Gertrude refuses to travel. I don’t blame her. The anxiety over missed connections. The expense. Squeezed into seats with total strangers. She’s a large woman, not terribly interested in sharing her space. And a germaphobe, with her packets of sanitary hand wipes drenching every surface she can lay her hands on.
“What about your carbon footprint,” she says. Gertrude’s admonishing me with the wag of her finger. “Besides, why would you want to go anywhere else? We practically live in paradise.”
I hate to admit it—least of all to Gertrude—but I’m not myself when I travel. I can’t read a map to save my life. I’m anxious and cranky, mystery foods make me gag, and that first moment you walk into your hotel room, well, it’s almost always a disappointment.
But then I reassure myself that it’s a good thing. To be forced outside a routine. Grapple with discomfort. Expand my perspective.
I’ve traveled to places where the air vibrates in a different frequency. Juno, Alaska. The High Sierra Camp at Vogelsang in Yosemite. Otavalo. Antigua. The Dead Sea. Bhutan. It’s not possible to come home the same person.
And I’ve seen places of exquisite beauty. The island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya. Sunset over the Ponte Vecchio. Lake Titicaca. Mount Kilimanjaro. The Kenai Peninsula.
And cities where heart-wrenching poverty is a reality. Limbless, blind beggars on the street, their hands reaching out as you pass by. Shoeless children tug on your pants’ legs. At a bus stop in rural Tanzania, I remember women, including myself, lifting up their skirts to urinate behind a decrepit building, shit running down a gully. The stench stings your nostrils. And your sensibility. If you’re lucky, the indignation outlasts the experience.
These are countries where you forgive the pickpockets and scam artists. Where gratitude and generosity swell.
Travel invites you to experience long-forgotten thoughts and primitive feelings, memories aroused, like ravenous dogs. Years ago, on a two-month trek across Africa, I dreamt expansively about my mother. Distempered dreams that picked at half-healed scabs. Without the distracting routine of school or job or folding the laundry, what else was left to fill my nighttime vision? I remember those months not as disheartening, but as a time of awakening, and the excitement of discovery.
I love to take photographs when I travel—on a small point and shoot that fits in my pocket. Through the lens, it’s possible to frame a detail and see the image in an entirely different way. A gargoyle lunging from the corner of a façade, or the vibrant colors of a Guatemalan huipl, or a single prayer flag fluttering in the wind. Of course, there is the danger of loitering too long behind the lens and missing the experience itself.
If we are to thrive from our travels, we must stretch and adapt, find hidden places within ourselves, question our assumptions—assumptions we might not even have realized we held. There are concepts in other languages and cultures that don’t even exist in English. (See previous post Tong Ha Ha). It becomes patently obvious not everyone sees the world the same way.
Can you see where I’m headed with this?
Writing requires the mind of a traveler. Adapting, flexing, stretching. Questioning assumptions. Mining the depths of our limited experience. Growing those experiences with all five senses ignited. The expansive landscape and the nitty-gritty details.
I’ve never felt as lonely as I did traveling. One night alone in a hostel in Amsterdam. But then dawn peeked through the shutters and the koffie was unforgettable.