The Second Law Of Travel Thermodynamics

May 3, 2012 by Anil Polat  

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Traveling invariably changes you and a key ingredient to how profoundly is our invisible companion time. Of all the dimensions we exist in, time is the only one whose direction we have no control over. You can go left, right, up, or down but time cannot be stopped, just be sped up or slowed down. We often don’t notice this passenger who changes us as much as the road does; yet never leaves our side.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, events in the universe act in a way that make everything irreversible. You cannot drink the same cup of tea twice, physically grow young, or turn an omelet into an egg. You cannot travel the world and return home the same person you were before. Traveling extensively changes you extensively. Those effects vary both by where you go on the map and how far you go traveling along the arrow of time.

puppet show tbilisi ticketsSeeing The Shifts And Rifts Between Your Space And Time

My life is unorthodox to say the least. I have often have moments where I temporarily forget which city or country I am in. It’s in those lapses that I realize both how much I move and how extraordinary my life has become. For the most part my clocks are calculated by where I am and where I’m going next. Time ticks away steadily but often slowly as I’m incredibly fortunate to have many new, amazing, and memorable experiences. A taste, a touch, a smile I’ve never seen before. The occasional nod backwards that’s as compelling as it is confusing.

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When I arrive places to visit friends and family I know my physical path usually has been radically different than theirs since I’ve seen them last. That’s easy to see on the map but the hands of time are much harder to observe. At least until you temporarily stop temporally.

The Slow Motion Button Of Travel And Life’s Fast Forward

Many RTW travelers and even those of you heading back from shorter trips have probably noticed the proverb, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” firsthand upon arrival home. While traveling you feel like everyday is shorter – sometimes too short – and the more you do the less time it feels you have. It’s hard to imagine you’re experiencing the same 24 hours you did at home when walking along the medina walls of Marrakesh or exploring Chandni Chowk in New Delhi. Though of course, it’s not time that’s changing but your perception of it. And the longer you’re away the more amplified that effect becomes; so what was once abnormal becomes routine. Your clock is continually running slow.

When you return home, it’s you that feels somewhat out of place. It has been said that “home is wherever you happen to be” and when that becomes the road more often than not, I can tell you it’s easy to be confused with which is what.

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tbilisi metro stationA Temporal Anomaly Along The Road

I’ve found this time-disconnect to be most profound in my conversations with old friends. In many ways their lives have marched on and mine blissfully feels to have been stuck when our paths last diverged. Once we’re past nostalgic reminisces it takes time to find a conversational common ground. (Especially on my part not to sound like an elitist bastard talking about one incredible experience after another.)

Through those processes though I’ve realized that we’re all experiencing entropy in different ways. Perhaps travel makes it much more apparent; you can always go home, but you can’t go back in time. Your understanding of the world, its peoples, cultures, motivations, and the rest is forever altered. Hell, even what you consider to be a home changes once you see that people live in countless types of dwellings and family structures around Earth.

So after months or years of travel you may be able to change how you physically move, where you go, and where you end up; but never go back to the beginning of any trip. And if you’re as fortunate as I am to take a long journey of any sort, you won’t want to return.

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  1. I’ve found that my life seems to expand the more I travel. Or rather, it expands the more distinct experiences I’ve had. If I have, for example, spent six months going to work every day and met friends in the evening, thinking back on those six months, my brain compresses it to make it feel like a month or two of sameness.

    If I on the other hand have lived in three different places, and in those had countless new adventures, my brain can’t compress the time together in one small summary, but I am forced to recall it all, and it will feel like a year’s worth of time.

    In the end, I think this is crucial to feeling like one has lived a full and long life, rather than how many actual years you have.

    • Anil P. says:

      That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. Almost like a “memory” JPEG file where the redundant data is compressed 🙂 And like you allude to, the years are no guarantee, one of the best and worst qualities of life. Depending on how you live it.

  2. Really a profound article, Anil. I’ve traveled for the past 5.5 years, the last 2.5 of which were perpetual travel with no home base. I know I’ve gone through stages over the years. For a while I wanted to tell everyone that I was a perpetual traveler. Then I started struggling with the “Where are you from?” question. What to say – I no longer live in the U.S. but am not technically from any other country. I usually stammer around and explain that I was born in the U.S.but no longer live there, blah, blah. This whole issue tripped me up so badly on a visit to Canada last year that the Immigration officer very nearly didn’t let me into the country. Now I’m in a new stage where I don’t really tell anyone what I do or talk about my lifestyle unless I’ve been asked directly. I know you’re right when you say “You cannot travel the world and return home the same person you were before.” I am irrevocably changed in so many ways, and all of them for the better, I believe.

    • Anil P. says:

      Thank you very much Barbara. It is tough to have a concise but accurate story for a lifestyle like yours/ours. I’ve too had this problem once with immigration (Canada is always a difficult one) and now simply “live” where my passport is as far as they’re concerned. Much easier, although I do leave a business card too in case there are questions about my employment.

      The changes are profound; I’m not sure if you would agree but in my case I never thought the experiences would be so far reaching in terms of my self. Despite the difficulties I too believe it is a gift worth treasuring…and sharing.

  3. Hannah says:

    I can really relate to what you said about having a hard time finding a conversational common ground with people after coming back home from travel. I often have to try hard to supress the urge to talk constantly about everything I’ve done on my trip with my old friends back home. Interesting article, Anil!

    • Anil P. says:

      Thank you Hannah, it is tricky especially since usually friends and family want to hear what you’ve been up to more than tell their own stories they feel are ‘boring’ in comparison. But different isn’t boring, sometimes you just want to hear what’s been going on – travel or not 🙂

  4. Lane says:

    Thought-provoking. I need to let that rattle around in my mind for a bit.