I am a backpacker through and through. When I’m on the road, I live cheaply, I stay in hostels, I cook most of my own meals, I search out deals, and I try to avoid spending money. But when I settle into one place like I did this summer in New York, I tend to spend. I don’t budget when I’m not on the road.
And when I’m able to spend, I really spend. I like nice things, I eat at fancy restaurants, I buy overpriced clothes from Banana Republic, I hang out with my friends in trendy bars, and I buy spiffy electronics. In some ways, my friends and I are your average twenty-something city slickers.
Last year I came across some bohemian art folks on the web. They liked my site, their art was cool, and they were very down-to-earth people. We developed a steady online friendship, but their lifestyle is totally different from mine. There is nothing too extraordinary about my social life. Overall, my social habits are pretty mainstream. But they go to alternative festivals like Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle. They are really into erotic art. They have a lot of piercings and tattoos. Some of them live in modern communes. They are vegan. (I can’t live without bacon.) In short, they are the exact opposite of my normal social network.
To me, travel isn’t just about visiting different places. I don’t often care where I visit. Yes, I love exploring certain parts of the world, but what I really want to explore is life on this planet. I want to know how cultures fit together, why people think and act the way they do, and how seven billion of us fit into this world. Yes, I want to see Paris and lie on beaches in Thailand, but what I really want to know is why the French love to riot, why the Italians put up with corruption, why I will always be giajin in Japan, and why the Thais seem to only express emotion in two forms: happiness or anger. (If you lived in Thailand, you would understand that last point.) To me, travel is about understanding the people of the world.
When the opportunity arose to go and visit these friends in Reno, Nevada, I jumped at the chance to experience something different. So I went there with a lot of curiosity and a very open mind. Whatever they threw at me, I was going to take. Reno was all about new experiences, and I was looking forward to learning a thing or two.
We went to a techno concert that was vaguely reminiscent of Burning Man on my first night there. I hung out with people with blue hair and weird get-ups. There were a lot of neon lights, a lot of drugs, and a lot of just way-out-there stuff.
I spoke to a guy who talked a lot about his sex shop and about exploring things with his wife.
I met hippies who grew pot.
I met lots of raw-food folks or vegans.
There was a lot of talk about energy and love. (And even a woman who claimed to be an alien.)
My hosts run an erotic art site.
I found it all weird. Very weird. But at the same time very, very interesting, even if I couldn’t always relate.
And you know what? I had a great time. Everyone was very nice and friendly. They were genuinely interested in what I do. They loved the fact I was living my life on my own terms, and I really loved the fact they were too. I like people who follow their dreams. They welcomed me into their circle, they made me brownies, they invited me back for Thanksgiving. We shared a love for music, life, and True Blood.
One thing I’ve learned in my four years of traveling around the world is that people are essentially the same. Whether a person is American, Australian, Japanese, Thai, or Uzbek, people want the same thing: to be happy, be safe, have friends, do what they want, and enjoy life.
Walking down the street, we often make snap judgments about others even while displaying a “don’t judge a book by its cover” attitude. We see the goth going down the street and think “weirdo.” We see kids skating in parks and think “punk.” We see white guys in dreads and think “hippy.”
I admit that I judge people. I even made judgments about the folks in Reno before I went. But I went because I wanted to go to learn not to make judgments. And while I won’t be moving to a commune or going raw anytime soon, what Reno taught me was that the old adage about judging a book couldn’t be a truer statement if it tried.
If I had simply stuck to my worldview, I never would have gone to Reno. I never would have met such great people. I never would have exposed myself to new ideas and ways of life. Travel is about breaking out of your comfort zone and testing your boundaries. For some people, that might simply be walking on a plane to go somewhere, or bungy jumping, or, for me, embracing a way of life outside my own.