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Time Traveling Travel

Travel is an adventure through space and time. Besides seeing different cultures and locations, you can also experience, smell, hear and interact with elements of the past and future. I don’t just mean history museums or science fairs. But you have to know how and where to look if you want to understand where and when you are. When I set out on a 22 country trip through Asia Pacific, I had the goal of understanding the present and seeing the future, but I did not expect to discover the fluid continuum between the past, present, future. Here’s my view on how to fully appreciate these three dimensions when traveling.

The Present
Philosophically, we can only live in the present, so the past and future do not ever exist. Similar to movies where time travelers become trapped in the past, and must live out their lives in their new present in order to survive, if you traveling to remote locations without electricity, you must adapt to a pre-industrial world and it becomes your present experience. Everything we see and experience is the present (enjoy it!), but it’s relative to each traveler.

We experience and form models of the world through our surrounding communities. This sets our baseline definition of “present”, which becomes the lens through which we interpret our travel experiences. An American traveling might see modern cities as equivalents to their understanding of present life, whereas a rural village may feel like the distant past. In contrast, a traveler from a developing world country may see an American city as the future. We should appreciate that the present is a relative experience, but from any perspective, there are always recognizable signs of the past, which can allow us to set personal measures of the past.

The Past
Ancient temples, ruins, and buildings proliferate through even modern cities. The past is all around us, but may be more visible in countries which have less modern or efficient economies. The machinations of capitalism work to destroy old stuff then build new stuff. For whatever reasons, the pace varies between countries, so if you are aware of the histories of two countries, you can see each’s progression from the point in time which they initiated economic policies. Many countries follow a similar progression so sometimes it’s possible to trace backwards from the present, to get a sense for when a country began their modernization efforts.

Reasons why old temples and structures may not be replaced could be tradition, religion, or land rights systems, etc. These influences will be hard to identify, but with a broader awareness of historical context, perhaps from museums, you can get a sense for the point in the past when something was built.

Whereas, I usually view the past as things built before any present day living people was around, I also see places where time feels like it stood still due to other reasons such as war. When I visited places like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, I saw remnants of World War II still laying around, untouched from the day which the machines of war were abandoned. Combined with the smaller economies, I felt that time had frozen after World War II. History does not require that societies change, or modernize, so they can stay in “the past” indefinitely.

The Future
If the past is static then the future will be more of the same. But if you observe differences between the past and present, to some extent you can trace a forward path to the future or set of possible futures. This is where traveling gets interesting because country borders create artificial time machines that slow the pace of change from spreading from one place to another. Yet, you can see how neighboring countries share lots of similarities in culture, customs and ways of life. The freedom as a traveler to freely cross borders quickly reveals these cultural gradients whereas the pace of change is much slower for locals. Almost inevitably, the external world trickles inside all borders.

Within internal borders, you can also get a sense for people’s excitement for change and their perceptions of the future. I like to experience the energy on university campuses because the latest technologies and cutting edge research shed insights into the next generation of technologies, but you can also walk about commercial centers and talk to regular people to hear stories about their life and the neighborhood and how it’s changed over time. Occasionally, I encounter a very futuristic building and assume more will rise nearby, such as in Colombo, Sri Lanka which is in the process of building modern hotels, offices, it’s own iconic tower, but reclaiming land for an entire district.

Advance tip:
If a country has gone through multiple waves of empires or social and government systems, you can find spots around the city where you can see a panoramic collage of the different architectural styles. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is a good example.

0607 Mongolia x5

Ulaanbatar skyline, Mongolia


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