Travel: Escape, Growth, and Everything in Between

 

In a region of Central Nicaragua, the sultry air of Muy Muy town put us into a sweaty daze. Rebecca and I took turns swinging on an indoor hammock and sipping warm Toña beer in the musty interior of my friend Angus’s Peace Corps abode, a one-room home constructed with cinder blocks. We swatted flies, sorted beans, and lazily let time pass. Earlier in the day, I had walked the town’s dusty streets in search of a vendor selling shirts sin mangas–without sleeves–because I had to do something to remedy my perpetually dripping back sweat. This was spring break 2011.

Later that evening, or was it another one?, we walked up to visit Muy Muy’s most prosperous hacienda. Angus’s friend, apparently one of the wealthiest men in town, was patriarch of the spread, which contained a significant amount of land, some cattle, a sweeping one-story wooden home fronted by a rickety and undulating front porch.

I remember plenty of giggling as I tried to make corn tortillas in the hacienda’s indoor kitchen, smoke billowing from little ventilation and open flames. The owner’s young girlfriend and her sister barbecued fatty cuts of beef. We sipped homemade hooch served from a plastic gasoline container, which turned out to be fitting given its taste and potency. When we got a ride home, we hopped in the bed of a pickup truck and the man’s girlfriend came running out of the house with a shotgun; we learned the property owner had recently killed a trespassing man, igniting a family feud, so it was best to leave the property armed. Especially at night.

I’m grateful that Rebecca is an adventurous traveler; otherwise, aspects of this trip detailed above–and other detours–could have proven fatal to our relationship: the American school buses sent to Central America to be converted into colorful passenger caravans, bus after bus packed full, bumpy roads, blaring horns, passing and being passed on blind corner turns; the two hour “cab” ride in a man’s personal vehicle from Matagalpa to Leon and wondering if we had just gotten suckered into being kidnapped by these two men; pickup trucks, shotguns, and head lice in Muy Muy.

But overall we certainly learned a lot about each other, about Nicaragua, about local culture, all while solidifying and reflecting on our own values. While we did end up chilling in Las Penitas, a quaint coastal town on the Pacific Ocean, overall it wasn’t a relaxing trip. It was enlightening, adrenaline-inducing, frustrating and sweaty, all rolled into a messy nine or so days.

There’s travel or vacation to escape, recharge, and relax. And then there’s travel containing trials and tribulations, rife with uncertainty and the slight increase in pulse when trying to navigate through new situations. Personal growth or transformation, of course, is likely to occur during the latter.  Prolific vagabonder and traveler Nomadic Matt writes, “Traveling forced me out of my routine. It helped me become independent, take more risks, be ok with change, get better with people, learn more, and be more versatile. Travel is not some panacea. The baggage you have comes with you on the road. There is no place far enough away to escape your problems. But what travel does is give you the space to be someone else and improve your life.”  

But there’s a whole lot in between traveling to get away and travel to transform. It’s not like you can’t escape to relax and also gain insights about people, places, and self. I happen to think a combination makes for the most memorable and satisfying sojourns. And as we are in the midst of long-term traveling, we’re experience the range of possibilities inherent in breaking free from home.

In Dubai, I learned that I will never choose to live in such a manufactured place, with daily life revolving around escaping heat and over-the-top modernity, where an absurd strain on limited natural resources is par for the course. But I also began learning about the staggering diversity within the Muslim world. And what a different version of a “melting pot” society can be like. And how many people can live satisfying lives within an absolute monarchy.

In Oman, I was reminded that human decency and warmth can be an aspect of a place that trumps all other potential attractions. I learned that sometimes GPS is overrated; we had to navigate the country with maps, roadside advice, and signage. Gasp! To imagine doing this in 2018!

In Georgia, we learned how nationalism can be a double-edged sword–it can easily breed resentment of the other, but it also can be used to celebrate the best things about a place. Georgian language, food, wine, and history is rife with unique utterances, flavors, and lore.

While on a luxurious family cruise about six or seven years ago, I don’t think I learned anything too meaningful or underwent any personal transformation. And that’s perfectly cool. It was about creating memories, some serious family bonding, shared meals. We basked in the sun on the top decks, snorkeled and drank spiked fruit punch, and I remember sampling so many different foods at the over-the-top buffet spread that I kept a journal, thinking how absurd this abundance was.

Now we’ve been in Tanzania for a few weeks. I’m writing this enjoying the breeze at my back from the Indian ocean, hanging out with our British expat hosts. It’s pure escape in many ways. But when I leave their compound, abject poverty and the vividity of being here offers a constant reminder of what it’s like being an outsider, in addition to thinking more deeply about ethical travel–what are the consequences of spending your money in various ways as a privileged visitor to a place so impoverished?

But however you may choose to travel–whether on a cruise ship or in a village in Nicaragua–there’s little doubt experience and ensuing memories will likely enrich your life, possibly by imparting some wisdom or insight, or simply providing a respite and dreams of the next escape.

Related Reading:

Reasons not to quit your job and travel the world

Meaningful travel–what the heck is it?

Travel is…

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Resonance and Revisiting Past Travels

 

For this latest dispatch, I’ve decided to revisit some travel posts from years past, in addition to sharing a few essays I’ve read while on our current journey. So far, many of the themes and questions found in the posts below–the ridiculousness of American exceptionalism, valuing experience vs. material comfort, mindfulness, and human decency–continue to churn around in my head as we confront new experiences daily.

Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug: For our honeymoon, Rebecca and I journeyed to Thailand over Christmas in 2013. As I look back at this post, the themes continue to resonate: while traveling, it’s natural to imagine new possibilities, but with this idealism comes reflection about what it would really look like to move thousands of miles from home.

“Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.

But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language.  And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)”

Why You Should Rent a Car in Europe: Or just about anywhere else where the driving isn’t too chaotic (Georgia tested my limits a few months ago!)

“Driving led us to places I never imagined we’d go. We talked and laughed with an elderly man in the stunning wine country of Jeruzalem, Slovenia. He had barely spoken English during the past forty years, but filled us in on regional history and insights into the work of a vintner over countless glasses of local wine. We explored the Istrian Penisula of Croatia, where ancient Roman towns dot hillsides surrounded by olive groves and grapes and the cuisine is superb. We awoke to the clanging of cowbells and the rich scent of Eucalyptus groves in Sao Luis, Portugal.”

Europe, 10 Years Later, in the Moment: One decade after my study abroad experience, I found myself back in Europe, finishing a degree in Oxford during the summer of 2013.

“I’ve attempted to allow myself to be in the moment this summer: to hear the Wood Pigeons cooing in the 14th century courtyards of Lincoln College; to see the egalitarian cyclists of all shapes, colors, and sizes jockey for position on narrow Oxford streets busy with double decker busses; to taste braised pork cheeks cooked in brown beer sauce in a local restaurant in Ghent; to feel the vibrations of the oncoming trains at Paddington Station in London; to read and reread 16th century English Literature without the rhythms and demands of multitasking that can become commonplace during the teaching year.”

And here are a few travel essays worth checking out:

Dave Eggers, on traveling via taxi across Saudi Arabia

“When I first traveled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realized no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.”

Michael Chabon on Traveling in Van with Family in Morocco

Nothing moves me more profoundly, I hasten to add, than discovering the extent of my own ignorance. That is why I travel—by nature I’m a homebody—but sometimes it can be hard. Some days you get tired of decoding, of interpreting, of working to understand, of constantly orienting yourself, or, to put it another way, of being constantly lost.”