Travel Lessons

At Didyma, in Turkey

At Didyma, in Turkey

The poet John Berryman once said, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” He was speaking, I think, about the kind of fear that nibbles away at our self assurance; the fear that cramps our gut, inhibits creativity, and denies us the right to shine in front of strangers. And, unaware and without forethought, I find I have followed Berryman’s advice.

When I left my small-town home at 19 to move to San Francisco, I traveled in the direction of my fear and my dreams. College had felt isolating; I wanted real life in the real world, and the city was as strange to me as any foreign land. I had been there only twice, once on a day-long high school field trip, and once for a job interview. When United Airlines offered that job, along with generous passes, I didn’t hesitate. For years I had studied maps; now I had a chance to explore them.

I am lucky to have a partner who shares my love of travel; but it wasn’t always so. He had his own fears, his own insecurities, and I had to plead, persuade, preach like mad before he would even consider a trip to Europe. Then I had to convince him we could afford it. Our daughter, at 11, wasn’t much easier; it took months of gentle persuasion to convince her she would actually have fun.  

Together we saved, sacrificed, and planned for over a year to make that first six-month journey, and we set out with a good deal of trepidation—apart from the six weeks of prepaid camping in the Soviet Union, which felt like walking off a cliff. Once on the road, however, facing the unknown on a daily basis, our nervousness evaporated and the trip that was meant to get travel out of my system only succeeded in turning Ray and Jennifer into avid adventurers.

We traveled on the cheap because we had to, but that was fortunate, I think, for abundance is too often a barrier between ourselves and what we seek to understand. In the Soviet Union, while seated among tour groups of other Americans at the Moscow circus, we found that though we envied them the comfort of their four-star hotels, we were seeing and learning about the country in ways they could not comprehend. It was then we coined the phrase that we’ve since used consistently: the cheaper the trip, the richer the experience. 

Since that long-ago day we have traveled often, and lived abroad, and each time in every destination we found new fears to face and new knowledge—of self and others—to celebrate.

Life itself is, of course, a series of lessons, and no one reaches elderhood without knowing themselves better. But travel has a way of shoving those lessons right in your face, with no way out but to acknowledge and deal with them. In ways I could never have dreamt as a child I have had to be brave, to stand up for myself, to find my way. I know now that I am tougher than I look, that I’m capable of withstanding long periods of discomfort and inconvenience. I can go days and days without even a cold shower, and I can pee into a squat toilet heaped with feces. Dirt no longer deters me, nor does language. I once invited a stranger into a doctor’s exam room with me, because he spoke the language and I didn’t. I’ve driven all night while weak from illness while my sick husband lay oblivious in the back seat. I have stolen toilet paper and lied to border guards, and I know how to sacrifice a goat.

There is nothing better I think, than putting yourself in a difficult position and coming out of it whole, and travel is an engaging way to do that. It may even be addictive.

But traveling is about more than conquering fear and overcoming difficulties. We were all awed by the beauty we saw, and fascinated by the changing cultures. How could language, customs, habits, food, change so completely at the crossing of an imaginary line? We studied history to understand what we were seeing, tasted unfamiliar foods to better know the people, and said yes! whenever we were invited into someone’s home.

We saw that cultures differed by landscape. We watched as the architecture changed from dense northern towns, where houses leaned together for warmth, to the spreading villages of southern Spain and Greece, where thick whitewashed walls kept interiors cool. We experienced the marked differences between east and west; visited grand cathedrals and museums too numerous to count.

And while doing all that we talked to everyone we met. We found that there really are national characteristics; that Germans, for instance, had no problem putting their tent a foot from ours, though the campground was almost empty. We learned that the Dutch always speak English and came to count on them when we were lost.

“Different culture, different customs,” we reminded one another through sleepless nights as noisy Australians or Brits drank far more than was good for them. And we watched in delight the voluble Italians and manic Greeks, who went from yelling at one another to hugging without skipping a beat. To our surprise we also learned to love the French, who were quiet campers and always polite and respectful.

But the most important thing I learned was something I already knew—but not deeply, not downright convinced, though I am now. It is this: We all want the same things: loving relationships, work we enjoy, healthy children, a life lived in peace.

I came to see the world as one great tapestry, or rug, and each of us as a single strand in a multi-colored, multi-patterned work of art. I am here, in this turquoise swirl, and others are elsewhere taking part in a geometrical procession or participating in the winding tendrils of a flower.

Wherever we stand and however we present ourselves, we are all part of the same masterful pattern, and underneath we are all connected.

I cannot say that every fear is vanquished, for circumstances change and new fears erupt from the shaking ground that is our world. But I am fortunate in this; that in traveling toward my fear, I found myself.