Travel is an addictive drug. Much like sex, the more I do it, the more I want to do it. I’ve been on a lot of planes this year and it’s only April. Whereas most people loathe flying, I love it. I don’t particularly love being crammed into coach or the discomforts of long flights, no one likes that, but I love taking off and knowing that in a few hours I will be somewhere new. When I was eight, my parents left Cuba, a process that required a lot of relocation and planes. At a very early age I learned to adapt and live out of a suitcase. Flying, and travel in general, has always felt like an adventure. It’s a feeling that has never faded. Novelist Henry Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Traveling pushes you out of your comfort zone and throws you off balance–it forces you to adapt, to trust strangers, to see the world in a new light, to appreciate your home country as well as define its flaws.
Lessons learned from travel
Travel has taught me a couple of very powerful lessons that have made me wiser and infinitely smarter.
The most powerful lesson is that human beings can live anywhere. The idea that we are somehow tied to a particular place just doesn’t make sense to me. The more you travel the more you begin internalizing your sense of place. Home is where you are at the present moment. Within a year of moving to a new place people adapt.
The second lesson is flexibility. When you travel, things can go wrong, plans can change, and unforeseen situations crop up at times when you might be ill prepared to handle them. This is especially the case in places with very different cultures or where you don’t understand the natives. When in Rome, as they say, do as the Romans do. I always try to keep an open mind. Realizing that not everything will go according to plan is crucial to a good travel experience. These days I take a few more precautions based on experience, like leaving my passport in the hotel room’s safe and carrying photocopies with me.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller
The third lesson is humility. Travel has taught me that the way I do things is not always best. That thinking applies to America as well. We all tend to think of America being the best at everything, but the truth is that that is simply not true. If you set aside ego and check your American arrogance at the door, you might learn things such as the fact that in many countries people receive better healthcare at an affordable price. Most countries don’t spend $711 billion dollars on the war machine, leaving plenty of capital to spend on other things. Around the world we are often seen as bullies, and let’s face it, that’s because, in a lot of ways, we are.
Can you spot an American tourist a mile away?
You can’t imagine how many times I’ve seen American tourists causing a scene and being rude abroad. It’s actually quite disheartening that you can spot an American a mile away. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but we are so ill regarded in some places that I have resorted to telling people I’m Cuban. The one million Cubans that left the island have done a pretty good job of assimilating and respecting their foster countries. How can you find an American in the crowd? I’ll tell you. They are generally overweight, never bother with even the most basic phrases in the native language (not even hello or thank you which is a disgrace), tend to be snappy with everyone who doesn’t jump when commanded, and strut around like they own the place. Did I mention they are loud and tend to complain about everything? Luckily this brand of tourist is also lazy. These people settle for large buses and guided tours, so they are very easily avoided. Author James Michner was quoted as saying, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” Don’t be that person!
Guided tours and why they suck
Guided tours can be amazingly enriching experiences or they can be something straight out of your worst nightmare. How good or how bad an experience it is depends on the people you’re stuck with, which of course, is totally random. It’s like a box of chocolates. I’ve been on a couple of tours and I can tell you that this experience is not for me. I can’t even be counted on to return phone calls, never mind follow a Type A schedule that starts promptly at 5 AM. I hate following a tour guide’s umbrella like a blind sheep or sitting long hours in a bus filled with dumb small talk. I would rather be driving my own car and changing plans on the fly depending on my mood. I have this recurring nightmare of being stuck inside a bus filled with new age zealots for five hours on the way back from to Dubrovnik from Bosnia. The twelve hour trip consisted of climbing some rocky cliff where some teenagers supposedly saw the Virgin Mary, staring at a cross up there for half hour in the burning sun, then driving five hours back to the place where I actually wanted to spend time–the glorious city of Dubrovnik. Unless I am 95 and in need of a wheel chair, you won’t find me aboard a tour bus.
I like to explore, take my time, absorb the rhythm of a place. I also enjoy off-the-beaten-track kind of places like ruins, castles, cemeteries, catacombs, caves and the B-sides you can say. When I’m traveling (assuming it’s not for business) I like to do what I like, when I like. Travel is my time to unwind and enjoy, to spend my money as I see fit with no one breathing down my neck. I love booking my own hotels and making my own arrangements, that’s part of the joy for me. In short, I like being in control of my time.
That being said, I will often hire a local tour company or individual on the ground to gain a better understanding of a place. I highly encourage small walking tours, insightful gallery tours or any experience that will enable you to learn something. One of the best “tours” I ever had was led by an art history student that supplemented his income by giving tours of the Vatican Museum. You may have met him in my short story The Olive Grove where he makes a cameo as Valentino. He had a great ass and was nerdy as hell, what more can you ask for!?
