Recently, an old university acquaintance of mine posted a set of pictures from his round-the-world trip to Facebook. The very first one caught my eye -- it was a thatched-roof hut restaurant like you'd see anywhere in the tropics, but this one looked familiar. Sure enough, it was the Topi Inn, in the small village of Padang Bai, Bali, Indonesia. I got my advanced open water SCUBA certification there last year.
It's a strange feeling to see someone else you know, so far away from home. It's a stark reminder that your ideas of place are closely tied to time. In my mind, Padang Bai exists for about a week during early 2010; it's connected to the chaos of south Bali by a dusty highway half under construction, left in flux by Indonesia's hopeless corruption: but it will be finished someday. There's a man there who hangs around the town's only ATM, which won't work with international cards, hoping that some tourist will pay him for a motorbike ride to the next town over for cash. Maybe his job has been made obsolete by now. I was renting a room in Kerobokan from an Australian woman, who pointedly warned me not to eat anywhere but the Topi Inn while visiting Padang Bai -- she was right.
But, mostly, it makes you remember that you are simply one component in a well-established trail. This isn't anything new; for upper-class young men of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, making the Grand Tour of Europe was nearly obligatory. Likewise, I'm from a group of people -- marketers would say a demographic -- young, unsettled, with the means to make a trip like this happen and the desire to do it.
So, why the slight hurt when I see someone else in my thatched hut? Perhaps it's nostalgia: I wouldn't mind being back there right now. Maybe it's that hit to the traveler's overinflated ego, romantically imagining that they are discovering each new place, when in fact that act of discovery is merely personal. But realizing that, seeing the patterns of the floating society of travelers and your own individual place in it, is one of the gifts of backpacking. That you're one of many to have that experience should only make it more special. (And, personally, I'm not the sort of person who traveled to get away from the world per se; witness my ability to get on the Internet anywhere).
Although there's another reason for travel: to get away from the people and life that you know, and the memories bound up in those people. To see those two worlds come together is a jarring experience.
One of my favorite novels is Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (readable for free on his website), which deals with the problem of authenticity in a world of infinite abundance. We don't have infinite lifespans yet, or infinite resources, money, and time -- but it's an excess of those things that let me travel around the world. In a world where you have an infinite supply of time and resource to pursue your passions, where is something real? His protagonist fights to keep Disney World's Haunted Mansion from being subsumed within new virtual-reality exhibits, because they can only exist right there, in Orlando, while something virtual is accessible from around the world. Just because it's old, or well-known, doesn't take away from it at all. And that's what traveling is about, ultimately, just as it has been since the days of the Grand Tour: personal discovery of the continuing importance of place.