Travel is as a wholly advantageous endeavor. Planning an adventure benefits one’s mental agility. Connecting with other cultures promotes empathy. Stepping outside of the familiar forces intentionality. It can be uncomfortable, but most worthwhile experiences are. Examining our vast world fosters humility, respect, and an exploratory spirit.
I once had a cashier confide she had always wanted to go to New York. I had been in Pittsburgh for over a year, but kept finding excuses to put off subjecting myself to the DMV to update my license. She passed it back and began bagging my things. “I think it would be cool to see the Statue of Liberty.”
“It’s not that far, eight hours by bus.” I had taken one a few months back to visit friends. It had cost $23 each way.
“Maybe if I were younger. I don’t know…” she trailed off.
I crossed the lot towards the car, unsettled by our interaction. The woman was no older than me and New York was less than a day’s drive. The idea that she could be defeated by a dream that was so attainable was profoundly saddening. I wondered why travel is so often viewed as something to be done when one is just starting out or upon entering retirement. What about the years inbetween? What terrible irony that so many who would undoubtedly benefit from such exposure be unable to see across the barrier of excuses preventing them from doing so.
* * *
When I broke the news to my parents that I would be leaving the tender embrace of the Rust Belt, where I had lived all my life, I could tell they were hurt. When confronted with information that veers wildly out of the lane they’ve been in their whole lives, their reaction is consistently a slightly surprised and bemused “Okay.” It’s endearing, but also the cue to explain what the hell is going on. My mother once told me not to “make the world so big”, and my parents are very principled people. So when I announced that I was leaving Pittsburgh, a city a mere two hours away from Cleveland, and which they had failed to visit in the past three years, the feathers of their principles were nonetheless sufficiently ruffled.
Nearly everything my parents hold dear resides within the confines of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, United States – all three of my sisters live there. For years they had tried to make the idea of Cleveland palatable to me, as if the act of living where I had landed and pursuing my happiness was either an act of defiance or an act of foolishness. It may have started as both, to be sure, but the idea that a certain place is sufficient for one person’s happiness very rarely extends to another. Cleveland wasn’t going to be a place for me to explore and find fulfillment anymore than Pittsburgh would be for my parents. The realization that a place somehow isn’t enough for a traveler is not an opportunity or invitation to tear down the world they are actively trying to build for themselves any more than they are trying to tear down the world they look to leave.
* * *
I was standing across the pass when the Sous Chef leaned over and said, “You realize you’ve only been here four months and you’re already managing the best restaurant in the city.” He was right, and I spent the next few years following that trajectory. Pittsburgh had welcomed me and valued my professional talent. Often, leaving a place is equated with failure (thank Frank Sinatra), but I hadn’t struck out, and I was surprised at being met with consternation now that I had told people I was leaving.
It hadn’t happened that way when I left New York, but leaving New York is expected. There are entire books written on the subject. People have children, want gardens, get tired of having their head lodged in a stranger’s armpit during a rush-hour subway ride. Pittsburgh is a place you leave New York for, a place to build a home, and I began to understand how leaving might bruise some egos.
It has always seemed strange to me that going on vacation is a heralded enterprise, while long-term travel is somehow offensive or irresponsible. As a child I remember reading about the seven wonders of the world and knowing it was imperative I see them all. I wanted to be Indiana Jones. That hope, that interest in adventure, has led me to look at each of the cities I’ve had the opportunity to live in as somewhat temporary. It hasn’t been because they weren’t enough, but because they couldn’t possibly be everywhere. Of course I worry about leaving those that are close to me, but relationships wither when jobs are left, when people start families, and traveling is no longer the impediment to staying connected it once was. Our ever-increasing dependence on technology may be disquieting, but I am astonished by my ability to celebrate, commiserate, and joke with friends I haven’t seen in years by just opening an app.
* * *
A rolling stone gathers no moss, and one that’s been in the same place for a decade or more might have some difficulty remembering how to roll at all. One of the major questions friends and family would ask me was what I was going to do with all of my possessions. An apartment full of things suddenly becomes some sort of malevolent, cosmic entity, sucking your will away. I’ve never pretended to be a new-age minimalist, so you can bet I kept a lot, but only the parts that really mattered. My library, my record collection, my filing cabinet, a few pieces of treasured furniture. I sold, gave away, donated or disposed of more than I thought was possible. Were it not for the courageous efforts of my partner, I’d likely still be a quivering mass of feelings in an empty kitchen. We packed up a truck with the curated remainder of my apartment and took out a long term rental on a storage facility. It was certainly an arduous, and at times, emotional process, but so is travel. Easy pursuits are rarely rewarding. Your worldy possessions literally have no say in whether you stay or go. That difficult decision rests with you. The feeling I had after I locked up years of material wealth and walked away was as liberating as setting foot in a new city for the first time.
