Refraction (noun) – Physics: A change in direction of a ray as it passes through a different medium.
Refraction (noun) – Optometry: The process of testing ones eyes for defects and abnormalities.
Since my arrival back in the States, and subsequently my resettling into university life, I have been pressed to provide countless summaries of how my summer was. This is never an easy task. I find that the memories and sentiments that come to mind as I have struggled to answer this question are simply too abstract, too voluminous, and too far away to fit into the timeslots of casual conversation. In an effort to avoid the cliché, I usually resort to simply calling the experience “interesting” or “eye-opening”, before describing what I was doing in India—which is always the next question anyways.
Despite their momentary annoyance, these forced reflections on my time in India have been helpful in uncovering some deeper realizations about travel. These realizations derive from my difficulty answering the leading question. My issue lies not in that there are no memories that come to my mind when I think of my journey. Rather, there’s no single memory that defines my experience—no favorite food to point to, nor a single hardship that I grew from.
When I think of my summer I relive long nights playing cards on the floor with my co-interns, curious stares elicited in every public space, endless rolling hills of lush tea plants, and the perils of taking an overnight sleeper bus. But these were just some of the first things that popped into my head, and as I look back over this memory set I fear that it does not capture the fullness of my experience, and in fact may convey a false impression to readers. Moreover, I feel that in order to satisfyingly convey my experience, I would need to add other memories to the set, along with descriptions, ad Infinitum, only reaching an accurate portrayal in the limit.
As readers—and conversationalists—we’ve come to expect these boiled down and easy-to-digest sentimental tid-bits in order to easily map other people’s experiences onto our own—but I’m afraid I will not be able to deliver on this expectation.
In truth, I am still struggling to understand for myself what deeper lessons I have taken away from this journey and what profound changes have occurred to my being. I didn’t come back to the states inspired to convert to Hinduism (though I have learned a great deal about eastern philosophy), or renounce all of my material possessions, nor did I “find myself” during my time in India. If anything, I returned even more lost.
My difficulties with finding meaning in my trip led me to rethink what it actually means to travel, and what exactly we strive to take away from our journeys.
There are many different conceptions of travel present in our collective consciousness. In certain circles, travel has just become another luxury good; Its value derived from the quality of the Instagram photos taken, the anecdotes gathered to further bolster one’s ‘culture’, or simply from the opportunity to one up someone else’s trip on the scale of exotic destinations. Many romanticize travel in the image of rugged explorers or mature contemplatives looking for enlightenment. Others see it a means to make themselves more worldly, more aware, more ‘woke’. Almost everyone, however, sees travel as a way to escape the mundane of everyday existence. Even if we cherish our everyday lives and love the area that we live in, familiarity has the tendency to dilute the magic of our normal surroundings into dull routine.
I’ve held almost all of these conceptions at some point in my life, and each probably played some role in my decision to take this opportunity. What I came to realize from my journey this summer, however, is that although compelling, this narrative of travel is largely inaccurate. This quote from Zat Rana, one my favorite Medium writers, captures this sentiment precisely:
The point of traveling isn’t to find ourselves, and it’s also not to run away from our problems, but it’s to lose ourselves: to ignore the rigid stories about who we are that so strongly define our daily lives; to become unconditioned from the mono-culture so deeply infused in our psyche that we forget that there are more ways to live than one; and to step away from the false subjective perception that insists that we — to you, it’s you; to me, it’s me — are at the center of reality and that what’s right here, right row, is the only thing that matters — a fact that’s almost laughable when you realize how small and insignificant you and your desires are in every place outside of your closed, intimate world.
In short, travel is powerful because all of the deviations from the mundane help us stay in the present, and with this heightened awareness we can better understand our place in the world. This heightened awareness also helps explain my trouble in reducing my trip to a transferable nugget of information. This is because in being fully aware of the present creates more formative memories in ones mind than planning/worrying about the future or ruminating about our past, and exploring India kept me constantly in the moment.
Thus I find that instead of a sign of absentmindedness, the irreducibility of my experience is evidence of formative, substantive travel, and I strive to spend more of my everyday life with greater awareness.
I would like to quickly thank everyone who helped make my time in India possible, including Aparna and everyone involved in CASI, the lovely people at Aravind, my friendly co-interns, and the generous donors that support these internships. I am deeply grateful for everyone’s support.