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Travel and the Self

Mount Everest view from Gokyo Ri, Nepal.
Mount Everest viewed from Gokyo Ri, Nepal.
The bird fights its way out of the egg.
The egg is the world.
He who wishes to be born
Must first destroy a world.
Herman Hesse

I was 16 and on my first big road trip across America.

My fake I.D., which I’d made using a scanner and M.S. Paint, claimed I was the 22-year-old organ donor David Nennings. My traveling companion, nicknamed ‘Head,’ was another 16-year-old with a fake I.D. Besides a few clothing changes, our only luggage was a guitar and seven grams of Bolivian marching powder.

We spent our first night in Dallas, and in the morning, we set off for New Orleans. Head’s parents drove as we sat in the backseat, strung out, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, our long hair thrown about in the hot air insufflated through the open windows. Now and then, we would schlump down and take a snort off the one-hitter, rising back with paranoid, dilated pupils.

East Texas passed in a blur.

When we reached the fusty bayous of Louisiana, time seemed to thicken, the air so saturated with humidity it was like driving through soup.

In New Orleans, we were given our room and allowed to roam the streets without a chaperone.

I saw things I had never seen: Street rappers, tramcars, mausoleums, voodoo mambos, buskers, tarot card readers, jazz bars, and buildings more than 100 years old. I heard words I’d never heard: jambalaya, po’boy, muffaletta, lagniappe, swayt tay, gris gris, beignet, chickory, zydeco. I felt myself filling up with the excitement and possibility of the world, but I didn’t understand what was happening yet. I seethed with the energy that sweeps into those traveling for the first time.

Our I.D.s were never challenged, and we stumbled around the French Quarter for hours, strung out and drunk, then ducked into a strip club that had mechanical legs kicking in and out of the window. It was my first time seeing a naked woman in real life, and honestly, I was afraid. We sat in the back in the shadows, taking shots of cheap whiskey to avoid being noticed.

Three nights later, we sat on Pelican Beach in Destin, Florida, watching the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico. Having grown up in the flat, landlocked state of Oklahoma, it was my first time seeing a horizon of water. We were drinking Budweisers with other American teenagers and kids from places like New York and Boston, places I knew nothing about.

I didn't know what to say when they asked about Oklahoma.

“Like what’s it like there?” they would ask. In truth, I had no idea. I had never thought about it before. I didn’t know what it was like because I had nothing else to offer as a comparison.

Such a question also challenged my identity and what it meant to be from a place. But how do you put into words the environment that made you?

For the first time, I lay down in the sand and stared at the stars. I listened to the waves hiss, entranced by the sound, unlike anything in my experience. Slowly, unusual questions began rising, such as, "What would it be like to be completely surrounded by the ocean?"

Though unacknowledged, I was beginning to feel incredibly small. In just four days, the world had increased its proportions enormously, and already I felt like a different person, like an Oklahoman, something I had never thought of myself as before.

When one of the New York boys asked if we lived on farms, my face flushed with embarrassment.

“No, do ya’ll?”

““Ya’ll?” he repeated, mocking me. “Hear that guys? Ya’ll. Ha! Of course we don’t live on farms. We’re from New York.”

I drank to calm my nerves. I wanted to learn more about these non-Oklahomans but feared that I would come off as ignorant. I felt like an oddity suddenly, as though it was somehow a mark of shame to be from Oklahoma. I went off on my own and lay down feeling sad, wondering what was wrong with me, letting the sound of the waves take the heavy feeling away.

*  *  *  *  *

Sand dune near the Silk Road stop of Dunhuang, China.
Dune is near the Silk Road stop in Dunhuang, China.

I was 23 years old and sitting on a raised wooden platform in the Ecuadorian rainforest next to the Cuyabeno River.

It was nearing 9 p.m. when the nocturnal soul of the jungle came alive. Because of what I was about to do, the fact that the nearest hospital was six hours upstream by motorized canoe, followed by a five-hour bus ride, disturbed me. Still, I managed to monitor my breath and calm myself, and the paranoia eventually passed.

It was August. The vine-swaddled trees above me swooned against the backdrop of stars. Thousands of insects chirruped in the surrounding darkness, and from time to time, a monkey whooped overhead. On the nearby Cuyabeno, where a symphony of frogs was croaking, an uprooted tree drifted into view, snagged for a moment on a shallow tombolo, and drifted on.

