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On a good day I am a people person, not necessarily a super social person, but a people person.

I’ve always loved learning about other people, cultures, and times. When I arrive in a new place I usually take a few days to sit back, wander, and observe how things get done. How neighbors interact. How the rhythm of the place ebbs and flows throughout the day.

Knowing this, I find myself staring out my plane window, wondering why then I would be so fascinated by the one continent where people don’t live (save a few dedicated scientists that brave the long, dark winters).

This is my second trip to the frozen continent, and I think I am even more excited than my first time here. Perhaps because I have a better idea of what to expect this time around, which gives me a new opportunity to dig deeper and to look more closely at details I missed before. Perhaps because I never imagined making it here once, much less twice, and in some small way, twice gives you a special kind of micro-ownership over of place.

No longer will it be just a place I visited for a few days. I will be able to say that Antarctica is a place I have spent over a month, working, standing on its glaciers, and sailing through its waters. I will be able to join the small group of people that have just begun to know and love this place. The group of people that considered this uninhabited land home, for however brief the moment was.

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.

Senegal

“Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful – not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.”

Gerard d’Aboville quoted in The Tao of Travel, Enlightenment from Lives on the Road – Paul Theroux

I remember a conversation that took place before I left for my 365 day adventure, in which I made a remark about how I wanted to leaveNew Yorkand travel for a year because I had lost my focus.  I had argued that travel could give me a clairvoyance that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Six months in, I’ve been rolling this thought around in my head, thinking that there was something else I was trying to encompass in this statement that wasn’t initially coming across.

Finding this quote from Gerard d’Aboville, who rowed across the Pacific solo in 1991, made me realize that what I was trying to grasp in my actions and in my use of the word “clairvoyance” wasn’t just that additional knowledge or experience that comes so easily from walking into a new place. What I meant was that I was craving the awareness of our own humanness that can only arise when we push ourselves to our mental, emotional, and physical limits. Without this, we lose our connection to the humanity around us.

Why was India the first place I chose to come to when I left home? I have been thinking about this a lot lately too. It was not because I had been before and knew the country and the language. It was but because it was and remains the hardest place I have been. Throughout almost 40 countries, no place has broken me down and built me back up likeIndia. No place has shown me the limits of my own person likeIndia. If I am looking for a deeper sense of my own humanity, this is the only place that I could have started.

What I have learned from this, is that if we, as humans, are searching for more clairvoyance, perhaps that can only come by using our biggest challenge, our biggest obstacle, our biggest fear,  as the place from which we start.