mood no favours at all. We (or at least I) need to be selfish in the good way when travelling – to maintain a sense of identity, to keep the little rituals and to embrace, not reject, who we were before we set off, even if we’re actively changing that person as we go along. A personality maintenance kit. In my case, I think I’d need one to stop going crazysauce. ;)

    Did I mention this was a stellar post? ‘Tis.

    1. It’s true that there is a tipping point I skirted around but didn’t really address, one that could easily negate any balance you’ve gained. I’m not sure selfish is the right word, but yes we need to remain cognizant of us being ‘us’ in the grander scheme, else we lose the ability to digest anything we experience.

      Thanks for being a sounding board as I was writing this post, too.

  11. I’m sorry I don’t really have anything to add, I haven’t gone home and experienced reverse culture shock, but I enjoyed reading this post. Very well done and thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Mike. You will have something to add shortly, when you return from Asia! I hope you’re enjoying Laos (and eating everything I told you to eat). Safe travels.

  12. “This is one of the many gifts that travel gives us.” Thank you for putting this into such a thoughtful and provocative post to share, and not just to you, but to the many thoughtful comments that have followed.

  13. This is beautifully written and an excellent point.

    To my mind, a sense of perspective should always accompany a broadening of your horizons. It can help you to both appreciate the lives we (relatively) privelaged individuals lead and to admire element of the lives led by other cultures. The memories and experiences gained through travel do have the ability to influence the way we choose to live our lives as a result.

    The trick, as I see it, is to try and use the new-found perspective to appreciate all that is good in whichever country or culture we find ourselves in. If your current hometown leaves you wanting then we are lucky enough to have the choice to pick up and move elsewhere. Knowledge combined with an open mind should help to find a locale which more closely suits our ideals.

    Thought provoking topic, thanks!

    1. “Knowledge combined with an open mind should help to find a locale which more closely suits our ideals.” This is a very good point, and one I’ve found myself repeating often as people ask me why I keep returning to Asia: pick the place where the things you love make you happy, and the things you don’t love don’t get under your skin. That way, as you say, you do appreciate the good and the shiny and the new, while at the same time not getting resentful about the rest. Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

  14. Ah, can’t believe this is the first time you’re telling this story! It’s an amazing one. Perspective indeed.

  15. This was a joy to read. I’ve been feeling quite sorry for myself recovering from illness, a little lost on the personal/professional side, too. Your lovely story made me remember to keep perspective even when things seems insurmountable or isolating.

    Thanks, Jodi. :)

    1. Andi, Candice, Trish & Jeannie: each of you has been supportive and commenting throughout my travels, and I’m really glad you enjoyed this post too. Hope each of you are well!

  16. totally speechless after reading your post… i remember when i came back after my 6 months of backpacking last 2009… im so afraid to fit in again… until i read posts like this… and post like reintegration of matt and other similar posts… made me feel not alone…

    1. Thank you Flip. You were one of the first people commenting on the Philippines posts I wrote way back when I was on Blogspot and it’s great to hear from you again. As you know, the travel community is an incredible thing and if you’re feeling this way you need only to write to or tweet at a few others and you’ll get some support. Hope life is treating you well!

  17. Well told, Jodi. Linda and I are at ‘home’ for a few months, and those first weeks of re-adjustment were tough but I think I’m doing better than our last re-entry. Perhaps getting enough perspective to exist in more than one world is a part of the journey too.

    1. It’s true. Perspective and frequency, much like climbing at high altitudes. The more you do it, the more you know what to anticipate and adjust for it preemptively. Of course, the longer you are away, the harder it is to re-adjust (for both the mountains and the re-entry). Hope you two are well! Thanks for the comment.

  18. Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures

    That was really beautiful Jodi! Sure the photos are always nice to look at as reminders about what you’ve accomplished, but I’ve always found that I value the impact travel has on me personally far more than the photos I’ve taken.

    I often wonder what the world would be like if everyone, particularly those who have leadership roles in society, took time to travel. Just think, if everyone developed this sense of perspective, the world would be a far, far different place than it is today…

    1. Thanks Aaron, and thanks also for including me in this week’s Friday Five. You bring up a very valid point – I agree that those in leadership roles ought to have traveled prior, preferably to places that would really be a shock to their system. Have a great weekend!

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  20. Yours was the first post I read today, after reading more and more tragic and horrifying news about the earthquake in Japan all morning. Such a well-written piece, Jodi. I don’t think I could stand it if the first travel blog post I read after peeling myself away from news updates had been anything else.

  21. wandering educators

    what an amazing, touching story – and YES, it’s all about perspective. thank you!

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  23. Hi Jodi,

    Great article, really thought provoking.

    Everyone reacts to travel differently. For some, it’s just a holiday. For me (and this term has become a bit overused in my vocabulary!) it’s the ‘disconnect’ that I hunger and crave, and embrace with open arms when the time for travel comes round again. I see my life as being dormant during the usual monotonous work stuff, the normal day to day, but then the power is turned on and ramped up when I board that plane.