In my hand was a clay tumbler filled with a potent psychotropic tea called Ayahuasca. It was the color of burnt umber and was brewed hours ago by a shaman who wore parrot feathers in his nose and a necklace of caiman teeth.

According to science, the tea is a mixture of an MAO inhibitor and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound produced naturally by most living plants and mammals, including humans, whose brains are flooded with it during REM sleep and in high-stress situations like when they are dying. According to mystics and Amazonian medicine men, the tea pulls back the curtain of human illusion, stripping reality bare.

I fought back the nausea as I poured it down my throat. It tasted terrible as if I were ingesting the entire forest: mud, herbs, toads, etc.

*  *  *  *  *

Buddhist Gompa in Kham, Tibet.
Buddhist Gompa in Kham, Tibet.

“The purpose of this meditation is not to see how the self exists but to see how it does not exist.”

The man speaking is seated in half-lotus atop a cushioned dais at the front of this Tibetan Buddhist gompa, swaddled in crimson robes, his hair shorn to the scalp, his eyes closed, and his expression dispassionate. Behind him, mirroring his posture is a 7-meter golden statue of the Buddha. Atlasing the high ceiling is a series of pillars muraled from base to abacus with swirling, polychromatic flowers. Over the walls hung enormous thangkas depicting Buddhist deities, mandalas, and the bhavacakric wheel of cyclic existence, painted or embroidered or appliquéd onto silk sheets that quiver in the breeze.

“We are going to examine our perception of the self,” the monk continues. “To check to see if there really is a self, an I, that exists in the way that we think it does.”

It has been twelve years since my first road trip to Florida, and little remains of the angst-ridden, drug-addicted teenager I once was besides a few tentative threads of memory. I have shed ten pounds of skin, most of the cells in my body have died and been replaced, and in my mind is the experience of sixty countries. I still wear my hair long, but I have a beard now. I live down the mountain from the gompa below Mcleod Ganj, India, where I rent a studio apartment with no kitchen.

“We must be genuine in our search,” the monk continues. “You must accept nothing that I say. You must check everything for yourself. Check thoroughly and you will see your confusion, and from your confusion you will receive clarity. Close your eyes. Watch your breath. Relax.”

The gompa is as big as a warehouse, and I am surrounded by nearly 100 fellow fellow meditators worldwide. Outside, Rhesus monkeys squabble in the trees, and unfamiliar birds sing unfamiliar melodies.

“Imagine your child claims they’ve seen a monster in your house. They say ‘I know there is a monster, father, I’ve seen it’. In order to show the child there’s no monster first we need them to describe it. We need to know how the monster exists before we can disprove it, right? Suppose the child says it’s blue and big. We search the entire house for this creature, under the bed, in the closet, everywhere, even outside. If we don’t find it then we can conclude there is no monster. That’s what we’re doing in this meditation. We are checking the self, the way it appears to exist, and then, like the monster, we search for it, we search in the body and in the mind, the entirety of the body and the mind, and we search elsewhere too, because maybe the self is something else, something that is neither body nor mind. That’s all the options we have. It’s either in the body or in the mind, as a whole or in parts, or it’s something else. There is no other option.”

I began meditating months ago, but this is my first long retreat. It is our second week of complete silence. We are in the eighth hour of meditation today, and I am devoting every ounce of my strength to ignoring the pain in my knees. The lower half of my body is numb, and my mind behaves like a rebellious horse. I try to focus but leap to another thought or memory every few seconds.

Sometimes, the thought, You’re a fool for torturing yourself like this, arises.

“First, we must identify what is this I, the way it appears to the mind. Summon a situation, an actual situation, in which someone has accused you of something unjustly. Someone said, " You did that! " You thought, No, I didn’t do that! The accuser then becomes angry. They ask how you could do such a thing. They ask you why you did it. Perhaps you want to shout back, to defend yourself. The sense of I is powerful and decisive here.

“Or imagine a situation of fear, like the monkeys outside. Maybe we fear that they will jump on us. In this situation, we also have a strong feeling of I. It is very evident. I could be bitten. I could get hurt. I could die. Or recall a time when you felt proud of yourself. Someone told you that you were great. Ah, I feel lovely now, don’t I? What is this I? How does it appear to the mind? How does it seem to exist?

“From these examples we notice that there seems to be a findable I, an I that exists of its own accord, independent, discoverable, something we can point to and say ‘This is the I, this is my essence.’ Remember this feeling, this findable I, this I-ness. This is what we’re searching for.”

