Travel is an experience in perception

Temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan, IndiaTravel to India is like going through the looking glass

When we travel, we learn as much about ourselves as our destinations

WHEN I TRAVEL, especially in India, I feel like Alice in Wonderland; I feel like I’ve fallen into the rabbit hole, or stepped through the looking glass. I lose my bearings and everything is challenged, including my sense of self in the world and my ideas about how life and people should be.

And the experience of being in the alternate universe of a foreign country has helped me become more aware of myself and of the role perception plays in shaping reality.

In India, I meet other foreigners who tell me they think Pahar Ganj in Delhi is “the real India,” and who say the only way to travel in India is by staying in 150-rupee-a-night hovels. I also meet Delhi-born Indians who tell me they think Pahar Ganj is a ghetto and wouldn’t go near it. They prefer Delhi’s five star hotels and the shopping malls of Gurgaon.

When I live with my partner’s Indian family in Delhi, I am accepted into the family and I live as an Indian. But when I travel, I am seen as a foreigner and as if I know nothing about the culture. What’s the truth?

The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth. ~ Rumi

The truth is, we can only see the world through our own window. And the nature of our window depends on our culture, gender, age, background, experiences, beliefs, judgments, IQ, EQ, and everything else that goes into making us who we are.

Perception is the reason one person loves Thailand and another Rome. Perception is why traveling can be fun and exciting; though you are visiting a place that is “normal” to the people who live there, to you it is novel and highly stimulating.

Perception is the reason one person’s idea of an adventure is to get drunk on the beach with other travelers in Goa, whereas for someone else it would be living in a mud hut for a year in Africa and volunteering to work with AIDS orphans.

I have long been interested in perception and the nature of consciousness. I studied Gestalt Therapy for six years and practiced as a therapist for seven years. I’ve also studied and practiced yoga for close to 20 years. Both say the same things: truth is in your experience, your experience is coloured by your perception, and you are a co-creator in your perception and thus in your reality of life.

And they both recommend increasing your mindfulness — your consciousness — to become aware of yourself. Yoga says you are a drop in the ocean of consciousness. You can become aware of yourself as a single drop and as part of the ocean.

We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. ~ Talmud

I always advise people to go to India with an open and trusting attitude. India is like the cave that Yoda sends Luke into. Luke asks, “What will I find there?” and Yoda answers, “Only what you bring in with you.”

I went to India knowing I would change, but not knowing how. Though I was lucky to have a very soft landing at the beginning of my six-month trip, I was still gob-smacked by the traffic, chaos, colour, and noise. On my first car drive in Delhi, I felt like I was on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Horns honking, cows in the road, bicycles piled high with unlikely goods careening between the cars, no one paying any attention to the lanes or the rules. It seemed like madness.

Five months later, when I strode confidently through Connaught Place in central Delhi and noticed that the touts didn’t bother me — they could see I wasn’t a newbie and therefore not a prime target — I was thrilled. I realized I had found my “India legs” and it felt like one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. I had discovered both inner strength and a much higher degree of tolerance and flexibility.

Since then I have traveled often to India, living with my Indian partner and his family, studying with my yoga teacher in Rishikesh, and trying to learn and understand what eastern spiritual leaders have been teaching since the dawn of recorded time: that truth is in your experience. You are not the center of the universe, but you are the center of your universe.

The wisdom of the ancient rishis (sages), who developed the art and science of yoga, gained their wisdom not with external instruments of measure, but by meditating. Deepak Chopra called them “Einsteins of consciousness.” They used the human mind as a portal to the universe.

Varanasi sunset, India

The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances. ~ Viktor Frankl

It seems to me that it’s hard to see your own wallpaper. We all have preconceived ideas about the world; we carry around a set of assumptions, but we often don’t realize it until something comes along to shake us up. Like travel.

But even travelers and people who blog about travel spend what I think is an inordinate amount of time trying to get others to agree to their truth; or not realizing that their version of the truth is personal. For example, so many discussions are around trying to figure out what’s “right” or what’s “cool” or what’s “authentic,” whereas only the person who is experiencing it knows whether it’s right, cool, or authentic.

I’m not saying I do not fall into this trap — I do. It’s hard to be a conscious person. But I think it’s worth trying.

