Travel and Individuation

Travel and Individuation

When I return home from traveling, my apartment always looks different. Intellectually I know that everything is just as I left it, but after being away, the most familiar place in the world to me seems “off” in some way, not how I remembered it. Maybe the shade of paint in the bedroom looks brighter somehow, I think. Or perhaps it’s the way the light from the kitchen window filters in across the table at this hour of day, a time when I’m not usually home. But as I roll my suitcase down the hallway, there’s an overwhelming feeling of alien unfamiliarity. Then I realize it’s me. I’m the element that’s been transformed during my time away.

This transformation is the best thing that could have happened to me. “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. Change is constant and inevitable, and travel provides a positive, meaningful, and deeply rewarding way to embrace change. It’s also a lot of fun. Here are a few of the ways travel has changed me for the better.

Travel has made me more honest and real. (Photo taken at a toy store in Florence, Italy).

Through contact with people I would not have met otherwise, I’ve developed a better understanding of myself.

The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “We meet ourselves time and time again in a thousand disguises on the path of life.” To me, this means that we learn about ourselves through our interactions with others. Traveling has allowed me to meet a variety of fascinating people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. In conversation with each of these strangers, some of whom became my friends, I’ve discovered shared interests, dreams, and goals, or common values. This has highlighted to me that we’re all very much the same at a fundamental level. I have learned something important from all of the friends I’ve made in my travels, especially one.

My first trip out of the US was to England when I was 25. I was traveling alone after a highly sheltered life spent entirely in Utah, where I’ve always felt like an alien amongst the local religious culture. Shy and insecure, I worried that I’d remain alone on my travels because no one would like me. But during my time in England, I met and fell in love with a man I’ll call James. Tall, handsome, charming, and a decade older than me, I was surprised to find out how much we had in common. Not only did he share my love of Star Trek and my loathing for the George W. Bush administration, he was passionate about travel, education, and art. We talked for hours that night, exchanging stories about our lives, and then spent as much time together as possible during my stay. When I returned home, we began a long distance relationship that lasted four years. This new type of relationship experience taught me to truly be ok on my own, how to give and receive love even when a partner isn’t by my side every day, and the importance of emotional honesty. James was also the first person who ever complimented me on my odd personality. When he told me, “You definitely march to the beat of your own drummer, and that’s a good thing,” my whole outlook changed. It was like I suddenly had permission to truly be myself, because for the first time, someone I loved had let me know that he accepted and loved me just as I was.

During our relationship, I often wondered how we could integrate our lives—how I would fit into his world or how he’d fit into mine, especially since he was so different than any other man I’d met. Then I realized that I wouldn’t want him to change to be like the other people in my life; that part of the reason why I loved him is because he was different from anyone else I’d ever known.

All of this came out of my interactions with someone I never would have known had I not left my familiar surroundings. Perhaps I could have learned the lessons of self-acceptance, loving others for their differences, and finding common ground across cultures some other way, but this was the perfect fit for me.

I have gained an understanding of what “home” truly is.

I was excited and a little scared to travel across the Atlantic for the first time. After spending so many years in the same place, the idea of being so far away from home was intimidating. Imagine my surprise when I immediately felt at home in the crowded, unfamiliar streets of London. I had a sense of déjà vu—something about the city felt deeply familiar, though I had never been there before. The feeling followed me to Oxford and Bath, Plymouth and Dover. I felt it so strongly in St. Ives that I never wanted to leave. It was waiting for me again any time I returned to England, and I also felt the same way as I traveled though Scotland and Ireland. It is the most at home I have ever felt anywhere, and mingled with that strange familiarity was a feeling of peace, a calm knowing that even though I was on the “other side of the world,” far away from what was familiar, no harm would come to me and everything would be all right. This has always turned out to be true.

St. Ives, England

I’m still unsure what was underlying that initial feeling of déjà vu and familiarity in an unfamiliar place, but I’d like to think it has something to do with trusting life—that because I had enough faith and courage to step out of my comfort zone, despite being introverted and anxious, something filled in the gaps in my experience and allowed me to adapt and be flexible enough to find peace in an unfamiliar place.