My mind drifts to the recent past. There is a girl on her way through Mcleod Ganj. I invited her to stay in my apartment. We talked all night, with me on the bed and her on the mattress on the floor. When the sun rose the next morning, she crawled into my bed. After four days of bliss, she moved on, leaving a hole in me. There have been others since then, but no holes. Why did this one create a hole? I envision us in the future, then realize my mind has wandered off and bring it back to the meditation.

“First let us search the body. Maybe the I is in the body, like the monster in the house. It’s either in the house or outside the house. There is no other option, if it exists. So let us take the I and think, is my hair the I? Are my hairs and the I the same? Obviously not. That’s ridiculous. How could the hair be the I? But check. Really check. Then we check: are the eyes the I? Maybe the eyes and the I are the same. And like this maybe the nose, the throat. Maybe the intestines are the I. Or the hands, or the shoulders. Are they the I? And like this the inner organs, the heart, the lungs, the liver. Maybe the face is the I, or the skin. Is the skin the I? Really check. Are they the same? This checking does something to the mind, that’s why we do it. And like this the blood, the sexual organs. Are those the I? Check thoroughly. None of these things seem to be the I we’re looking for.”

My mind is rebelling against this search. How could there not be an I? The feeling is so strong. If there is no "I," then who is it thinking?

“Okay, so we know the individual parts of the body are not the I, but maybe the entirety of body and mind. That must be the I. But what does that mean? We take a collection of very different things — intestines, blood, memories, lungs, eyeballs, fingernails, urine, everything — and we label it. It’s like taking the air outside, a tree, a bicycle, and the monkeys and calling it "Elijah." There’s a relationship, no doubt, but what’s the point in calling them "Elijah"? Is that different from calling this collection of body parts I? It’s like saying A equals B, that A and B are the same, and that it should happen to B when something happens to A. But the body is always falling apart. Every moment is dying, regenerating, and full of thoughts that arise and pass away, even contradictory thoughts like love and anger. One moment, we are happy; the next, we are sad, afraid, bored, joyful, depressed. These thoughts are constantly arising and vanishing, but the I doesn’t seem to disintegrate. Not at any moment. Our sense of the I appears to be preventing this all the time. So are this collection of constantly changing things and I the same?

“Perhaps the I is something mental, like the memory. We might say that. Suppose we say the I is the memory. It’s an interesting thought. Let's check it out. Suppose we say the I is the memory. Imagine we have a safe, and inside the safe is a turtle we like. We can open the safe and look at the turtle whenever we want. We can even play with it. Is it right to say that this turtle is the I? Likewise, whenever we want to summon a memory, we can, but no memory is with us constantly. We are not the memory. Like the turtle, we can take out a memory and look at it, but that does not mean it is us.

“And yet it still feels like there is an I, something that isn’t constantly changing. This I seems to have an essence, right? Let’s continue the search. Perhaps the I is the awareness, that which is always just aware. Okay, so which moment of awareness? This moment?… This moment?… This moment?… Which moment is the I? Think, which moment is the I? Or is it the entire continuum? Don’t abandon the search. Keep looking. Go beyond the confusion!

“This I is quite elusive. We keep going blank, but we still have this strong feeling that there is such a thing. We search this feeling, not something obscure, not something general. We search for the exact monster.”

I am grasping at something, but nothing I touch seems solid. Everything I grasp deteriorates — a girl on her way through Mcleod Ganj. After four days of bliss, then she went away. Everyone, in the end, goes away.

“So it seems the body and the mind are not the I, nor is the memory. Perhaps the I is the owner of the body and the mind, the possessor. Suppose Elijah is the owner of a cow. There is the cow, and there is Elijah. They are different. We can point out: this is Elijah, this is the cow. Does that mean some self is different from the body and the mind, something that is the owner of these entities? That would mean that if we put all the parts of the body and the mind in a big pile, we would be left with the self. Let’s try it. In the pile, we put our legs, our head, the stomach, and the internal organs, and we also put memory, awareness, love, hatred, boredom, and anger. We put everything in the pile. But what is left? Is there anything that is not the body and the mind, which is the I? Think about it. Just think, search, don’t try to find.

“Who is it perceiving my voice?”

