I've heard many times––and I think I've heard it attributed to multiple sources––that travel is the best education. That may be true, but I no longer think that it's true in the same way that I used to. Back then, before I started all of this madness that's been the last two years of my life, I thought travel was going to teach me about the world. What I realize now is that for me at least that's rarely the case. Visiting a place for a few days, weeks or even months is enough to give a a different perspective on your own world, but I'm afraid now that the only way to really begin to understand another place is to live there, probably for a really long time.
In short, I think traveling educates you, but it educates you more about the people you travel with than where you actually go. All the better if you do it alone, because then it educates you about yourself.
Looking back at the last couple years, I think maybe the greatest tragedy in my own life is that I didn't write more about them. Now, though, I think I'm beginning to understand that there was a reason for it. First was one that I've talked about before. That's the fact that it's hard to write about your life when you start to lose track of your own identity. That happened, and I think I'm only now––maybe––starting to recover a little. The second though, and I think more difficult, is that it's hard for me to write about a place unless I know it, and as I said above, I think I'm starting to realize that knowing a place is a much more involved process than I'd believed.
When I look back at all of the things I've written before, I think (for whatever that's worth) that some of the strongest stuff was the year just before I left on this mad adventure across the Middle East. During that year, I was just at home in the woods of north Pennsylvania. It was the place I'd grown up. Sure I'd gone away for a couple years to college and traveled around Europe once, but that only served to make it feel even more mundane of a place. Yet, when I look at what I was inspired to write about it, it's much more authoritative and evocative, and even more importantly, honest, than anything I've been able to write since. And I think that's because it was home.
My first year traveling abroad after that, I tried to keep writing, but I felt either too overwhelmed to do it, or worse, dishonest when I did. Because the fact is: I can't know what a place is like, or even understand what's happening there by just passing through it. Sure it's one better than reading Wikipedia or the CIA World Factbook on it, but you can't know it. Not until you've spent a good long time walking––if not quite in the shoes of the people who live there––then at least close beside them. Until you've gone through the highs and the lows and everything in between in a place, and perhaps most importantly of all, been there long enough to see it change over time and most, most importantly see yourself change over the time you've been there, then you can't really know it. And I can't honestly write about a place that I don't know. I've tried and I've failed.
Coming up on two years of being based in Beirut, I feel like I might just now be ready to ever-so-gingerly dip a toe back into having some kind of commentary on it. Even that with the greatest caution, because I realize at the end of the day, I'm still only a guest here.
In the end, I'm not sure if this all leaves me with a feeling of hope or despair. It's desperate because I now realize it's a lot harder to write about myself or the world that I'm somehow a part of than I ever thought it would be. But it also has a twinge of hope, because it means that––for me at least––the most important things to think about and invest in and maybe, eventually, to write about, aren't the far away and unattainable things, but rather the things and people who are closest to me, wherever I am.