Travel Tuesdays

Welcome to "Travel Tuesdays"...ah, yes. Alliteration is so unique. As I said, however, I need something to keep me posting on the blog, so this is day two of choosing topics that I don't mind writing about each week.

Now...about travel:

Compared to some people I have traveled quite a bit. Compared to others, not at all. During my life, I have been up and down the East coast, visiting New York City, Washington, D. C., and several other places. I have spent considerable time in the Midwest and attended events and interviews in Chicago and Indianapolis. I have been in Florida and around the Southeast countless times, and tracked down Anne Rice's home in New Orleans (I didn't get to see her, but I did see her dog). I have flown in and out of Texas several times. But, as far as my experiences in the United States...well, that is it. I have never been out West (but I want to go), Canada, Alaska, or Hawaii.

As far as going outside of the United States, I have spent considerable amounts of time in Mexico (Mexico City, Toluca, Guadalajara, Cancun, etc). One year, I flew in and out of the Mexico City airport eight times. And: I love Mexico. (Well, I love the Mexico without the cartel wars. They really need to get that under control, because their country is too wonderful to sacrifice to thugs.) In any case, Mexico has always felt like home to me. I love the cities and the countryside; the street food (yes, you can eat some of it) and the fantastic family dinners; and, most of all, the people, young and old. I have had some of the best experiences in my life while visiting that country...and the men aren't bad looking either. :)

I have also visited Puerto Rico, St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John islands, and spent time in England and Scotland.

But that is it.

Like I said, however, compared to some people, that is a lot. And I am not a rich woman, so I have to plan my travel carefully!

Still, I love to travel, and Travel Tuesdays, sometimes, will be used to talk about where I have been and what I have seen. Other times, I might just talk about where I want to go or an interesting travel article that I have read. Who knows? As I have said many times before: that is the charm of me. (Right.)

So, to get things rolling, I am going to talk about how I have changed as a traveler...

My parents took me everywhere when I was a kid. They never left me behind to travel on their own and my mother, even when we were in town, always took me to every international/cultural event that she could find. (I have spoken about this before, but it is significant.) We ate in ethnic restaurants, made friends with shop owners from Pakistan and Surinam, hired a young lady from Mexico to teach me Spanish (and she became a close family friend), and went to festivals and shows put on by the international groups at the university here in town. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

When it came time for me to graduate from high school, I had no interest in going on a senior trip with a bunch of crazy people from my school (loved them in school...but didn't want to spend time making hazy memories of throwing up over a cruise ship balcony). So, my parents and I decided that we would take our first trip outside of the country. We decided to visit Cancun, Mexico. The all-inclusive trip was affordable and we weren't just going to the beach. Included in our price was a trip to see the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, and that was what I was most excited about seeing.

I will write more about this trip at another time, perhaps, but the point is that it started something in me: something for Mexico and something for international travel. I fell into my experience while on that trip. I loved every minute of it, and the second I got home I started planning another trip to Cancun. I saved all of my babysitting money for a year and paid for my mom and I to spend seven days down there the next summer. (I told you it was affordable...and the price included airfare, all meals, and two excursions. A side note: mom and I traveled a lot together by ourselves. Dad isn't into the flying thing! If we were staying close to home, he would go with us.)

We did this several times and Mexico helped me discover things about myself. I met incredible people each time and made friends that I would hang out with when I went down there. We would visit Cancun in the summer, spring, and winter...whenever we saved enough money for a short or a long trip. It was great. My mom would meet new people each time and we would have a blast during the early evening before I went out with old friends or a new, beautiful young man. (This was pre-Natalee Holloway...and no one ever tried to hurt me.) Yes. I loved it. I could be myself down there in a way that I could not at home. I felt comfortable and at peace.

But, I wasn't really traveling the right way.

As much fun as I had, I was completely involved in the sensual side of Mexico. (No...not that...get your minds out of the gutter.) Though that was important for me and age appropriate at the time, I am not the same kind of traveler today. My experiences completely changed because of one thing: I started traveling alone.

I cannot tell you how important it is for you to travel alone--especially if you are a woman. You can ease into it, if you are uncomfortable. I did. My first experience was going to Mexico on a study abroad trip. I wasn't technically alone, of course. There was supervision and one friend (we went with a different university), but I didn't have the comfort of my parents. I had to be careful. Even though I was in semi-familiar territory (I studied in Guadalajara), it was still a valuable learning experience for a homebody like me.

As time went on, I have traveled more and more by myself--and, now, I really do travel by myself. My first solo trip was to Chicago (huge deal for me, because I hate big cities...wrote about it on this blog...back in April of 2005, maybe??). Then, in 2008, I got on a plane and flew to England for a week by myself. I knew no one. Add to that the pressure of presenting a paper at Magdalen College in Oxford (yes, it was a paper on Harry Potter, but was OXFORD!!!) and being one of the most shy people on earth when it comes to introducing myself to new people...and, well, you get the point.

But that trip to England did wonders for me. It was a baby step. Going to a country with the same language cut down on one stress factor. I had to fly into one city and make my way to another. Once there, I had to drag my suitcase around until I found Magdalen. The conference provided some stability and scheduling for a while, but that was actually bad for me, because for two days I really didn't see anything. Once the conference was over, I walked across the street to the hotel, wondering what I should do next.

It was a big moment for someone like me. What would I do next??

My decision: I would go out without a map. Here is the blog for that time: Susie's First Trip to Oxford.

Again: I highly recommend this. Go out without a map, people!!

