The Healing Power of Travel

Selamat Detang, SINGAPORE!

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A few weeks ago, I returned from a short week long trip from Singapore.

From that trip, I was reminded about how much I love to travel. Thanks to my father, a globe-trotter himself, we were trained as kids to travel a lot. We went on a lot of road trips around the states and several trips to Karachi, Pakistan, where my parents grew up, and where the majority of my extended family continues to reside.

Despite how hectic things were this summer with my commitments and responsibilities, I really enjoyed the crazy busy travel, especially after 6 months to a year of difficult dissertation proposal work. I am frankly surprised and relieved that I was able to pull everything off in such a short period of time. And I forgot how much I really enjoyed long international travels like Singapore (25+ hours), from the training we received going often to Pakistan.

Traveling is incredibly refreshing and a great time for reflection, much needed when one chapter closes in your life. A change of environment is always needed to refuel and re-energize to stay on track with your goals and ambitions. I always worry that I won’t be able to take it in, not realizing that worrying about that is also part of the hindrance! This is too often the case for those struggling with anxiety.

And I honestly don’t think I would have fully captured a place so heavenly like Singapore in my heart and mind if I did not defend my dissertation proposal prior to going to this beautiful country. I know going forward, I will need to incorporate at least one or two international travels every year. 

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The photo above, is my first morning and breakfast in Singapore… sitting near a waterfall and pond at Modestos, a restaurant within the hotel I was staying at…That moment, I was thinking about how calm I was feeling and just hoping I would be able to capture the peaceful moments in the beautiful city… I believe I did deserve it.

Throughout the trip, I got to spend some time among the beautiful palm trees (I have fallen in love with palm trees and I love to paint them as well – was so happy Singapore was full of them in every corner). I will never forget the moments I had on Sentosa Island especially. From going up on the cable car, which was my way of facing my fear (of heights), to going near and across the water on the beach, which was also a way of facing my fear (of water). It was basically an all round trip facing fears, lol, from public speaking at a presentation in an academic conference, to being lifted hundreds of feet in the air in a shaky, cable car with clear windows.

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Although it was a mixed business and leisure trip, there was so much to say about my experience…Throughout my short time, I took a lot of pictures to share with family and friends (which I have not done so just yet), but was able to just take it in for myself during my trip. And I had fallen in love with this lion city… Singapore… the word for it, is “memorable”: a memorable conference and generally a memorable time in this beautiful city. The time was too short, but I met the most amazing people, and I didn’t want to leave.

Something about this trip was particularly healing and comforting after being a reclusive cave woman or dead plant lady for long periods of time (admittedly with a few occasional breaks).

I did have the opportunity to travel a few times within the past few years during my doctorate, beyond trips to my hometown in Wisconsin. I went to Miami, FL and Ottawa, Canada in late 2015. Ottawa reminded me of my trips across Europe back in 2007, particularly Belgium. There was something about the air, so fresh and so clean, despite how cold it was up north. And it was a lovely unforgettable evening there as well. Just me, the lamppost, and the moon.

I also went to London in Summer of 2016 for my first international conference, and then Columbus, OH and Singapore this summer for conferences. Singapore was my second international conference. It is always sad for me when conferences end, but this conference particularly I wanted a little more. I had a successful presentation on my preliminary research examining “network governance” in the rural development programs with case studies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the International conference, part of a panel on Global Development Agendas as a challenge for policy coordination in multi level governance systems. I received very helpful feedback from Asian Development Bank practitioners. Great to get the “development in practice” perspective on my research before heading to the fieldwork stage. It was truly a fantastic conference. But it was being in Singapore that made it much more special.

I am glad I had these opportunities to travel, even though it was work or conference related and very short. As it can be very isolating and closed off just sitting behind my desk in my office.

But as I mentioned, with Singapore, there was something more special. Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean of the school hosting the conference, in his welcome speech, stated that Singapore was the perfect place for the public policy conference, suggesting that you can just walk around the city and understand public policy by studying the ecosystem of Singapore. And he was right. The city is surrounded by greens everywhere. And the city is basically an Asian fusion. I only went to Singapore, but it felt like I went to India, Turkey, China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam…and more, all in 6 days!

Image may contain: night, sky, tree and outdoor {A beautiful sculpture at Gardens By the Bay, where the conference gala dinner took place.}

I will never forget the many amazing, breathtaking, memorable, and liberating moments I had in this beautiful garden city. Everything about this experience was wonderful. I met the most amazing people, from conference participants and organizers, to taxi drivers, store vendors, to Singaporeans and tourists. People are so polite there and helpful, which was the best part. I would need more time to do a full anthropological study, but Singapore really filled my soul in just a short time. I didn’t feel too alone, even in the evening when the anxieties return.

I believe there were moments of peace and joy in which I have not or rarely experienced before, and although I probably took thousands of photos, I was still able to be present and in the moment, in ways I haven’t before.

What was most fascinating to me was how conscious I was about my identity there. For one, I was the only American among the circles I networked with in the conference, surprisingly. I was informed only 10% of conference attendees were Americans!  And I loved it. Even though, I was asked and often told I “Look Indian.” It is intriguing, generally, as children of Immigrants here in America, how conscious we become of our identity sometimes wherever we go. And interesting how the awareness is amplified even greater, when we leave the States to other parts of the world. That’s another great thing about traveling. It helps us understand who we truly are, and helps us see who we want to become.

As the photos below show, I concluded my trip in the final day with prayer of thanks to God, at the infamous Sultan Mosque on Arab Street, for all His mercy and kindness to me, for blessing me with PhD candidacy, a loving family, and many other successes and experiences this year.

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I hope to return again soon with more time to take it all in…(Godwilling).

As I implied earlier in this post, there was something about the air in all of my travels this year and the previous years that reminded me of how much I love being on the move. And how much that alleviates a certain kind of pain of being alone, ironically, even as I travel alone.

I recall watching the movie “The end of the tour” after my travel back from Ottawa, about an acclaimed novelist, David Foster Wallace, and his 5 day interview/tour with David Lipsky, for his famous novel, “Infinite Jest,” which he describes to be a book about loneliness, coming of age and a journey towards satisfaction of life’s accomplishments. I just watched it again the other day and was yet again mesmerized by the conversation and relationship between the two played beautifully by Jason Segal and Jessie Eisenberg.

As someone who takes pride in carrying my “independence” wherever I go, it does not free oneself from the loneliness. Though you wish to have that gift of sharing such breathtaking moments with people you love, or someone special beside you, it is a kind of loneliness, to some extent, and at times, more desirable. Because, as you take in the beauty around you, you feel a type of power that no one can take away from you. At least at that moment you can feel some joy, a powerful force within you that no relational dynamic in your socially constructed reality could normally allow you to breathe in because of all that encompasses your existence.

It is a loneliness that exudes less pain, versus the loneliness that boxes you and traps you, encloses you, silences you, takes away your creativity. For me, it is partly what encompasses the dangers of loneliness in the pursuit of a graduate degree like that of the doctorate, sadly.

George Washington once said that it is better to be alone than in “bad company”.  “Bad company,” I think, can be subject to our interpretation. God gave me “great company” that memorable time in Singapore, Ottawa, Miami, London, and more, and it will remain within me, even as I will need to be behind a computer in the challenging remaining days, months, years, of the doctorate.  I won’t lose it again… that healing power of travel.  Traveling is not only the antidote to ignorance, but also the antidote to misery.

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