Hear the chimes, did you know that the wind when it blows
It is older than Rome and all of this sorrow
See the new Pyramids down in old Manhattan
From the roof of a friend I watched an empire ending
Heard it loud and long, the river’s song
Time marching on, to a mad man’s drum
—Bright Eyes, “Cleanse Song”
Some days I wonder if the world has become too small for us to bear.
It’s spring break, and by all rights I should be out of the city and off to fairer pastures. But by my own failings, I’m still here. I’ve barely left the apartment, even. I haven’t gotten anything constructive done. It’s just unusual that I have the opportunity to travel without taking it. I am a wanderer at heart.
It’s something my parents instilled in me with childhood trips abroad. I was seven, the first time I met my homeland, and in my head it’s still an exotic place. I was nine when we went to Italy, a blur of crumbling buildings and ostentatious churches. At ten, eleven, twelve it was Hong Kong, Taiwan, Geneva.
It comes from my high school years half-lived out on other continents, always moving. As a consequence, I feel at home in any hotel room. My heart beats to the rhythm of the road.
I learned the most about traveling in those years. I learned that a down jacket doubles as a blanket when you’re certain to be sleeping on the bus: upright as you pass through the outskirts of Chicago, or to the southern ports of Greece. I learned to keep a colored ribbon on my suitcase, because you will encounter so many blue Samsonites it won’t even be funny. I learned that you need to shop for the most comfortable shoes possible, even if that takes days and days. And that they have to look at least somewhat presentable if you don’t want to look too American in Western Europe. I learned that, unless you’re plodding through a campground, bringing ankle boots instead of Wellingtons is well worth saving the space.
I learned never to look men in the eyes, in certain parts of the world. Because even that can be interpreted as an invitation. I learned to travel in groups of two or three at the very least. For safety, certainly. And also because you’ll have more eyes to see the world with, and someone to share a crepe with, or buy stupid matching t-shirts with. You’ll have someone to convince you that it really is a good idea to get your ears pierced in the middle of Bulgaria, and that it’s not at all asking for an infection. And if you’re going to get ripped off by a taxi driver, at least spreading it out will soften the blow.
I learned how to move lightly through the world, to pack little and live out of a small suitcase for months and months and season changes. And then to bring even less, to save room for what you’ll want to bring home with you. And then not to bring home much at all—unless it’s really good or funny— your friends can get any souvenir on the Internet, anyway. Tell them stories, but good ones. Ones that will make them laugh. Write a journal. In a few years, you won’t remember what your pictures were all about, but you can always go back and read what you were feeling.
And as much as I learned, the startling truth must come out eventually: as good as I am at traveling I’m terrible at planning trips, and I’m even worse at planning them alone. This winter I went to California with a few vague deadlines as to where I was headed. It turned out to be a good time, and I visited friends I loved dearly, but it could have been so much more if I’d put in the effort to plan beforehand. And now, here we are on day three of spring break, and I haven’t got a place to go. Instead I’m dreaming only of close options. Of cities just a little smaller and a little further south.
I’m terrible at traveling alone. I tend to get lost in my own head, as if seeing without seeing. There is an inertia here, and I lose patience for monuments, avoid the crowded markets, only muster up enthusiasm for museums. Those I can wander through those as though lost in a book.
Maybe the only things I think are really worth seeing are people. Old friends, friends to be made, friends along for the ride. Maybe that’s it, though. In the end. As much as we care about anything, we care more about people: going to them and seeing them. Bringing them with us or finding them in their cities, or in their country cabins hidden away out of sight. Learning about their lives and eating donuts with them on the roofs of their cars while watching stars you can’t see back home. These are the things worth traveling for.
Let’s head out tomorrow. I’m itching to hit the road.
Inspired by today’s Daily Prompt, the Happy Wanderer.