    I loved the comment by @Mikeachim about the ‘little rituals’ – you’re so right Mike. I adore the getting ready, the planning, the anticipation of what’s to come. Alain de Botton wrote beautifully about this in his book “The Art of Travel” re the anticipation vs reality.

    For me the two go hand in hand, and the reality never disappoints. I’ve spent the last 7 years gradually exploring SE Asia, and I feel like those experiences have not only majorly shaped me but kept me sane. It’s right that I can only have those experiences due to being financially comfortable and economical (saving etc), and there is an empirical element to travel, but I still feel at the very core of it that whilst my world here and the world in a tiny town in Laos or in the haunted ruins of Cambodia is so far apart in material ways, it’s the same on a totally human level. The problem for me is that Western life doesn’t fulfill me, and travel helps me to remember and cherish what for me, it is to be human. Community, family, trust, pain, recovery, joy, innocence, heartbreak. These are all things that travel has shown me in ways that the stoic and predictable life here never could. Travel showed me, and continues to, the important things in life. When I escape for my paltry three or four weeks a year, I gorge on those times, I embrace those experiences in every pore of my being. I know they have to feed me for the times to come, until I can wander once more.

    There will be cynics and sceptics out there who’ll get all antsy and exasperated I’m sure at the things we are discussing here, but who cares. This is your community, our community, and I love that. It’s exactly what we travel for isn’t it? To share our experiences, to live outside of the boxes that Western life so often tries to place us into. I spent most of my life yearning to break free, to travel, but I also realise how fortunate I am to be able to vote, to have a say, to have power, to not have corruption and greed and fear looming over me every day, as so many do still in the places we all travel to. I just want to understand, as patronising at that may be, the different, the alternative. Maybe travel makes us also realise how lucky we are to have what we have here. It doesn’t seem to stop or inhibit me wanting to jump on the next plane out of here though.

    One experience I’ll never forget was in Burma in 2008. As you know, I’m a keen amateur photographer. I stayed at the Peacock Guesthouse in Mandalay, and got talking to the owner. He said I should drop in on his friend, Frankie Tun Tin, in town. He said he “takes pictures too”. I dropped by on Frankie. To say he takes pictures is to say Michaelangelo was a decorator. Frankie opened me with welcome arms. We sat down, talked for a while, then he said hold on. He closed the shutters. Trust was formed. He closed the front door, and drew the lock. For the next 3 hours, Frankie and I sat, opposite each other, two worlds apart, talking and sharing our love of photography. A friendship was formed there, in a cafe, on a dusty Mandalay evening. He told me his tales of dodging the government, the risks he went to to take his pictures. His pictures were and are sensational. Truly brilliant. Some never seen though by those outside. We talked about his struggles, his family. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and his rough, calloused hand held mine. Time became meaningless. I could have stayed there all night, listening to Frankie’s tales, but Frankie had to open his bar to pay his rent. I left numb. Humbled. Honoured to have met this great and inspiring man. It is these kind of experiences which shape and define. I will never forget that day in Mandalay.

    As I sit here typing this now, one of Frankie’s images is framed and on my sitting room wall. Every time I look at it it reminds me how lucky I am. And how much I miss my dear friend Frankie.

    I urge your readers to seek Frankie out. I see Frankie has a Facebook page now. The marvels of technology.

    A bit of a stream of rambling consciousness I know, but this is just me, just my sentiments, but I hope these resonate with you and your readers.

    Thanks for being a sounding board the other month by the way, your reply meant alot :-)

    Hope you’re enjoying Chiang Mai. Will you be around BKK in April/May?


    1. Hey John, I’m glad the piece resonated with you so much. It’s my pleasure to have chatted about life and law – I understand the frustration! Will be in Bangkok in May, probably from 20-30 or so. Flying back to the States on the 31 May.

  24. Jodi-

    As always, great article.

    Perspective is so important. Travel taught me the ability to understand that everyone’s perspective is different- a lesson that has served me well in every facet of my life.
    Your painful experience in New York of losing your travel photos made me run out the next day and buy two portable hard drives to backup all of my own pictures. I keep one at my parents and one is our fireproof safe. I’m sorry for your loss, but know your ability to pass that along has served others.

    Continued safe travels.

    1. Hi Erik, thank you for the comment (and sorry for the delay in responding – I missed this one!). I’m glad to hear that you’ve gone out and backed up your photos. As I said in the post about the theft, I wasn’t looking for sympathy but to hopefully remind people to backup either in the cloud or more thoroughly than I did. I will say that the response from the travel community and this site’s readers was overwhelming and I was really thankful for all the comments and commiseration! I hope you never need to use those backups, but good that you’ve now got them. Thanks for reading!

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