* * *
The average American woman owns twenty pairs of shoes. I had six times that. I have spent a decade assembling and disassembling Ikea wardrobes, lugging their mammoth frames from apartment to apartment in order to house my collection. I went to school for fashion design and I will not be judged.
However, the question of where to put years of clothes, books, and the 600 CD’s I was still in possession of (despite not owning a CD player), became an incessant heckle. We tried it all on, sold what we could, and transferred our literary and music libraries to digital formats. A few hundred dollars richer (it is shocking how much CDs will still garner), we set to donating the rest. I organized a clothing swap, where I got to enjoy my friends delighting in things I’d forgotten I owned. One admitted she was inspired to spend a year in Thailand, but had just painted her house and couldn’t bear moving from such a comfortable situation. A few days later and she divulged she had spoken with a friend who was planning on moving back to Pittsburgh and was hoping for a furnished sublet.
We procured 200 square feet of storage and I stuffed two suitcases full of clothes meant to last the four months. I was prepared for hiking, camping, swimming, museums, dinners out, 100 degree afternoons, and 16 degree nights. The absurd thing is that I barely used half of it. Two months after starting our trip we landed in Cuenca, Ecuador. I unpacked and carefully folded garments I knew I would never wear.
* * *
In college, I dated a wonderful Polish woman. My parents, dutifully clutching the driver’s wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock, once asked over dinner if Poland (which had recently joined the European Union) had political parties. My parents tend to think of the rest of the world in broad strokes. A recent earthquake on the coast of Ecuador had them slightly concerned, despite the fact that we live hours away in the mountain city of Cuenca, and felt only a slight tremor.
My father, in an attempt at humor, inquired if I had remembered to bring my gun (I have never owned one) on a early evening walk through our quiet neighborhood of El Batan. I can only assume for the singular unfriendly dog encountered. Explaining that Pittsburgh, let alone nearly any city in the United States, was altogether more threatening and dangerous than a peaceful walk nearly anywhere in Ecuador was effectively a lost cause. The whole of South America, at least in my parent’s understanding, is vastly more dangerous than Chicago. The world is a complex place, and traveling brings a perspective that refutes the simplicity of broad strokes. No matter how terrified your loved ones may be for you, it’s your own education that will keep you safely engaged with the world.
* * *
When I was living in New Orleans I was mugged in broad daylight. I had finished my last shift at a Bourbon Street bar, closed the place down, and allowed my coworkers to take me out to celebrate. By the time we had thrown back a few rounds it was 7am. I was drunk, and definitely not paying attention to the man who came up behind me and pulled the purse off my neck as I lowered myself into my friend’s passenger seat. I have never forgotten it.
Safety is of particular concern to female travelers. It should be. They should be just as concerned as they are at home. When people who can not correctly identify a place I am visiting on a map misguidedly express unwarranted worry for my welfare, I try to remember they mean to be kind. As a woman, I don’t leave my drink unattended, I don’t take rides from strangers, I tell people where I’m going, I carry enough cash to cover a cab. I try not to walk alone after dark, study maps of places I am unfamiliar with, have my keys handy before I need them, and am observant of my surroundings. It is true that the world is not safe for women. However, I have been shown compassion and courtesy from strangers more often than not. Statistically, we are far worse off within ten miles of our homes in the company of someone we know. Take care, pay attention, but keep your mind open. Embracing the unknown does not coincide with courting harm.
* * *
The protests and arguments your friends and family will make when you confess you will be traveling come from a place of deep love. For many of them, it is precisely a confession, some secret sin you are divulging, some transgression against established order. Some arguments they make are compelling, especially if you paint your view of the world with a large brush. But that is a very singular worldview. The purpose of travel is to broaden one’s sense of place, to broaden one’s view of the world. While concern and misgiving are coming from a place of earnest love, it is the knowledge that love and family are not tethered to any one geographic location that inspires the courage to take the journey itself, and leave the notion of specific place behind.
Feature image: SOFCOR – Pixabay