Something Happens to Us When We Travel
I travelled abroad for the first time in August 2011. My destination was Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where an international youth conference took place. I was one of the delegates thanks to AIESEC – the remarkable organization that I was a part of for five years.
Twenty-one years old is not an impressive age for the first trip overseas. Before Kenya, like most kids, I travelled once in a while with my family during summer vacations. We went to typical places like beaches, resorts, with my parents’ colleagues and the colleagues' kids, who I never managed to get along well. As a kid, I never thought I was explorer sort. New people, new environments intimidated me and made me nauseous.
I felt nauseous the day I boarded the plane to Nairobi too, but I pretended to be tough. During the long haul flight and transits, I were telling myself to calm down and expect the unexpected.
Though I failed the first task, the trip changed me forever, and my zest for travel was born. Since Kenya, I have crossed borders with gusto and at one point begun to feel as if the plane sometimes greets me “Welcome Home”.
Something strange happens to me every time I travel alone. It results from me having to deal with myself, deal with the situations, deal with solitude, deal with silence, deal with my ignorance of map-reading, deal with new places, deal with new people, deal with new languages.
It also results from not knowing anyone, and even better, not being known by anyone.
Travelling alone is a little terrifying at first, but then comes a surge of immense freedom. No more expectations, no more social norms.
Then one day on the road I had a peculiar conclusion “when I am nobody, I am myself”. Free to collect thousands of memories like paintings with vivid colors.
I remember the night train ride when I started a conversation with a British woman who sat next to me from Krakow to Warsaw.
I showed her two postcards of Vietnam – one of a farm boy grinning on the back of a water buffalo as they crossed a small river, and one of a golden rice paddy field stretched to the horizon – and she pledged to visit my country some day.
I remember the burning sun on my bare shoulders in Egypt, where the ocean is sometimes light emerald, sometimes dark jade. As I breathed in the morning breeze at Sharm el-Sheikh, the revolution was happening in Cairo, a lot of blood had been shed.
I remember the train station in Delhi outskirts where dozens of half-naked kids sat around on the street, in between rusty rickshaws and street food stands. Their hands reached out to me, palms up, as I was making my way to the platform. I avoided looking at them.
They made me feel privileged, and privilege leads to shame.
My friend Natalie walked toward the tiny lemonade stand and bought some for the kids. She handed cups of cold lemonade made out of white flavored pounder to the kids, who quickly gathered around her. “Here you go, share with each other”.
Then she lid her cigarette and looked into the distance while the kids got into a little fight about who drank first.
I remember seeing two homeless men lying on the pavement behind Rome central station one morning.
They did not move at all. Their torn blankets revealed their infected raw skin. Shiny leather shoes of the gentlemen and bright heels of the ladies quickened around them, yet none seemed to notice. I wonder if they were dead in the middle of Rome’s utmost luxury.
I remember the prostitutes on the notorious Rossebuurt street in Amsterdam, which is always cramped with curious tourists at night. The red light illuminated on their bodies. The thin glass window divided between my world and their worlds.
When I was little I loved rolling up the newspaper and looking through one end as if it was a real pirate spyglass. Travelling makes me realize that I have never stopped wearing one. And it’s not just me, everyone see the world through their own glass. My once narrow spyglass is widened each step I travel. Memories I collect on the road challenge my own belief system and blur the line between what I deem “proper” and “improper”. They slowly silence my judgmental mind. And the less I judge, the more I see how vast life can be.
Recently I realized the best thing for me is to come home with that widened spyglass. The city and the people I’ve grown up with, once so familiar, now become different because I now see them through different eyes, with more humility, compassion and depth.
Go and plunge into the unknown and squeeze out all sweetness of the big juicy life. Find a way to get on the road. So much is waiting for you.