I know from my own experience that it can be humbling to find out you are not the center of the universe. But if you learn the lesson with a dose of humility, it can open up a new universe to you. It can open you up to realizing that there is only one thing you can change or control, and that’s your attitude. It is only one thing, but it is a very powerful thing.

[Note: Originally published by Brave New Traveler, January 2011]

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18 Responses to Travel is an experience in perception

  1. Bret @ Green Global Travel March 29, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    I understand what you’re saying here, and agree with the central themes your presenting. However, I think judgement and criticism are a vital aspect of effecting change, and I know few people who would argue with the assertion that the world as it stands is desperately in need of change.

    My truth may not be your truth, and many truths may be subjective. But there is no arguing the fact that some tourism practices are more ethical, sustainable and constructive, while others are more unethical, unsustainable and destructive. In short, travel may be about perception, but some people’s perception of the Universe and their own place in it is much, MUCH clearer than others.

  2. Mariellen March 29, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Thanks for commenting Bret. I don’t disagree with you; of course you and I agree on what can be better: better for animals, for the health of the planet, and the sustainability of culture.

    But everyone thinks they are doing what is best. Tiger poachers are just trying to feed their families, for example.

    We who are educated and have the means to make a good living have the luxury to be able to choose — and I think that part of our responsibility is to use our privileged position to become “MUCH clearer,” as you put it. To become more conscious is the way I would put it. And we do that by looking within.

    The more conscious we become, the better our choices and contributions will be.



  3. Jimmy March 29, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    I completely agree with most of the points you made.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that hoards of travellers visit the East with the idea that by simply going there, buying 3/4 pants, anklets, growing long hair, drinking beer on the beach, and doing an occasional yoga session on the beach they will be immensly wise or spiritual.

    By appraoching the East with such a narrow belief about what the East ‘is’, they often miss what is right in front of them.

    Although I’m a sceptical traveller, I love to meet new people and share travel experiences. Sadly, I meet far more travel clones than I do people with truly interesting stories – People like you, for example, who’ve spent real time in the East, who’ve gotten to know it to some degree, and let it become part of you.

    Instead, I meet people who skip through areas in the East in a heartbeat and come out a part time buddhist.

    I live in northern Yogyakarta right now. Recently I met a western girl who spent 20 minutes telling me how disgusting the north side of the city due to its growing level of modernity. She said she hates technology, the free market, and almost everything western. She said all of this while texting on her iphone and checking her apple laptop.

    I felt like she was trying to force the stereotipical idea on me of East/old = good, West/modern = baaaaad!!

    In a slightly more satirical post I wrote recently I recounted the following true story:
    “One time I was on a boat going between islands in Thailand. This was when I was at wisdom level 3 on a 10 point scale. Walking up some stairs up to the busy deck where all of the backpacks were stored, I saw a man – a wise man, no doubt about that – sitting in the lotus position on top of everyone’s bags. He was meditating with his top off, covered in tattoos. He was wearing ¾ pants and an anklet.

    While all were socialising around him, he was like my bladder today – calm. He slowly raised his hand to his mouth and took a puff of his cigarette. Buddhists love smoking, ask the Dalai Lama. Then with the other hand he took a sip of his beer. I wasn’t sure if Buddhists were allowed to drink but obviously they can. Eventually he raised himself and began to mingle with the others, recounting the many spiritual places he had visited. If I had to guess, I’d say he’d be on a mountain top, or a big hill right now thinking about peace in the world.”

    So many travellers miss so much of Asia because they went there with these floaty ideas, which they seek out in tourist areas that love to pander to these ideas.

    But hey, what do I know! This is simply my map, my reality, but I’m glad I’m living in it, right or wrong.

  4. Mariellen March 29, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Oh, great comment, funny story Jimmy!

    You have reminded me of a similar story, but the flip side. When I was on my first 6-month journey in India, I made it a point to visit ashrams wherever I went. In Mysore, I went to the Astanga Yoga Shala — the least Indian place I went in India; felt like I was in downtown Toronto. While I was waiting in reception for a tour, a pretty, slim, young blonde American woman was sitting beside me, also waiting. To strike up conversation, I said something about the FabIndia bag she had (FabIndia is a store, kind of like the Gap), as I love their clothes. She quickly snapped, “I’m not a shopper!” At that moment, the ashram manager showed up and it turns out she was leaving the ashram and wanted to buy an ashram tank top, with logo on it. They didn’t have her size and she began begging and pleading for him to try and get one for her so she could buy it.

