May 2017, Hue, Vietnam. It is humid, hot, and a blanket of smog covers the city. I just dropped off my luggage at the travel agency and head back out to get lunch before my bus from the former national capital to Hanoi departs. Out on the road I try to find my way around when a man approaches me. Naturally, I assume he tries to sell something, and tighten my guards. I was wrong. He sits on his motorbike in front of another travel agency and waits for his daughter who is about to arrive from the south. But her flight is delayed so he has some time to kill. We talk for a while and as he finds out I am German, he gets excited. Turns out he has some relatives in Germany who fled on the MS Helgoland – the last resort for many Vietnamese to escape the war zone – and have married oversees.
We actually have one more thing in common at the moment: a growling stomach. He insists I get on his bike and he will take me to a „good local place with amazing food.“ I climb on his bike and he starts to drive. Aman, that is his strangely un-Vietnamese name, is 67 years of age, tells me his story of how he got to the city, that he is a retired teacher and is now working secretely to boost his retirement money. Unlike many other Vietnamese, his English is excellent and the conversation flows vividly. The moment I got on that bike, Aman is very inquisitive about traveling New Zealand and Germany. We turn off the main roads and follow some bumpy, eerie streets. Street dogs roam more frequently in this area, the houses look shady and the vibe feels a little different. I begin to wonder whether I have made a mistake trusting a strange man on the streets in Vietnam. I realise, anything could happen to me now. Finally, he points at two hidden food stands in the far distance: „nice place!“, he says with a big smile which I can see in the rear mirror of the bike. Aman was right, the food is amazing. And dirt cheap. He pays for my food, I shout the beer(s). The conversation goes on for quite a while. Of course, he will take me back to my bus, „but not before we stop at a very good place to buy exquisite coffee!“ He is right again, the coffee is stunningly tasty.
I get on the bus just in time, sit down and reflect on what just happened. Aman has shown me the point of why I travel: take a leap of faith sometimes, get out of your comfort zone. Go to places you would never dare to visit back home. Venture into the unknown. Face fears. We are not on top of things, nor are we at the bottom. We are a plaything of the universe. It is in these moments that your life becomes real. You fall in love, you lose a friend, somebody dies – you are lost. These are the defining moments of your life, the moments when you find out who you really are. Facing the unknown gets the best of me. Curiosity drives me. Although it may seem easier to strive to pursue the things you do know, the unknown pushes the edge of your character to the test. Further, the unknown brings you closer to the people around you. Let that sink in for a moment.
“We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events”, Daniel Kahnemann points out in his masterpiece Thinking, Fast and Slow. We are overly confident in things we think we know than we should be. „However“, Kahnemann continues, „we tend to ignore our ignorance – an ability that is almost unlimited.“ Usually, we are in the dark, usually, we do not know what will happen. Yet we think we know. In this darkness, nevertheless, lies real intimacy. Certainly, there are a lot of things we need to know – but there is also a huge amount of things that are better left in the dark (tell that to Adam and Eve!). I am not promoting ignorance, I am just saying that sometimes we need a reminder that our ape brains must accept the fact of not being able to know everything – and that is the key of living a life worth living. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” astronomer Maria Mitchell critically observed.
Just go for a walk, have a look at the thousands of things you have not noticed in your home town yet and get to know them. Albeit, never forget that there are probably even more things you will never know. Knowledge, beyond doubt, is an invaluable gift. The illusion of knowledge, however, is tremendously dangerous – even more so than ignorance. Thinking you know someone is more perilous than acknowledging you do not know them. Humble yourself. Accept your limits but work with what has been given to you. Sometimes, knowledge gives out and science finds its boundaries. In these moments it is more than ok to admit: „I don’t know.“
I am back on Aman’s bike, thinking about traveling, about the unknown and about embracing life. Pico Iyer depicts it beautifully: „the first law of travel and, therefore, of life: you’re only as strong as your readiness to surrender. In the end, perhaps, being human is much more important than being fully in the known.“