No one knows ogres like Eric.
A few years ago this bearded academic got a grant from Harvard, his alma mater, to go out and study the morphology of ogre folklore across the Tibetan Plateau. Apparently they are quite a diverse group. An ogre may be snow-white and set on shattering you to bits with a stone he keeps tucked in his armpit, or, if you’re lucky enough to live farther south, he might save you from freezing to death by carrying you down a mountain in his brown, wooly arms.
If you had told me when I left Moab that I would end up working for an NGO in India for five months, trek for a month in Nepal, then find myself now, in the mountains of Yunnan, working in a smoky bar called the Raven and hearing about ogres, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I sit. And I know that despite all the amazing things I have seen and done over the last eight months, it is the moments like these that will stay with me.
Sure, I’ll remember the ethereal sight of pilgrims bathing in the Ganges at sunrise and the rugged 16,000 foot-plus peaks that wall Tibet off from the rest of China, but what I will really remember from my time in Asia is the only thing that truly matters anywhere: the people. People like Eric the ogre academic, Jason, the owner of this hole-in-the-wall bar in an alpine valley in western China, and Droma, my Tibetan fellow bartender. These are just a few of the personalities that I know will out-live the memories of any temple or sunset.
If all my travels across six continents have taught me one thing, it’s that it is our relationships with people, both those that we love and those that we can’t stand, that make the biggest impressions on our lives. But though I didn’t need to leave home to feel this, it took the total displacement of years of Third World travel for me to really know it. And to see that the sword cuts both ways. To appreciate what I left behind. To see that those hikes with Dad at Dead Horse Point mean as much or more than seeing the Pyramids. That those rides with friends through Arches can be even better than biking around Bali.
Without stepping out of my nice, comfortable life and being thrown into the chaos that much of the world calls life, I would never have learned this. It is that confusion that strips you down and shows you what is actually there. The newness of everything shreds old reflexes and forces you to consciously evaluate everything, a process that can be both affirming and incredibly uncomfortable.
It is during these moments, before old habits reassert themselves, that we are given a rare and fleeting chance to knowingly reinvent ourselves. If we take advantage of this opportunity, something subtle and profound can happen. Our new reality can start to overflow and mix with the old. It puts our past in a perspective that is very difficult to otherwise gain. All the background noise starts to fade away as the distance allows us to start seeing our life from a broader angle.
Without stepping out of our comfort zone, trying to understand life is like trying to see the shape of an entire building by standing in one room. Yes, you can hear all about it from other people, but the only way to really wrap your head around it is to step outside.
It is only from the outside that have I been able to look back and truly appreciate what I had, what I took for granted.
Though many things, including perspective, are changed by distance, real, genuine affection is not. Too often it’s only after someone is gone that we can see just how big a space they filled. At the end of the day, I believe it is love and the people we love that have the greatest and most lasting impact on the people we become.
When it comes to travel, and to life, to paraphrase Henry Miller’s famous quote, perhaps one’s destination shouldn’t be a place, but a new way of seeing things.
Travis Holtby is currently in the final stretch of an 11-month Asian adventure through India, Nepal, China, Mongolia and Thailand. When he is in the U.S., he lives in Moab and Colorado.