*  *  *  *  *

Dance During the Dalai Lama's Birthday in Mcleod Ganj, India.
Tibetan exiles perform a traditional dance on the Dalai Lama's birthday in Mcleod Ganj, India.

After the meditation, I walk down the mountain to my room in Mcleod Ganj, sit down, and attempt to write about myself and my travels. But to write about oneself is to create fiction.

But to write about oneself is to create a fiction.

To deliver a whole being with words is impossible. There is too much there, too much shrieks at the threat of being revealed.

To write about oneself is to refract and systematize what is ineffable, to squeeze a stone from the air, to chop down and whittle into form what is essentially a ghost, nebulous, protean at every moment.

How do I present myself?

As I appear to others?

As I appear to myself?

Do I describe myself through deeds?

Through intentions?

Do I include shameful thoughts and actions?

Do I conceal them?

Do I create myself according to how I believe others will remember me or how I want to be remembered? Through the image that I struggle to embody?

Do I impose a plot on what is essentially plotless?

And what is this material I work with, these unreliable memories, so tainted by emotion and interpreted through a vision of totality that is not real?

*  *  *  *  *

One year after my road trip to Florida, I stepped off U.S. soil for the first time. Literally stepped. I was with a group of high-school friends crossing the Mexican border on foot for a night of underage drinking in Matamoras.

As soon as we stepped over the border, a horde of 10-year-olds selling packs of Class B Marlboros assailed us in the dark. The shadow of a man passed, whispering, “quiere marijuana?”, “queire girls?”. On the side of the road were three women with babies on their hips thrusting their squalid palms out.

It was my first experience with beggars. I stopped to look. Something within me moved, and I walked on.

So much could be revealed with just a few footsteps. There, beyond the frontier of my comfort zone, I began to feel the privileges I had taken for granted all my life, but I had not yet realized them.          

Within minutes we’d been lured into a brothel.

The small-town Oklahoma girls we were with were not impressed, but they didn’t want to roam the Mexican night alone, so they tagged along with us.

Within, the light was hushed, and the bar was lined with men in cowboy hats and American tourists in board shorts. On stage, a girl with an angel tattoo and a cesarean scar, a girl not much older than us, was dancing. We ordered tequila shots, noshed them down, and watched her dance.

We bounced across town in a squadron of bicycle taxis to a club full of American teenagers. Some kids were passed out in chairs. Others had a delta of margarita juice spilled down their collars or were so drunk they’d lost their shirts. A group of boys in baseball caps was huddled around two girls, shouting at them to make out.

I fell onto a swivel stool, and some man with a purple afro spun me around, pouring tequila down my throat until I began to vomit.

Who knows what happens next.

I blacked out and woke up at the border to find our driver handcuffed to a chair. He’d been unruly with the customs agents.

“She stole my wallet!” he kept shouting.

But who was she?

They detained us for an hour before allowing us back into our country. By now, five people were missing. The only girl still with us was squatting to pee on the highway near the border lanes.

The images of the poverty I’d just seen fountained into my drunken consciousness, and I began talking to myself aloud. How could we ignore what was so visible? What had driven us to behave like we were? What elements of our society have made us so irresponsible?

I was told to shut up, to stop being such a downer.

My 17-year-old self seems deranged to me now, but I wonder what vestiges of his anarchy are still with me. Through what avenues does he now find expression?

With ten people packed inside a Chevy Tahoe and a driver so drunk he could barely stand, we swerved our way toward South Padre Island. It was 19 March 2003, and on the other side of the planet, bombs were about to begin falling on Baghdad. President Bush’s voice interrupted the radio broadcast. He mentioned nuclear weapons and the need for America to defend the world from grave danger.

There was a roadblock when we reached the Queen Isabella Causeway, which bridges Padre Island to the mainland over the Laguna Madre. There had been a pile-up on the bridge, and all access to the island was closed until further notice. The traffic was soon backed up for miles. People exited their vehicles, folded out lawn chairs, and popped open ice chests full of beer.

The mist over Padre Island absorbed so much of the orange hue of its streetlights that it glowed like radioactive gas.

I waited for an hour, then staggered up to the officers at the front to ask what was taking so long. They ordered me to get back to my vehicle before they arrested me for public indecency.

Just then, a car appeared on the bridge, veered around the hazard cones, and accelerated towards us. The officers signaled it to stop, then leaped out of the way as it smashed into a truck at the front of the line.

Yet another drunk driver.

