What is left for the explorer? Here on Earth, the highest mountains have been climbed. The deepest oceans sounded. The poles measured and weighed. The human genome, too, has been cracked open like an egg to be played on like a pipe. Have we come to the end of exploration, when our once beautiful blue planet was a place of unlimited possibility, a place (though bounded in a nutshell) of infinite space, and we the kings and queens on it? We might look to the stars, but our science tells us that not even the universe is infinite, for if you begin in Iowa and travel in a straight line out into the cosmos, eventually you’ll end up back in Iowa. It turns out that space-time is curved. (Of course, there is the possibility that through a singularity, an event horizon of space-time, there is another universe that contains yet more universes. But whatever happens or is happening outside our universe we cannot know.) Apparently, you have to travel a long way to discover that all roads lead home, a cliché, sure, but no less true.
And once back home, what does the explorer discover? The physical journey speeds up for a while in the mind, becomes a whirling bluster of blown leaves and longing, images and phrases and conversations, little snippets of the sun and moon and stars, the rain too, until the body internalizes all this, and then moves on to more-general feelings. In the aftermath, you have what sticks, the basis for the human experience, the foundation of the human heart: hunger and thirst, fear and frustration and anger, calm, joy, and love. Yes, love too. Or maybe love mostly, or love only. The journey outward into the cosmos teaches you that love is possible, love of another, and maybe even love of the self. Yet what the explorer loves best is freedom, the light-skip of an unencumbered mind in an unburdened body on an open-ended journey. What the explorer loves best is freedom to roam, and to be alone in a roaming loneliness, to be alone in thought, and, at least for some of the time, to be alone in place. This is how an explorer rediscovers infinite space bounded in a nutshell, rediscovers that the Earth is limitless if you look to its subtleties. This is how the explorer returns home along the public road. The end of exploration? Certainly not, as it seems we travelers never tire of the journey, and we readers, neither. Conquest is not the point, but rather the experience, the passage, and every passage is nearly a singularity.
– Kurt Caswell, LA Review of Books
In preparing for the new group of Peace Corps Volunteers to arrive in country, there were a lot of conversations about reflection on this past year, this experience. Everything from putting frustrations and in context, successes in minute and sometimes immeasurable steps, advice on packing and last minute American activities on which they should indulge. (In no particular order: cheeseburgers, Chipotle, friends, family, good beer, spicy things.)
And at some point, at many points it seems, the conversation goes to this question: What is your favorite part of your Peace Corps service?
For some, it was their local relationships, their projects at work, mastering a complicated language. And it is all of those things, for sure. But for me, the answer was more simple.
A sense of exploration.
Don’t misunderstand me, this exploration is not carving maps from mountains, and it’s not establishing myself as an end all, be all for Kyrgyzstan. I’m not. But it’s this process of learning, of wandering this new place and finding things that stand out among the fast-tracked, but empty apartment complexes and shining, new bars. The transition of being new to a place to, finally and unexpectedly, feel comfortable enough to aimlessly wander it. To have the relationships, the language, the knowledge, and experience to purposefully lose yourself to something, allowing it to surprise you with how much you have grown and changed.
And that, as summer begins in Bishkek, I finally feel like I am able to do. It’s an exploration of place, challenging me to explore more, understand more, do more. This whole past year, more than a year already, has been a push to explore and experience new things. I’m lucky, and I hope to keep exploring.