"People don't take trips. Trips take people." So reads a paraphrasing of John Steinbeck's words from his 1962 travel memoir Travels with Charley: In Search of America. He actually said: "A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
In short, our environments change us. We as humans are surprisingly affected by where we live, and where we go – especially if we travel or live in a different place for a long time, as we as expatriates invariably do. Particularly when they’ve lived in an international environment like the UAE, a lot of expats report difficulty adjusting when they return home to their nationalistic little countries, as they sometimes seem. Then, they adjust back.
I never used to realise this. An Australian friend in London, who worked for the Financial Times, used to constantly moan about the weather. It had never crossed my mind to complain about something so integral to a place that we have absolutely no control over. I just thought she was being negative. Perhaps, as a Brit, I thought blue skies were only for holidays.
Then, as I travelled more and more, it became clear that one’s mood and even whole outlook can be changed by the character of a place – though you still have to let it. I love the idea of surrendering yourself to your environment, and so I’ve learned to accept and absorb as much as possible.
The effects of place then become more evident the more you travel. Living in the UAE, I’ve grown accustomed to my drive to work along the old “Salam Street”, a multi-lane highway now renamed Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, as meaning anything but “peace". It’s impossible to get to work without at least one rude driver – usually in a Land Cruiser, driving right behind me and flashing their lights. They forget that whatever car they’re driving or however much they flash, I’m still in front. Nevertheless, it’s stressful.
The difference I experienced on a recent trip to the United States couldn’t have been more marked. After picking up a Volvo at Seattle airport, I took the I-5 motorway down to Portland. I’d wondered if there were any alternatives to the “stress” of the motorway, but the drive was anything but stressful. All the other drivers obediently kept to the speed limit, without any speeding or nerve-wracking sudden movements.
So much so that in the beginning, their tame driving annoyed me. I found myself cursing under my breath at these peaceful drivers, wondering if they were asleep at the wheel, had set cruise control to 70kph or had the whole day to waste. But again, I got used to the change. By the time I made the return trip three days later, I loved this relaxed way of driving. In Portland, too, I really enjoyed slowly cruising the residential streets, once I remembered to stop at the multiple four-way residential junctions. Driving there was almost like yoga, a slow but satisfying journey to enlightenment.
I found my way back to Seattle airport without a scratch, as high white clouds filled a clean blue sky. Now back in Abu Dhabi, it’s time to drive to a yoga class.