It almost killed me to do that, but I ended up having the best day! I found all kinds of places and wandered around Oxford, visiting things I stumbled upon and had read about. It was such fun. I was on my own schedule, could stay at a place or bookstore as long as I liked. Again: complete self-indulgence...but of a different kind than that I had in Mexico. Mexico was about feeling and feeding the body. Oxford was about feeling and feeding the mind. (Again, I have written about this on the blog, too.) And the important part of all of this is that I was alone. I could experience things in solitude and quietness. I could really observe the people and places, and then I could talk to them or visit them without interruption or influence from another group or family member. I learn so much about myself and about the world when I travel alone, and that is the way I prefer to travel these days. (I am already planning a new trip...more to come.)

These solitary experiences are necessary for us, because they both allow us to experience ourselves but also to notice things around us. If you are alone, sooner or later you wonder what in the world you are doing alone. You pay attention to the oddest things: like how a restaurant prepares for a day of tourists; how the elevator repairman in a country divided by class boundaries shrinks back from you and acts surprised when you say hello to him; how people who aren't tourists go about their daily business each day. You notice the differences between your home and theirs (but don't react badly to are in their country, not yours).

And, most of the time, the allure of travel takes us to places frequently visited, maybe because we have dreamed of going there after seeing a picture in a book or a movie. And that is why I wanted to go to Oxford.

It happens to all of us: You arrive at your destination, and sometimes it is just like you imagined it and sometimes it isn't. Usually, it is still a place that is worth visiting, because if the tourist draw is enough to bring people there day in and day out, then the location is probably taken care of in some way. But, if you stay there long enough, you start to see the tremendous homeless population that is hidden from the city centre. The place you visit seems clean and surrounded by wealth and opportunity and imagination...but then you pass over a bridge and see someone curled up underneath. But your very presence there changes things in the smallest way. Just noticing can change things...things like the elevator repair man in my Oxford hotel, who, by the fifth day, says hello back to me with the biggest grin, and talks a mile a minute now that he knows I am not going to think less of him. Those conversations that took my entire trip to build up to (literally, they happened on my last day in Oxford) didn't change the world. They probably didn't change him. But they changed me. Every encounter I had with him made me learn something new, about myself and about the world. He was one of the biggest mysteries to me during my stay.

I am using Oxford as an example of all of this because on the outside it is a place of such beauty and opportunity, wealth and privilege. The collections, museums, manicured grounds, architecture, students, and history are so amazing and beautiful. But there is a dark side that isn't too far below the surface of the city of dreaming spires. I am not trying to pick on Oxford. This is a feature of all places. It happens in every city, town, whatever. No matter where you travel or where you live, if you pay attention and stay there long enough, you will see all of this. I only point to Oxford because it is the perfect visual and imaginative example. Travel makes us part of the world...the good and the bad...and it makes us responsible to the world.


Last night, I was reading Anthony Bourdain's introduction to the 2008 Best American Travel Writing collection. In his short survey of the articles, he first spoke of his own perspective as a traveler, saying that the more we travel we must realize that we become "complicit by seeing, or more uncomfortably, recognizing one's complicity in something very, very bad [sometimes] some way, [we must recognize that we] contribute to a system that crushes its subjects...In every small daily task one must ask oneself: 'Which of these people can I or should I help? Which of them will I ignore? Who will get to take me on his motorbike to my comfortable meal? To whom, if anyone, shall I give a dollar? Or an artificial limb?'"

It is true. We associate this kind of thinking with experiences of traveling in poor countries, but we are "complicit by seeing" in every place we go. Travel is meant to make us not only experience new things but also to make us recognize our place and purpose in the world. When you travel, you will come across situations that are very uncomfortable and that put you to the test when it comes to your beliefs and values (well, you will if you aren't sitting by a pool all day and getting drunk, wasting your time). The good travel experience, I think, is like Atreyu's journey in The Neverending Story--especially when he comes across the sphinxes...

Before traveling to the sphinxes, Engywook tells Atreyu:

“That gate is always open. Obviously. There’s nothing to close. But even so, no one can get through…unless the sphinxes close their eyes. And do you know why? The gaze of a sphinx is different from the gaze of any other creature. You and I and everyone else—our eyes take something in. We see the world. A sphinx sees nothing. In a sense she is blind. But her eyes send something out. And what do her eyes send out? All the riddles of the universe. That’s why these sphinxes are always looking at each other. Because only another sphinx can stand a sphinx’s gaze. So try to imagine what happens to one who ventures into the area where those two gazes meet. He freezes to the spot, unable to move until he has solved all the riddles of the world. If you go there, you’ll find the remains of those poor devils…You really are an innocent…The sphinxes shut their eyes for some travelers and let them through. The question that no one has answered up until now is this: Why one traveler and not another? Because you mustn’t suppose they let wise, brave, or good people through, and keep the stupid, cowardly, and wicked out. Not a bit of it! With my own eyes I’ve see them admit stupid fools and treacherous knaves, while decent, sensible people have given up after being kept waiting for months…”

Atreyu, boy warrior and traveler, makes his way towards the sphinxes. When he comes upon them, he is overwhelmed and realizes he knew nothing of anything. Every journey and travel experience up until this point had not been significant. Atreyu sees that he “had been through a good deal in the course of the Great Quest—he had seen beautiful things and horrible things—but up until now he had not known that one and the same creature can be both, that beauty can be terrifying.”

This is the point I am trying to make about travel. All travel, like life, is a quest. The quest is beautiful, terrifying, and strange--just like us. The quest differs for all of us, I guess, but at its core it is something we must go through if we hope to live as fully as possible. As Atreyu says, after he successfully passes through the sphinx gate (an experience that terrified him, by the way), “When I passed through the sphinxes gate, I lost all my fear.” (All quotes from pages 85-114 of Ende's The Neverending Story) And, that is what travel does for us.


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