Experiencing Home

He lifted me onto the horse whose forelock whipped gently in the November breeze. The wind smelled subtly of cumin and coriander. I had refused to get on at first. I was content with searching irrationally for the tallest mound of Saharan sand from which to watch the sun slip below the horizon and paint the sand pink. But when he approached me the second time, I couldn’t decline. He was enticingly handsome. His black tagelmust concealed everything but his dark eyes, whose mysteriousness seemed to indicate that he was a mirage. He spoke not a word but instead pulled me onto the horse, galloped through the nothingness, and eventually brought me back to my nook in the sand. Tunisia epitomized exotic adventure.

Upon returning to the oasis and dismounting my dromedary, the horseman and a comrade trotted circles around me. Inspecting me with severe eyes, he spoke: “Où est mon argent?!” He demanded payment for the horse ride I’d initially rejected, awakening me from my North African dream. I argued with him until he became frustrated, sending him scurrying deeper into the oasis. Later, he’d mingle with European desert-trekkers as they sipped beers at the makeshift bar, dressed in athletic gear that complemented their Hummers.

My wanderlust has taken me on a series of adventures these past five years. I have seen fifteen countries and half of the United States during this time, always returning home with a new life lesson and matured perspective.

For example, bungee-jumping off the world’s highest bungee bridge in South Africa brought me to experience silence in its purest form. Living simply in northern Uganda allowed me to witness humanity and rethink my role in the world. Road-tripping across the U.S. enabled me to appreciate freedom, in every sense of the word.

Each of these adventures was an escape from the monotony of home. I set out on quests to eat unusual food, befriend locals, dance traditional dances, and participate in other clichés, all the while learning more about myself. I have indeed gained insight from all the typical points of individual and societal reflection that come with travel, but my most profound discovery was a tragic one: my thirst for adventure was unquenchable. In my desire to encounter something or somewhere new, I found that liberation from the familiar was a fleeting feeling.

The bliss following my 708-foot jump in South Africa lasted seconds before I began to panic that I was dangling hundreds of feet above rocks and river. However unplugged Uganda was, it was wrought with post-conflict recovery. And that freedom I experienced on the open road of America’s western frontier was often spent gazing out the window of my car at the miles of preserved Indian reservations nestled among arid land and fast food restaurants.

My escape from familiarity led me back to just that. The adventure was temporary and never as idyllic as it first appeared.

A year ago, I put my travels on hold and began my most daring adventure to date: living at home. It has been the most painful, mundane, and frustrating adventure yet, but the journey has never been more fulfilling. Unlike the utopian fantasies that filled my mind prior to my other adventures, I began this one expecting to be disappointed.

The word adventure implies an experience that involves some kind of risk or danger, which leads this experience to be exciting. Confronting the unpleasant realities of home might not seem as dangerous as jumping off a bridge, but the risk is just as terrifying. What if something goes wrong?

The excitement I’ve felt living at home has come from taking the risk, accepting failure, reconciling with my past, making decisions about my future, and, above all, learning to be present. My usual experience with home life had entailed dwelling on pain, wallowing in boredom, and agonizing over the uncertainties of my professional and personal lives. Because of this, I had developed a habit of thinking too much — expecting too much, fearing too much, anticipating too much, and so on. It’s that state of discontent, which comes from an inability to value life happenings as they come and as they are.

When I began this adventure of living at home, I didn’t have a plan. I’ve had to improvise and think critically. I even put my escapism into practice again — getting lost in my thoughts in the Smoky Mountains, journaling under a budding tree at the park, rediscovering the charm of downtown Knoxville. This time, though, I didn’t escape with expectations; I escaped to experience somewhere. That is, appreciating the beauty of what I saw or felt as I experienced it: the mountain vegetation, the tranquility of springtime shade, the warmth of local artisans. Nothing more. Nothing less.

I had had a habit of not being satisfied with things as they were, and this led me to find meaning or beauty where it didn’t necessarily exist. I learned instead that the trees did not impart advice as I walked by. The shade was not reading over my shoulder. The Knoxville artisans did not lead perfectly simple lives. There was beauty, but I came to realize that there was also unpleasantness. All of it was reality. And that in itself was worth cherishing.

I learned to incorporate this wisdom into the life from which I was constantly running away. The pain, stress, and tedium at home didn’t need to be beautiful for me to appreciate them. They were familiar realities that I needed to accept, work through, and learn from.

In doing this, I have begun to recognize my role as an active participant in my life. I started to find that my yearning for something more than I was experiencing caused me to live a passive life. It was a life I often spent waiting to be wowed. As a result, I struggled to acknowledge everyday thrills and trials as opportunities for self-awareness and enriched perspective.

Having this insight beforehand would have allowed me to understand that my trip to Tunisia wasn’t going to be a magic carpet ride. It’s a place with helpful strangers, scam artists, mini-skirts, business suits, natural wonders, skyscrapers, ancient artifacts, and tacky novelty gifts. Though Tunisia’s essence was unique, its substance resembled that of many other places I had seen. Had I anticipated this instead of the fantasies I created of Arabian nights in what I thought was an untouched part of the world, I don’t think I would have been as disappointed as I was.

I think perhaps I would have appreciated the familiarities and negative quirks as part of the fabric that made Tunisia beautiful in itself. If I instead found them ugly, that would have been fine, too; they would have been real feelings towards real observations. I would have been present, letting my feet sink into the rust-orange sand as the evening breeze rustled my own tagelmust and kissed my cheek.

I would not have imagined the spices I smelled or the whispers of bygone adventurers I heard in the wind. Instead, I would have recognized the splendor of that breeze for what it was: crisp, clean, comforting. Over millions of years, it had worked the sand into a fine dust.

Perhaps relishing this reality would have drawn my interest away from the desert-rider. Feeling the incomprehensible antiquity of the desert beneath my feet would’ve been all that I would’ve needed to have been satisfied.

“Travel is only glamorous in retrospect,” according to travel writer Paul Theroux. That had been true of my travels. I wrote home about the stereotypes of each destination, often glossing over or leaving out less-interesting truths. It was what I felt my readers wanted to read. It is what I felt I would want to read in my journals in reminiscence of my youth’s exploits many years from now. More often than not, though, I witnessed non-stereotypes, like Europeans devouring Big Macs and Africans chatting away on cell phones.

Experiencing home has enabled me to embrace familiarity as part of an adventure’s reality. In doing so, I have learned to value experiences in the present and look back on them as they really were — glamorous or not.

Retrospective longing has not only falsely glorified my past travels, but it has also caused me to anticipate this idealism in subsequent experiences, including my everyday adventures. With this knowledge, I intend to set aside expectations and recognize that adventure is not about the exoticness or the danger or the fairytale. The most thrilling adventure comes from savoring actual beauty, understanding actual ugliness, and treasuring truth. At that point, an experience doesn’t need to be glamorous in hindsight, foresight, or at present; it just needs to be what it is.