Now that we’ve moved on from India, I can better recap the events…
Though if I’m being honest…there’s is largely one event that comes to my mind when I think of our time in India.
A few weeks ago we arrived at the Tundla train station in the middle of nowhere with tickets for a somewhat special, overnight train. It was one of the few trains that still had availability to Jammu in the far North. In fact, it appeared that because of an unpopular no cancellation policy, the train had sold hardly any tickets at all.
When we arrived at the train station it seemed we were not only the only tourists there, but seemingly the only passengers not part of the Indian military. Despite the late, 11 o’clock hour the train station was quite busy, bustling with military men and the sound of pigeons roosting above. We became concerned when our train wasn’t listed on the information board at its platform. But…confusion is just sort of the natural state for experiencing India, so we didn’t make too much of it. Finally Drew found a station manager who was able to assure us that our train was indeed still coming, despite an unannounced delay and that, in fact, it was the train that all the military men crowding the platform were waiting too get on.
Excellent. We had a plan. Follow the military men. That solved the insecurity of second guessing our platform, and second guessing which train was ours.
And then…we were met with a new problem. Something I can only guess at an explanation for.
The train arrived with all its doors locked. We rushed to the door of our train car only to stand there and watch the anxiety rise in the soldiers around us…and thus…in ourselves too. The men started beating on the side of the train with sticks and shouting. Someone a few cars down managed to open a door and the crowd rushed inside. We stood at our car, hoping that one of the soldiers crowding on through the other door would open ours. A man next to us shouted at the soldier passing our door on the inside and he just gave a guilty shrug. At some point the men started shouting and gesturing at us, and one of them asked “you have tickets?”
Though I can’t be sure…they seemed worried for us. At the time I didn’t know why but it seemed they were not shouting in anger, but rather in noticing an obvious problem. It was becoming clear that we were the only ticket holders trying to get onto this train. Soldiers get a “free ride” so to speak if they can hitch a train with empty seats…but this creates a bit of a competition as there’s not enough room for them all. So someone on board locks the doors to minimize competition.
Like I said…this is my best guess.
Then… as we foolishly waited, hoping our door would open…a new problem presented itself. The train started to depart.
This is the part of the story where your brain stops working off of comprehension and problem-solving. It runs off of impulse. So we ran through the crowds to the car with the open door a few yards away and leapt onto the moving train, letting the “current” of the crowd push us further into the cabin.
It was the most terrifying travel experience I’ve ever had because it was the one situation in which we could have been separated. That is my worst nightmare. I can tackle anything with Drew by my side. When we barely made it into Vietnam and were stuck in no-man’s land between the Cambodian and Vietnam border with a faulty visa, begging for permission in, I was not this scared. Because whatever the fate, it would be shared. We would bear it together, solve it together, deal with it together.
But what happens if we are separated? Worse…what happens if we are separated in such a way that one of us is stuck alone on a 15 hour train ride full of young military men?
The whole night I was haunted by the thought that we could not have been more cautious without simply avoiding trains all together- by the thought that there are some things that will happen even when we do think we’ve gotten everything sorted out.
That was not the last challenging moment in India, though nothing else felt that intense. Our entire time in India, someone was a new kind of sick. We went through more ailments and more medications than anywhere else we’ve ever traveled. Related to India? Who knows.
India is also one of the most remarkable places we’ve been to. The culture is so vibrant and each of the prominent religions has a beautiful display of devotion. The daily habits are deeply intertwined with ancient rituals. So we were constantly in a state of awe at the incredible culture around us, and exhaustion of trying to manage on 50% wellness.
It was a strange and beautiful place that knocked us out of whatever false confidences we had previously had in terms of being savvy travelers. No. We are adaptable. But savvy? Hardly! In India, we are lost or at a loss, but that is part of what makes it such a valuable place to travel.
We loved it. We loved it and we hated it. That’s the kind of place it is.
India is absolutely puzzling and enthralling and downright remarkable.
On the one hand it feels like the pinnacle of adventure to walk down the street and watch an elephant lead a raucous wedding processional right down the highway.
On the other hand it feels like the pinnacle of shame to watch people line the sidewalk for the night, using empty plastic bottles as pillows.
On the one hand it’s a beautiful place with a bright, colorful culture in terms of food and dress.
On the other hand it’s an overwhelming place where every corner shows you a new store owner urging you to buy…for blocks and blocks and blocks.
It’s a majestic tapestry of sheer fabrics and filth. Trash at the gold-jangled feet of women and children.
It is intensity in both directions towards beauty and towards ugliness.