    We tend to believe our image of ourself, rather than face the truth of who we are.

    With regards to your smoking, drinking wise man: the more I go along a spiritual path, the more I realize that the highest spiritual understanding is when you can embrace everything. But I doubt if I will ever embrace smoking 😉


  5. Cheap Cruise Vacation March 30, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    I like the way you say “Travel in India is like Alice in Wonderland”. In India, now a days people adopting western culture day by day. People forget culture values in the way of modernization. Your travel blog make me feel like traveling India from your eyes, your way. Love this blog really.

    Keep writing, Keep Posting

  6. Mariellen April 7, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Thanks Cheap Cruise Vacation. There’s nothing cheap about your comment, it is lovely, thanks so much! I agree that the modern world seems to be in a big rush away from traditional values. What’s the hurry?

  7. Marielle April 15, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Great post.

    Before I went to university, I was in India for half a year. I probably learned more in those months than in the 5 years that followed studying. I find the great thing about traveling that it changes your perception, makes you question your own perception and shows you different possible perceptions of different people around the world. I have traveled the world, seen so many places and met so many interesting and amazing people, yet it is always possible to be surprised by traditions you didn’t know of, differences in cultures and learning from each other’s richness.

    At the same time I feel like we should be careful not to judge our fellow travelers too harshly. I found that for example after diving into a certain culture and trying to behave appropriate to the local standard, I would take offence in the fact that some toursists dressed ‘inappropriate’. I assume they weren’t aware of the effect of their clothing in the context. In a way it feels similar to Jimmy’s story; I think people generally have good intentions, but we all show them in different ways. And your own knowlegde or lack of it, just as your own perception, will shape the way in which you act upon it differently.

  8. Melissa April 18, 2012 at 3:07 am #

    I have been leaving in India (Mumbai) for the past 8 months and at the beginning I felt just like you, the noise on streets, the honking, the amount of people was crazy for me but also like you said if start with an open mind everything changes.. I have been now everywhere around India and is a counry that everyday fascinates me more and more.. And there’s learning experiences everywhere you don’t need to find a Wise Man you can just sit with an old lady and let her teach you 😉 I love the post!

  9. Lauren May 9, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    So glad I came across this website, and you! I’ve always viewed travel as a time for self transformation, hopefully for the better! My first time to India was at age 15 with my father, and I now sit here using my laptop in Ooty beside my two sleeping children, this being my 4th time to India now. Today is day two of finding my “India legs”. This is the first time I am many hours away from a “home base” or friends I can rely on to make India a little easier for me! Well so far so good! I’m stuck on a Louise L Hay affirmation today, and that is; “my life is a mirror” – and I swear it’s keeping me safe and happy! (I am 26 and travelling with 2 very young children so I need to be on the alert). Not surprisingly the quote about the mirrors brought a tear to my eye, because how’s that!? My current mantra about mirror’s and then reading Rumi’s quote. Anyway, thanks for your wise words. You’re a master in the making I reckon!

  10. payel March 20, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    I am glad I found your blog. All I can say is I am so mesmerized with your stories & experiences that I can’t wait to read everything. As the more I am reading, the more I am surprised at how similar I find your views are (regarding life), to mine. It’s kind of very intriguing to me, almost like seeing the country, I have lived in all my life, with new eyes.

    • Mariellen Ward March 20, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

      Thanks Payal, that’s a nice thing to say! And it is wonderful when we are able to see with new eyes …. that’s a gift!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..What’s the story? Is travel in India safe?My Profile

      • payel March 21, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

        Yes, true. & thank you for this beautiful gift. My life took a drastic fall about 2 years back. Nothing much changed in terms of reality but I changed. Now I have a whole new perspective toward everything. Turns out everything really does happen for a good reason, I would have never discovered this me if things didn’t go this wrong. As I was reading your experiences, I realized how much I take things for granted & how much more there is to experience & learn.


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