Through experiencing that adaptability in a way that I hadn’t before, I gained confidence. I was then able to travel to places much more unlike my country of origin with the knowledge that I’d be able to handle anything I encountered there as well. This confidence allowed me to feel safe and secure, even when I was wandering around lost in the hot, crowded streets of Cairo, while barely remembering enough Arabic to say “thank you.” After safely finding my way back to my hotel, I realized that I’d done so without getting caught up in the feelings of panic that I’d experienced in similar situations. This gave me even greater confidence and trust in myself, as I realized that I’ll always be able to navigate any situation I’m presented with.

To me, that’s what feeling at “home” is really about—being able to trust and have faith in myself and my capabilities regardless of the circumstances. If I have enough trust and faith in myself to confidently face and be present with whatever is happening right now, anywhere can feel like home.

Strange, yet familiar.

I have learned to appreciate life’s mysteries.

Could there be something more to the experiences of familiarity I had while wandering through unfamiliar cities in the UK and Ireland? Perhaps memories of past lives spent in those places? Or possibly epigenetic memories from my English, Scottish, and Irish ancestors, encoded into my DNA and activated by walking down the streets where they may have walked? Maybe I’ll never know, and I’m ok with that. It’s fun to speculate and imagine.

I used to prefer thinking that it was possible to have all the answers, but travel has opened my mind to life’s mysteries. The more I experience of the world, the more I realize how much I don’t know. This is exciting because I love to learn new things—it’s become a huge part of what makes life interesting and worthwhile for me. I find peace in knowing that there will always be more to learn.

Home in a past life?

In the darkness and shadow of mystery, there is power and magic. During my time in Egypt I took a cruise down the Nile. One evening, just before sunset, the ship’s crew turned off the engines, lights, and music, and we all gathered on the top deck and waited. At dusk, the hazy gray sky burned yellow and orange as the sun sank into the glistening silver river. Away from any city lights, the palm trees and desert sand dissolved into the eerie blackness of 5,000 years ago, and it was almost as if I could feel the presence of Isis and Osiris, watching us from the riverbank. All was still and silent, but only for a few minutes. The deck lights came back on and the party resumed. Through enjoying the contrast of light and dark, knowledge and mystery, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for all the subtle forms of beauty and wonder in the world.

Nile sunset
Sunset along the Nile.

I have come to embrace the bittersweet truth that nothing lasts.

Just as the experience of dark, silent mystery on the Nile lasted only a short time before the lights and music returned, all things eventually end. Travel experiences, relationships, jobs, and anything else will come to some kind of close, whether we’re ready or not, and it’s ok to feel sad about that. After an amazing trip to Ireland, I cried for almost the entire flight back to the US because I didn’t want to leave. Afterward, I felt better and could look back with joy on the wonderful experiences I’d had and new friends I’d made there.

Could it be that part of the reason we fear change, particularly endings, is because we’re afraid of the strong emotions these experiences evoke within us? If so, there’s really nothing to fear. Grief, sadness, and other feelings are only temporary states, like everything else. By choosing to be present with them and experience them fully, they can simply pass through us and be released, replaced by something else. Such strong emotions, even the “negative” ones, add depth and color to our experiences. If we allow for change and endings, letting ourselves be vulnerable enough to experience all of the feelings associated, we grow so much braver and stronger, with improved capacity and confidence to handle anything life throws at us. We also develop greater empathy for others.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Endings will always come, so it is best to simply embrace the change. I’ve learned that the most helpful way to do this is to hold something close, feeling as much appreciation for it as possible while I have it, and then let it go with gratitude when the time comes. There will always be a way to find closure. Remember James, my long-distance love from England? He ended our relationship with no explanation, and I was devastated. The lack of closure I felt left me confused and deeply depressed for several years, but I pushed those feelings aside and tried to distract myself by becoming a workaholic, rarely leaving my home for anything else, even to travel.

Denying myself one of my passions only made things worse, and life finally forced me to deal with my feelings about the situation. When I had done so enough to get back out into the world, I visited England again, nearly a decade after my first time outside of the US. After a miserable ride on the Tube with my suitcase during rush hour, I got off at the stop near my hotel in London and began looking for the address in my itinerary. I had just spotted the hotel when across the street I saw a familiar figure, tall and handsome, instantly recognizable. Our eyes met, and I lifted my hand to wave but he quickly turned and hurried in the opposite direction, disappearing around a corner before I could cross the street. Was it James? Yes, most definitely. How is that possible? One of life’s mysteries. Something always fills in the gaps. The best thing about endings is that they open us up to new beginnings.