It will take me a very long time to figure any of it out.
This is something a pair of Swedish travelers asked us when they picked us up hitch-hiking in Germany. And it surprised me how difficult a question it was to answer. I stammered for a few moments before realizing I didn’t know what to say…
So it’s a question I’ve been thinking of ever since. Why do we travel?
It seemed easier to think of how not to answer that question.
For instance, I would not answer by saying “Why not?” There would be plenty of reasons not to travel. Community, stability, etc. A sense of community is not impossible as you travel, but it becomes a foggy and elusive thing, like the imaginary friend I invented as a child, then frustrated myself with when it never took visible shape and never felt real. I dare say stability too is nearly impossible while traveling, and sometimes a bed feels like so much work to establish. Then, a few nights later the work of finding a bed starts over, like rebuilding a sand-castle between high tides. Not to mention, there are incredibly valuable things about stationary life. While living a stationary life I can invest in a community, write and play music, feel connected to the lives of my friends, run races, participate in art exhibits. There are endless opportunities in stationary life, and it is undeniably beautiful.
I also wouldn’t answer by saying “For fun.” We have made travel a big enough part of our lifestyle by now that we have made it clear it matters more than a simple break from routine or vacation. No one would believe us if we said we travel just for fun because no one gives up the convenience and stability of home, possessions, community, etc “just for fun.” By pursuing travel despite the challenges, we have made the statement that it matters for some deeper reason than fun.
I wouldn’t answer by saying “For missions.” We are not missionaries. At least…not more than we were in Va. Not more than you or the next person or the next person over. We are not less so either. Regardless of where we are we will always wrestle with the important questions of how to respond to poverty and inequality. Though… we wrestle with that question whether in Cambodia staring at the face of a begging child or in VA pondering whose hands manufactured the clothing we wear. This world’s needs are so perplexing that they will always be in the back of my mind, influencing my actions and reactions. And yet, the more I see poverty and unmet needs, the less I seem to know how to fix it. It’s like the mountain in the distance. From far away, I almost think it looks climbable. But the closer I get, the more I notice the sheer cliffs and the rough terrain. Likewise, the mission of meeting needs and bettering the lives of the poor and broken-hearted looks less and less like a simple path and more and more like a complex series of struggles. We will always wrestle with how to make the world a better place. But that is not why we travel because we would wrestle with it anywhere, just as all of you do in your own lives.
So… why then?
While it’s still a question I turn over and over in my head, I do have a few ideas I might as well share with you all, knowing that vulnerability is a chance to grow in wisdom.
Why do we travel?
1.) Because sometimes I feel that travel is the best way for me personally to combat the “us/them” mentality carefully woven into every part of media, news, politics, and the daily Western life. In America there is a very strong collective voice advertising the idea that we are a separate entity. That we are something other than pieces of a great big humanity. There are categories and boxes for everyone, even within the box we’ve made for ourselves. We have national identities, political identities, familial identities, religious identities, sexual identities, academic identities, generational identities… The boxes get smaller and smaller and our attention becomes more and more tightly wound around ourselves and those like us. This is a strong temptation- to focus more and more inwardly. Travel allows us to focus on the biggest most forgotten box. We are all part of this incredible human existence. We are all part of the same baffling attempt to understand life. Yes. It is more comfortable to be around the people who have grown up in the same contexts we’ve seen, but our reality is very small when confined to what we and those like us have seen and experienced.
With travel, I am forcing my focus onto this bigger box every day.
But I am under no illusion that travel is the only way to shift our focus to the bigger box. In fact, it is as simple as spending time with someone different than ourselves. You can do this anywhere.
2.) I am truly fascinated by people. I can’t get enough. I love listening to people and how or why they make the decisions they do. I would travel the world simply to have more and more conversations with more and more kinds of people.
3.) We have an unimaginably beautiful planet in our keeping. And that beauty stimulates the same parts of me that spirituality does and so in some sense, beauty feels like a connection to God. It feels like a glimpse of the world God has in mind or a glimpse of God’s character. Beauty calls out to the part of me that senses the existence of something greater. Like glimpsing the reflection of the kingdom of God. It leaves the uninspired, cynical parts of me totally speechless.
4.) The novelty of each new place we see feels like an adventure. To see something I don’t understand at all feels incredibly exciting to me.
