Feb. 15, 2017

I should write more. Oh wait, I have been!

I’m sitting in a personal gazebo thing in the middle of Malang, in Java, Indonesia. It’s February 15, exactly halfway through my travels through Southeast Asia. I spent the first month entirely in Chiang Mai, so I’m not sure if that counts. I don’t have a debt card and I’m rapidly running out of money. It should be fine, though. I wouldn’t worry about it.

The gazebo, too, is a bit of an anomaly. When booking all the rooms I thought that having one stay where I would get to sleep in a room by myself would be a relief after sleeping on tons of bunk beds. Weirdly, it turned out that I didn’t mind bunk beds at all. Partially, it’s because my bunk bed partners were courteous, but I think that the other half is that I grew used to it almost immediately. Waking up repeatedly the first night was tiring, but after that I don’t recall it bothering me at all. On the other hand, I now realize that having a room to myself defeats the entire hostel experience of randomly meeting people. I’ve met people at a rate of approximately 1 per hostel simply by happening to be in the room when they came in and introducing myself to them. In terms of meeting people, it has to be the lowest-friction way I can possibly imagine.

I wish that there were places like hostels back in SF or elsewhere that… weren’t actually hostels. Like, you just sat somewhere, and someone walked in, and then you started talking to them. Okay, sure, literally anywhere could be like that. But in a hostel you have a lot more in common than just propinquity (P.S. This is the actual name of the psychologic phenomenon. I’m not just trying to be fancy). You also have an arbitrarily large number of subjects in common with each other. It’s really neat, and it makes meeting people effortless.

Unfortunately, those very same people that you just met are now leaving. Which is the crux of hostel life. You meet people, some are uninteresting, some are cool - and then 3 days later they’re all gone and you’ll never see them again in your life. You probably connect with a few of them on Facebook but what’s even the point of continuing a relationship - I repeat: you’ll never see them again in your life.

Which actually reminds me of what a girl I met in in Phnom Penh said when I brought this up, which was that you’ll always meet someone twice. When I asked her to explain she said “people move in the same circles,” and she continued to explain but I think that those 6 words actually capture the entire spirit of the idea, in a way that loses the mythos and feels very real. Similar people do similar things, and that brings them in contact with each other again.

In Yogyakarta someone else said: “everything that happens does so for a reason.” When I told her that I had food poisoning during my entire stay at Yogyakarta, I was kinda impressed by her mental gymnastics to fit that into her world view. “Um, maybe it was because… it could have been really bad here?” Maybe! But even though I mock it, I like the viewpoint because believing it inducts a type of confirmation bias on yourself - but a good type of bias, one that has no negative side effects and simply makes you recategorize negative experiences as positive ones. (“I lost my credit card, but that’s okay, because I got to learn how Western Union works. And I couldn’t actually find the WU, but that’s okay too, because I got to explore the city and found a bunch of really fascinating side streets that weren’t even on Google Maps. And now I’m starving on the street, but…”)

And that’s why I like the “always meet someone twice” philosophy - even if it’s not true, believing it will make 2 people that I do meet again feel like hundreds and make the final goodbyes a little less sad.

Because isn’t traveling a little sad?

Heraclitus said “you never step in the same river twice,” and it’s one of those things that I constantly remind myself of but never quite manage to wrap my head around, sort of like sonder - the concept that every person around you has a life as equally complex and vibrant as your own, that someone you pass for a second on the street will then return to her own life, a complex fractal that only intersected yours for that brief moment. Gah, there it is again! And of course, sonder is much more profound while traveling than back at home. At home you could content yourself to thinking that at least her life is like yours in some way. That she probably goes rock climbing on weekends (just to a different gym?), that she’s probably into the indie music scene judging by the logo on her t-shirt. That you probably live in the same city, probably work in the same field, probably eat from the same cafes, probably breathe in the same air.

While traveling every bit of similarity is stripped away. Yes, that Indonesian man I just passed has a life completely outside of mine. But unlike anyone in San Francisco, I have no clue what it could possibly entail. I couldn’t hope to understand the highs and lows or even place them on a scale. I have no idea what day to day life looks like, or what the concept of a break looks like, or what about his psychology and life explains his great interest in the Thai version of chess…

The reason The Truman Show works is because no one can really keep the concept of sonder in their heads. We all on some level believe that everyone else is an automaton, at least as a useful heuristic to save ourselves from being overwhelmed. Sort of like how if you keep on tacking on 0’s to 1000, we immediately lose scale of how large the number is and start counting the number of 0’s instead. Do we really have a picture in our mind of how large 10,000 is? Of course not. Can we really hold in our minds that every single person we come in contact with has a separate life from us? No. How many stars are there in the galaxy? A hundred? Two hundred? Does it even matter?

Like sonder, I can’t understand “you never step in the same river twice.” What it means to me is that life is like a river: it appears to be stable, but in reality it’s changing subtly day to day. In a very literal sense, the quote works because rivers do change. They start out with very straight paths, but as they age their paths begin to meander more and more as they gradually wend the most efficient path to the sea. It’s a process that takes hundreds of years and you might not even notice it. (You: Wow, it’s such sonder that rivers have their own entire life, mannn.)

I’ll give you an example: consider your job. It probably feels stable. But is your job right now the same as your job was a year ago? Almost certainly not - some people are new, some people are gone. The dynamic has changed - maybe subtly, maybe not. That’s the river, changing subtly under you. Sometimes, this is sad. I joined a job and the dynamic was amazing, but gradually the dynamic shifted. It’s sad that you can’t recapture those early days. You can’t recapture your time in college, or high school. The river has permanently found a new path.

And if life is a river, then traveling is a freaking class V rapid. There’s a permanent sense of loss, combined with a permanent sense of discovery. It’s quite heady. You can understand why people like it. And there’s nothing wrong with being sad about things being over. It’s like Dr. Seuss said - “Don’t cry because it’s over, laugh because you have a terrible taste in quotes.”

Not having the Internet has an interesting way of focusing the mind. Out here in a gazebo in Malang, the Internet is so slow that it’s almost not even worth using. Which means that all I can really do is write.

Continued here.

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