Fear and worry, leave them at home
Do planes crash? Yes, of course they do. Will your plane crash? Maybe. It’s true, anything can happen, but with this attitude you won’t get very far in exploring our wonderful planet. I was once on plane that was on fire. The cabin was filled with smoke and we were over the Atlantic Ocean nowhere near an airport. I looked over at my husband, held his hand, told him I loved him and smiled. I realized something very valuable in that moment. If I died I’d be smack in the middle of doing something I enjoyed: traveling. I’ll admit I’m not your typical passenger. I mean I actually enjoy turbulence and can laugh it off while people are reciting Hail Marys, but I digress. While a hefty dose of caution is good, fear and worry will downright spoil your experience. I find that perspective is everything. Instead of doom and gloom realign your expectations. I always ask myself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Oftentimes the worst thing that can happen is really not that bad. There are solutions for everything, except of course death, and who knows when it will come for us? My daily commute to work is much more dangerous than traveling.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch
I will tell you a story. A friend of mine recently moved to Egypt to pursue his dream of teaching and reuniting with the love of his life (she’s Egyptian). He stopped by my house a few weeks ago before I went to Mexico and we had a good talk. I bring up Egypt because it’s a volatile place. Yet, sometimes the things we hear aren’t always accurate. I asked him about the political climate in Egypt and the protests. He smiled, looked me in the eye and went on to explain the reality of the situation. He lives a few blocks from the president. Friday night after prayers people gather at the mosque across from his house. They spend about half hour taking pictures for Facebook. Then they walk around the block to the president’s house where they stand for an hour doing some shouting and protesting. At that time more photo ops take place, then they walk back to the mosque where the “riot” breaks up. My friend has been there for months and has not felt threatened or harrassed (except by shady cabbies). He is fine and living in the lap of luxury on a salary that can’t afford him a nice apartment in the states. His utilities, including internet are like $15 a month and his groceries cost like $200 a month. Long story short, if my friend would have allowed fear and worry to rule his life he would not have reconnected with his soul mate nor have the kick ass teaching career he has today.
Travel costs too much
The number one excuse people come up with for why they don’t travel is that “it costs too much.” I call bullshit on that. I have been traveling since the tender age of 15 and I can tell you for a fact that you can travel cheap. When I was younger I stayed in hostels and booked cheap train tickets across Europe. I made it all happen with a shoestring budget because “take off” was a PRIORITY. Yes, it’s true, if you let everything in the world become more important than getting out of your own shell and seeing the world, you’ll never do it. For a long time my coauthor, Marzio, was convinced that travel was indeed too much money. Guess what, between fear, worry and excuses, he never left the country until his 50th birthday. It’s better late than never, yes, but don’t wait. If you want to travel it’s actually quite easy. Save up a little every month and you can spend two glorious weeks in Tuscany savoring amazing wine, rambling down the twisty streets of Dubrovnik, or climbing a Mayan pyramid. The Caribbean and Mexico are super cheap and so is Europe if you are motivated to make it happen.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine
I’ll travel when I retire
This excuse just makes me angry. For me, fulfillment is a lifestyle that balances interesting work and interesting breaks. I have no idea what the future holds and I’m certainly not gonna waste the best years of my life worrying about when I’m old. One thing we can never have enough of is good health. My great aunt passed on many opportunities to travel claiming that it was the one thing she would do when she retired. When 70 rolled around she found herself taking care of her husband who was very ill. Their entire retirement savings went into extended care for her husband. It’s a terrible thing to find yourself regretting the things you didn’t do. You are much better off taking mini retirements through your whole life, than at a time when you may or may not be able to travel and do the things you want to do. Some things are simply prohibitive in terms of health. Trust me, most senior citizens are in no shape to zip line through jungles or climb the 500 steps of the Michelin Tower. Seize the day, ‘nough said.
Travel has not only made me wiser, it is a constant source of inspiration. Anyone that knows me knows that I can’t sit still for too long. My mind craves input, new places, new food, new people and experiences. Routines have a tendency to dull my senses and make me feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. New experiences are a great source of fuel for my writing and for my art. Leafing through the pages of that very popular book, 1000 Things to Do Before You Die, always puts a smile on my face. I’ve experienced a hell of a lot of places and sampled a lot of culture. Travel has chiseled me into a worldly individual with a broad spectrum of knowledge–qualities that I find attractive in others. If you are reading this and have done a lot of traveling around I salute you. If you haven’t, I encourage you. The world is vast and worthy. It’s time you began to explore it.