5.) Travel has become a job Drew and I can both enjoy. Perhaps if we both found careers that make us both feel fulfilled back in Va, maybe we would stop traveling. But we have an uncommon combination of skills and ideals. For instance, Drew is an entrepreneur at heart. The more he cultivates that interest, the more it makes sense as something he was just made to pursue….and the harder it is for him to imagine doing anything else. And I have always wanted a job I could partner with Drew for. Something we could work at together. Travel is one of the things we are both excited and passionate about and it’s also something that started working. We’ve had so many different business ideas over the three years we’ve been married, and the travel website is the idea that’s seen the most success. And we both love it. That is something special.
Whatever you’re doing, it is a beautiful adventure too. The things I’ve written about here are just thoughts on my own lifestyle, but I have never thought of travel as the only way. You can see beauty and diversity and adventure in all kinds of lifestyles. You do not need to travel to get these things, but it’s the way I access them.
When I used to work at the child development center we would put a box in the room and wait to see what the children would do with it. Some of them climbed inside and others beat their hands against the surface like a drum. Another child liked to push it across the room. Each child found interest in using the box a different way.
It’s the same with the daily lives we carve out for ourselves. There is no best way to play with a box just as there is no best way to experience diversity and beauty. I have chosen the travel life while others may look for beauty in the smiles of their children and may look for adventure in the pursuit of a new interest.
These are simply my reasons for traveling.
Why do you do the things you love?
There’s a problem in journalism today.
It’s called “iterative journalism.”
With iterative journalism, writers and bloggers are encouraged to publish first, and fact-check later. The idea is to create a more real-time journalism I suppose but the result can be murky ethics and confusion. As soon as a rumor surfaces it can be found in article-form somewhere on the internet. Then, when the facts really start to come in, updates may or may not be added to correct the articles for whoever stumbles upon it next.
The truth is handled carelessly as though it isn’t the precious rarity I believe it to be. As though it’s not something you need to dig out of the dirt like gems in the earth.
I think the tragedy of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight has been confusing in part because of the effects of this kind of journalism. A flight is missing. Then there are photos from China…or no wait…there aren’t photos from China…or wait…there were photos but they weren’t the right photos…? An already mysterious tragedy becomes all the more confusing because modern journalists are pressured to put content on the internet and do so quickly.
But these are real people with real families, dying to know something. But they don’t want just any information, they want the truth. They don’t want a riveting article. They want to know what has happened to their family members and if the most accurate answer is “we don’t know yet”, then that’s what they want to know.
This follows a train of thought that has been important to me lately. Valuing the answer “I don’t know.” Which is really the same thing as valuing the truth. The truth is more valuable than we are trained to recognize, in all aspects of our life.
This is a scary thought because, after all, there are lots of things I don’t know. Worse yet, lots of things I don’t know that I should know.
Where do you live?
I don’t know. Genuinely, I don’t.
What do you do for a living?
Well…turns out that’s kind of a tough one to answer too. I’m somewhere in between a secretary and a graphic designer, but…I don’t know.
Will you do this forever? This traveling thing?
I don’t know. I don’t have a plan.
Is traveling safe?
It has been for us so far. But beyond that…I don’t know.
The list goes on.
Ironically…this puts me in no different of a position than those who suppose they do know. Because we don’t really, do we?
At the end of the day, we don’t know where the people on that flight are. And that is scary. And we don’t know why it happened to them, and not us. And that fills us with sadness and guilt and confusion. And we don’t know how to prevent bad things from happening. And that is scary too. But all of these things are true whether we say so or not. And that which is brought into light can at the very least be shared.
What is the use of wondering in secret what we could wonder together, or wrestling in secret what we could wrestle together?
Civita Di Bagnoregio is a “bluff-town” in italy that stretches up from the ochre rock as if it grew there on its own. It rises so high above the valley that one must cross a steep bridge on foot to even enter the town. And once there, you might believe you have crossed a bridge into former centuries, rising into a tiny series of cobbled streets and stone buildings all fit together like stacked boxes. Everything is stone…and everything is quiet.
The only noticeable ruckus when we arrived was a crowd of cats gathering curiously at the old wooden door of our friend’s house.
After an evening of wondering what there might be to do in a quiet bluff-town whose few shops and restaurants seem to close at a random hour before dinner, we asked the owner of the neighboring bookshop where we might find internet. She thought for a moment than motioned for us to follow her.
She led us down the short length of the town’s primary street, than ducked off to the side of a building and through a little wooden gate. The buildings were clustered around us and gave the feeling of a maze. Through the gate there was a courtyard and past the courtyard, a friendly old gentlemen making soup in his kitchen.
The keeper of the internet? I smiled at how unhesitant the bookkeeper had been to take us into this man’s house, and how our entry seemed to phase this man not a bit.
