People who travel for long periods often talk about how the experience changed them. A researcher called Chaim Noy at a university in Israel did an extensive study what backpackers said about their experience after they returned home. They said they experienced a number of positive changes from an increased level of maturity, greater understanding of others, getting to know one's self better, greater resiliency. They viewed their trip as positively transformative.
Posing the same question to myself, can I say that my India experience changed me? Evolved me?
Yes, but not in the way one might expect. And not the way Chaim Noy found either.
This trip for me was not about a rite of passage (as is commonly associated with travel) or search for an exciting adventure to liven up a life, nor a much-needed rest from a high pressure job (okay, it was a little of that.) Other than requirement courses for my Master's degree, I wasn’t planning on going to India anytime soon. Sure, I’ve travelled a lot and spent a significant amount of my adult life abroad, so this wasn’t particularly novel, but I’m also not burgeoning on adulthood or escaping from parents or attempting to create my own sense of self. At 41, I like to think I know myself pretty well.
What I did learn is that when we leave the security of our jobs, homes, partners, friends, we take on new roles and identities; for me, that identity was not clearly defined. When locals asked me what I did, I found the answer more complicated; I was a student, but I was also a manager in communications for a corporation. (Even “Are you married?” was a complicated question.) Was I first a student, or first a professional? If we look at the range of tourist archetypes, from grungy backpacker to 5 star package tourist, where was I? A traveller, a tourist, a backpacker, a nomad?
I had some of the symbols and markers of a backpacker when we were travelling the first week before residency started (a careful eye on costs, travelling with 20-somethings, journal always at hand) but once residency started and we checked into the 5-star hotel, things became more confusing as I straddled the divide between independent traveller and tourist. However, what I did relish was my ability to move between and through those identities and experiences; I have enough life experience under my belt to gauge a situation and respond appropriately. I can relate to a variety of people from a range of backgrounds in a multitude of circumstances. I can appreciate and play both roles. And most importantly, I learned I still have the resiliency for travel. I have social capital. I pleasured in the experience that comes from occupying both places and the pros and cons that come with either role.
All forms of tourism – whether it be a 5-star package tourist staying within the tourist bubble avoiding unpleasantries of a developing country, or a backpacker on $10 a day testing his or her personal limits – both forms have merit and lessons for the person experiencing it. As one author stated, ... whether you’re with an organized group holiday, or on a three month backpacking trip, you’re still in a foreign country.