I had fantasized about visiting Egypt since age five, after seeing the Ramses II exhibit with my parents when it came to our city.

These are just a few ways that travel has changed, healed, and saved me. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only a page.” Each page I’ve read, whether in the UK, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Ireland, or anywhere else, has transformed me into a better version of myself.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” TS Eliot wrote, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” My exploration of the world through travel has always opened me to greater self-knowledge and understanding, with each round of exploration helping me to feel more whole in some way.


Alabaster Mosque, Cairo, Egypt
Abu Simbel, Egypt
Irish coastline
Irish coastline

Cruising the Nile – Egypt

Along the Nile River, the scenery is ever-changing.  The calm, lazy water is a dark grayish green, often brightened by a passing felucca with its large white sails billowing in the breeze; or even a Nubian boy, paddling a tiny wooden rowboat by hand while singing a cheerful sailing song in surprisingly good English.
On one side of the river is the Sahara, stark and desolate, its pale golden sands burning in the sun.  On the other, lush green palm trees and farmers’ fields, where people use cattle to plow, and move crops in carts pulled by donkeys.
The farmland gives way to unfinished brick cities, full of tall, roofless buildings topped by the massive satellite dishes that went out of fashion 20 years ago in the US.  The old dishes often keep company with animals, such as goats, chickens, or geese in rusted cages.  Some of the buildings have been plastered and painted, creating a bright spot of eggshell blue or cherry red among the sun-bleached cement and brick.
At dusk, the hazy gray sky burns yellow and orange as the sun sinks into the glistening silver river.  Away from the city lights, the palm trees and desert sand dissolve into the eerie blackness of 4000 years ago.  All is still and silent, but only for a few moments, until the deck lights chase away the specters of Isis and Osiris, and it’s happy hour for the rest of the night.

Pictures can be viewed as a slideshow here.














Kilmainham Gaol – Dublin, Ireland

I visited Ireland in September of 2012. I never would have imagined that touring a creepy old jail would be a highlight of my trip to such a beautiful country, but it was a fascinating experience. The history of the Gaol is tightly entwined with the overall history of Ireland.

On my last full day in Ireland, I joined a few other people in my Contiki group for an afternoon tour of this historic site. We had to wait about an hour for the next available tour, and spent the time looking through the museum, which features many artifacts related to the Easter Rising of 1916.

A copy of the Sinn Fein.
A copy of the Sinn Fein.

Our tour guide was excellent, and shared many interesting facts and anecdotes about the jail. The tour began in the chapel, where we watched a video featuring pictures of some of the prison records. Many people were imprisoned for very minor offenses—the most troubling picture in the video was of the record for a young child who was jailed for stealing four loaves of bread during the Irish Famine.

Chapel in Kilmainham Gaol.
Chapel in Kilmainham Gaol.

Our guide also shared the story of Joseph Plunkett, a leader of the 1916 uprising. The night before he was to be executed, he was allowed to marry his fiancée, Grace Gifford, there in the chapel. “Can you imagine getting married, knowing that you won’t see each other again afterward?” she asked.

Cell in the oldest section of the Gaol.
Cell in the oldest section of the Gaol.

Next, the tour moved through the oldest part of the building. Here, the guide explained that the Gaol was meant to be an example of prison reform, but conditions quickly became overcrowded, particularly during the famine. Men, women, and children were all crowded together into the same space; petty criminals were locked up with murderers. For many of the adult prisoners, the Gaol served as a “waiting room” until they were transported to Australia.

Corridor in the oldest section of the Gaol.
Corridor in the oldest section of the Gaol.

As we stood in the corridor, she told us that conditions became so overcrowded that people would have to sleep right on the floor where we were standing because there was no room in the cells. Most prisoners were given only a thin blanket and a Bible, and served meals that were usually just gruel. Still, she suggested that conditions in the Gaol might have been an improvement considering the poverty that so many people were subject to, because at least in prison they had meals and a roof over their heads.