His house was the same small, stone structure we’d seen in the rest of the town and the rustic wooden furniture made me feel at home. The walls were adorned with pieces of artwork ,one of which I thought I recognized as depicting street behind the Vatican in Rome.
As soon as the old man introduced himself, I unraveled a few curious questions and learned more about the little Civita than I would have known without our accidental intrusion into this man’s house.
Civita di Bagnoregio has roughly 5 or 6 year-round residents Tony guessed, himself included, though more part-time residents or employees who keep a house outside of the bluff town. One of the primary families has resided in the Civita for some 500 years, now providing arguably the best restaurant on the bluff.
Some towns build their stories and histories around their coal mines like the towns in West Virginia, or around a culture of farming as is true for the towns I knew in Ohio…but for the Civita the central player in its stories and histories seems to be its bridge.
There were years in which there was no completed bridge, but instead a combination of bridge, stairs, and muddy terrain one had to cross on foot below the Civita. Tony says that there used to be women at the bottom of the path who would hand you a pair of boots to wear across the mud.
As we talked with Tony it became clear that he and his late wife had played a huge role in the Civita’s story. They created the Civita Institute and had called to light the unique beauty of the hill-town architecture. In addition, they helped to bring students to the beautiful town to study their own passions and projects.
Of course, I had to do my own independent research and came to realize that they were also contributors in much of the restoration that has happened in the Civita.
For that, I am grateful. It is indeed an incredible little town.
The other day a friend shared an article about how the life of academia has separated her from her family because they chose more common paths for their post collegiate lives. She described feelings of alienation and a feeling of not being affirmed or understood by those with a totally different life path. It struck me that as someone who has also chosen a somewhat uncommon lifestyle, I should understand where she’s coming from.
But instead I must admit…I completely disagree…
Or rather, I don’t resonate with that experience.
I have two sisters I love dearly. Do they live lives of non-stop travel? No. Are their lives common? No way. Their lives are extraordinary. Unique. Uncommon and full of adventure. And the second I could even entertain the thought that they may not understand my lifestyle…I’m probably missing something enormous and fundamental about theirs.
In some sense, isn’t travel a showcase of the thousands of different styles of “ordinary” there are? Travelers crave, in fact, those moments where we get to experience something that is genuine to a culture we’ve not yet fully explored. I think there’s a reason for that. It’s fascinating to see what makes a person tick- the ways we’re different and the ways we’re same.
But people are going to be different and the same everywhere we go. My sisters are different from me in some ways and the same in other ways. And that is just as fascinating to me as the fact that the people I met in Bali were different in some ways and alike in others. The truth is PEOPLE are fascinating. All of them. And I find that looking for the adventure in someone’s life is quite the same process as looking for whatever is “ordinary” in their life as well. In fact…these two things are mischievously similar, and are constantly swapping places with one another. It’s like one singular character seen through a misshapen looking glass so that the perceived shape changes and undulates depending on where the observer is standing.
Maybe I just have something against dwelling on the ways we’re “not understood.” I guarantee for every person who doesn’t understand me, there’s a person I don’t understand.
So…someone has to go first.
Someone has to ask those probing questions to find out about the life they’re not seeing in full and if we’re waiting for someone to ask us about our unique perspectives, we’re missing out on the opportunity to ask someone about theirs.
Yes, there are days I am just dying to tell someone about all the amazing things I feel I’ve seen. But I bet my older sister has days she’s just dying to share with someone about the incredible things her sons are learning or the amazing things she’s learned about the process of adoption. And my twin sister likely has days she’s dying to teach someone some yoga moves she’s just learned, or play the song she’s just written.
We need to honor one another’s lives as the mysterious things they are and respect them as complex combinations of ordinary things and adventures.
And we need to be a community of askers. Especially if we want to be asked.
Our last few months in Europe was an interesting kind of experience.
And it lead me to the conclusion that Europe is not my favorite travel spot and in fact, the Western world does not always offer the things I love about travel.
Yes there are castles and museums and buildings older than my own country and there are mountains that break the clouds. But there is something missing and leaving it feeling unlike the startling adventures I crave and stumbled upon so easily and frequently in Asia or South America.
Why? Because in developed and affluent countries like Germany and Austria, people are comfortable with their private lives. They go to their private homes and grocery shop at clinically clean grocery stores. They offer friendly smiles, but they do not truly need one another and struggle with one another the way we’ve seen in developing countries. It’s honestly not so different from the U.S. in that way.