Back at the Tahoe, our driver passed out with his cheek on the steering wheel. Everyone else was snoring. The radio was still on — a nervous reporter, explosions.

The bombs had begun falling on Bagdad.

*  *  *  *  *

Dragon's Bone rice terraces, China.
Dragon's Bone rice terraces, China.

It had been an hour since I swallowed the Ayahuasca, and my body was beginning to dissolve. With each heart thump, another layer emerged and was transformed into air. A knot of energy moved peristaltically up my spinal cord, and when it burst from the top of my head, it felt like I had lifted out of my body, and I panicked. I fell out of the hammock. I tried to move, but the hallucinations were too intense. Everything fixed had shattered into particles and geometric forms. When I looked at my hand, it felt like it no longer belonged to me; it looked like a concentration of rebellious energy condensed in space.

Time folded in on itself, and each moment felt like an eternity, and each eternity passed in a spurt of speed. I seemed to melt into the perspective of the forest, my eyes opening in the bark and lurching over my body to look down on me. The bliss and euphoria are indescribable. I fell through white clouds and wormholes and then seemed to emerge through the surface of a swamp, with two slimy eyes atop my head and the feeling of creamy water sliding over my flanks as I jerked my hind legs.

With little transition, I was suddenly back in my human body. I tried to move but couldn’t.

I then fell into another dimension entirely. Like a snake emerging from dead skin, the language seemed to slide off me, and reality rose in pristine clarity, unfiltered through symbols. I gushed out of my mother’s uterus into the blinding lights of a delivery room, felt my limbs sprout like branches, saw again for the first time the sea’s horizon, relived the loss of my virginity, flushed with fever and illness, suffered my mother’s pain as she watched me age, watched my grandparents die, my sisters being born.

Every decision that brought me to that moment shone like a node in a vast web. I lived my entire life over, experiencing each heartache and each moment of illumination. All the knots in my mind began to untie until nothing was left — no sense of separation, no I, no other, only peace.

*  *  *  *  *

A year after high school, I quit drugs cold turkey and took up a new addiction: travel.

That superficial taste of alternative reality in Florida and Mexico ignited a flame I made my mission to feed. I dropped out of university and bought a one-way ticket to Spain. On the eve of my departure, I had never ridden in a subway, spent more than an evening in another country, touched foreign currency, kissed a girl who wasn’t American, or been on a public bus.

There is a Zen koan: Leap, and the net will appear.

I spent four months hitchhiking around Europe, sleeping most nights in my tent because I had no money. When I returned to the U.S., I was a completely different person. I could see myself and my culture with painful and exhilarating clarity and began to question everything, to deconstruct my conditioning, thought by thought.

I went back to college for another year before dropping out again. This time, I bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia and spent seven months traveling South America. Again, the entire world shifted. When I got back to Oklahoma, I lost all sense of belonging. The friends I’d grown up with looked at me like I was from another planet. They felt like strangers, and I found fitting back into their world impossible. I didn’t stay long. Next came Australia, the UAE, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, England, Latvia, Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, India, Nepal. Each lifted a new perspective. I lived for a month aboard a gulet on the Mediterranean, settled for two years in Istanbul, moved to India, fell in and out of love, learned things, unlearned things, experimented with nearly every drug known to man, squeezed and poked and attacked all of my certainties.

By the end, I had lost a country but gained the world, lost my home but won a dream, lost my sense of self but gained the insight that the self is a chimera, an intersection of divergent lines that create the illusion of a center, that below the grime of experience is only a mirror, halcyon and vacuous, with the odious power to absorb and identify with that which it should only be reflecting.

Travel showed me that.

Now I drift over one mythical border after another, picking up maps as I go, dropping them, sprouting into and withdrawing from one life after another, watching as the world around me solidifies and vanishes, trying to discover what, if anything, has carried forth through all of my different selves.

I wear a ring now with the words “This Too Shall Pass” engraved around its circumference. I try to remain calm in that knowledge, to watch without too much sorrow as the seasons of my life pass. And in the end, what am I left with? What principle of being abides?

Nothing, perhaps. It's just another chapter in a book of transformations.

David Joshua Jennings is a writer and photographer from Oklahoma, USA. You can find him at

More by the David Joshua Jennings
The Secret Lives of Nomads
Living in the Queen of Cities
What You Should Know About Studying and Living in Istanbul
Study Abroad in Ecuador: Learning Spanish in Quito

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