How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy
My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.
Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.
Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.
I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.
Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.
More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.
It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.
I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.
Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.
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