And you know what? I don’t like it.
As strange as it may sound, I have fallen in love with the developing world. When we arrived in South Africa for our brief visit, I breathed in the gritty smell at the subway station and a rush of excitement went through me. It finally felt like travel again in a way that Europe hadn’t. And sure enough even if our brief visit we still found ourselves sitting down to a long conversation with strangers in the national park discussing the intricacies of South Africa.
I don’t mean to knock on Europe so much though because we really did have some very interesting and meaningful experiences. For instance we had a wonderful time introducing Drew’s mom to Europe and it was so wonderful to live vicariously through her excitement for her family’s genealogy. I’ll never forget navigating the busy districts of London with Mary Ann, hunting down the church where her great great great relatives were married and baptized. We followed 11 police vans into the “ghetto” and strolled right by a sidewalk brawl to visit the beautiful and endearing church at Stepney.
But still….I’m ready to say goodbye to Europe because the developing world teaches me things I love to be reminded of.
I see people leaning on one another in a life structured more for the interaction of people than the protection and possession of things.
On the one hand, the developing world brings you face to face with the brokenness that is poverty.
On the other hand, the developed world brings you face to face with the brokenness that is ….privacy and affluence….comfort to some unnatural extreme.
Both are broken, but for some reason the developing world has won me over not because I can ignore the brokenness of the developing world but because I’ve have gotten too good at ignoring the unnatural comfort of the Western world…and I want to be stretched. I want to grow. I want to wrestle with the things worth wrestling.
We have one more brief trip scheduled for Europe, and then at last it’s back to Asia, a world that challenges me in my most favorite ways.
Is it easier to leave, or be left?
This morning I woke up with a feeling that is familiar, but not fond. It’s the same feeling I had back in college when I was doing a cross cultural trip in Northern Ireland and I woke up for my internship knowing that an hour earlier my parents and sister had left for the airport. It’s the same feeling I had a year ago when my parents wrapped up their visit and headed back to Ohio while I started my work day.
It’s diving back into the routine after loved ones have offered a welcome riff.
I had that feeling this morning because our time in Mexico with our Charlottesville friends drew to an end. When I woke up at 8:30 am this morning, my friends were already on a plane home. The sky was already twitter-blue and I heard vacationers laughing in the pool beneath my hotel window. The waves hissed against the sandy beach and the sound of a jet ski filtered through my window. But still that subtle annoyance was there- the knowledge that I must return to business as usual.
That’s not part of a traveller’s life, that’s just part of anyone’s life. Or at least anyone who has friends and family scattered elsewhere.
And it wears off as the day goes on and the routine pushes itself back into importance.
Web design instead of whale-watching; content editing instead of snorkeling; a rushed bight at the airport instead of breakfast with friends.
Everyone has a dichotomy, not just the traveller. Many of our friends are in somewhat transitional stages right now so the conversational whirl-pooled around these topics. One friend wants to be both a farmer and a vagabond. The other wants both security and something to be passionate about.
Unless you love just one thing in life, you too will have a dichotomy and to love one thing, would be very sad. To love travel so much that I wouldn’t have that unsettling feeling I described of my waking thoughts when my friends left, would be more sad than this reality. It’s a “better to love and lose” kind of thing.
It’s better to enjoy so many things, that you are sometimes without ALL the things you enjoy.
This week we made a quick trip to South Africa.
I know that sounds bizarre, but it’s true and very demonstrative of our life these days. We left Houston for South Africa last Friday and will leave Africa this Friday (today). A week-long teaser of Africa.
Despite how miserable an 11 hour flight, followed by a 12 hour layover followed by a 10 hour flight is…this trip to South Africa has been absolutely incredible. Also, since we work as we travel, we can’t treat our trips as vacations. Thus, 5 days in South Africa means 1 day of recreation, but that one day was as epic as 5 elsewhere. It was incredible. We rented a jeep for the day and went on a rouge safari in the small but enjoyable Pilanesberg National Park.
In fact, I think Drew may have some kind of super power for attracting animals. …
Now, due to realizing that google does not like for the same content to appear twice on two different websites…(even if they’re both mine) I’ll need to link to my other website. To finish the story and skip all the “tips of travel” bits, scroll down to the “Now I’m going to let my story-teller side out” portion of the post on this link: DIY Safari Johannesberg South Africa.
Thanks for cooperating with my goofy process of learning what does and doesn’t work for SEO on the internet. In the future I will make sure I create entirely unique content for both sites. Just this once however, please follow the above link to check out the full story on my other site.