The guide then led us through the area where leaders of the Easter Rising had been jailed. Their names were listed on plaques about the cells they had occupied. She pointed out Joseph Plunkett’s cell, telling us that after he married Grace, she had been called back to the Gaol and they had been given ten minutes to say their goodbyes in that cell, with guards present.

Many leaders of the Easter Rising were held in this section of the Gaol.
Many leaders of the Easter Rising were held in this section of the Gaol.

The next stop on the tour was in the most recent section of the Gaol, which was built in the Panopticon style. This area was designed so that light would come in from the high ceiling. The tour guide said it was meant to make the prisoners look up and think of God’s forgiveness so they would want to repent of the sins that had landed them in the jail. This section of the Gaol has also been featured in several movies.

The East Wing of the Gaol, designed in the Panopticon style.
The East Wing of the Gaol, designed in the Panopticon style.
Detail of spiral staircase.
Detail of spiral staircase.

Grace Plunkett (nee Gifford) was imprisoned in this section of the Gaol for several months in 1923. A talented artist, she painted a mural of the Madonna and Child on the wall of her cell, where it still remains.

Grace Plunkett's cell with Madonna and Child mural.
Grace Plunkett’s cell with Madonna and Child mural.

Last, the guide led us to the outdoor area where the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed. However, by this time it was pouring rain so we could only take a quick look at the space before heading back inside. The guide told us that one of the men executed that day was so badly injured that he could not stand and had to be strapped to a chair for his execution.

Outdoor area where leaders of the Easter Rising were executed.
Outdoor area where leaders of the Easter Rising were executed.

The Gaol was closed in 1924, and the building fell into ruin. Some members of the Irish government wanted to tear the building down, but in the 1960’s there was a movement to restore the Gaol and keep it as a historical monument. On the third floor of the museum area, there is a film playing where people are being interviewed about the Gaol and why they think it should be preserved. Most of the people said something about it being a reminder of the nation’s history, and learning from past mistakes.

All in all, the tour was a haunting, but fascinating experience. I highly recommend it for anyone who has any interest in history.

Several months after my visit to Ireland, we began discussing the concept of shared linking objects in the rhetorical theory course I was taking. Vamik Volkan writes that, “Large groups mourn after their members share a massive trauma and experience losses.” This mourning can be manifest through “monuments related to the massive trauma or to their ancestors’ massive trauma at the hands of others.” It seems to me that Kilmainham Gaol is one such monument. There were many traumatic incidents in Irish history during the years the Gaol was open (1796-1924), and it is very closely linked with those traumatic incidents, particularly the Easter Rising.

Volkan writes that, “When a monument evolves into a shared linking object, the functions that are attached to it will vary, depending on the nature of the shared mourning that the group is experiencing… A monument as a shared linking object is associated with the wish to complete a group’s mourning and help its members accept the reality of their losses. On the other hand, it is also associated with the wish to keep mourning active in the hope of recovering what was lost; this latter wish fuels feelings of revenge. Both wishes can co-exist: one wish can be dominant in relation to one monument, while the other is dominant in relation to another monument. Sometimes a monument as a linking object absorbs unfinished elements of incomplete mourning and helps the group to adjust to its current situation without re-experiencing the impact of the past trauma and its disturbing emotions.”

In a way, I think Kilmainham Gaol functions as a shared linking object, particularly since people preferred to have it preserved rather than torn down. When I shared this in the class discussion, my friend Erin asked whether I think the Gaol keeps the grief and resentment alive, or if I think it serves as a monument to the fact that that horrible time is over. I replied that I think the Gaol serves as a monument to the Irish people’s survival of that awful time, and a reminder not to let those sorts of events be repeated. I doubt whether the mourning for those tragic events can ever truly be “completed,” but I do think the Gaol “absorbs unfinished elements of incomplete mourning and helps the group to adjust to its current situation without re-experiencing the impact of the past trauma and its disturbing emotions,” as Volkan stated in his paper.


Kilmainham Gaol is located on Inchicore Road, Kilmainham, Dublin 8. The adult admission fee is €6.00.