What does it mean to truly know a place or to really experience a culture?
This is a question that I have been thinking about for a long time, with a draft version of this post on my desktop for over a month. But I can’t quite seem to finalize things – to find that conclusive sentence to wrap it all together.
This is a question that will come up continually if you’re on the road for any amount of time. I’ve had people tell me that I could never possibly know a place just by traveling. I’ve had people tell me that they have lived someplace for years and yet don’t know it. I’ve seen people completely absorbed by a culture within weeks. And I have walked off of a plane and felt more at home than I do in places I have spent the better part of my life.
I have come to believe that those who think you can’t deeply know a place by just “traveling” haven’t ever truly traveled. And yet, as I sit a breakfast, listening to “travelers” swap stories of extra passport pages and 7 continents, who then are genuinely perplexed when I mention my desire to live abroad, I can’t help but think, maybe just traveling isn’t enough either.
Then where is that elusive line between not knowing and knowing? Between eating and tasting. Between seeing and appreciating. Between talking and conversing. Whether you just dip your toes into the water or are immersed up to your chin, if you are always standing on your flat feet, then can you ever really claim to have been swimming?
Perhaps, this problem is the exact reason I haven’t been able to finish my draft. Does the line even exist? If memories and our own selves are in constant flux, changing and evolving with our own new experiences, then is it even possible to truly know a place or a person?
I “knew” Nepal as it was twelve years ago and then again eight months ago, but does that mean I “know” it now?
These questions sit in my head as I look around at the “travelers” surrounding me, and I believe I have finally found at least the beginning of my conclusion: Being able to know a place has nothing to do with the amount of time spent or number of monuments visited. It has everything to do with the openness of your mind and your ability to see and experience the place for what it is, for what it has to offer you, and what you have to offer it at that moment.
Living, traveling, working, or studying in a place for years will do nothing to allow you to get to know the place if you never actually want to experience it. If you are always looking for the comforts of someplace else, then you will never be open to experiencing the uniqueness of where you are. Perhaps knowing where you stand is as simple as dropping away your own ideas of what a place should be, opening your eyes and mind, and welcoming it to change you anew each and every time.