Each one is tied to a pin in the map for me. A tree that taught me what it was to truly weep for humanity’s children. A cold room that embodied fear and raised the hair on my neck. A particular full moon that rose over the return of joy, her silvery light illuminating hope and possibility. A litany of offerings to shrines on all continents leading to the candle lit at the feet of St. Francis, in honor of remembering and letting go. The olive press of moral responsibility, pulled in its endless, grinding rotation by the ass of determination.
The more I travel, the more the road teaches me.
When [BootsnAll editor] Adam and I were talking about this piece, he said to me, “I thought you could write something about the ways travel has made you a better something… like the parent one you did… only, I don’t know… friend? Wife? What?”
That made me laugh. Travel hasn’t made me better at either of those things. What indeed?
I’ve been thinking, for some time, about what I’m learning, what travel is teaching me, and how it’s changing me, one day at a time. It occurred to me that the summation of all of the lessons is this:
Travel has made me a better Lover.
A lover of self, a lover of individuals, a lover of humanity at large, a lover of the possibilities, a lover of opportunity, and a lover of what is, in any given moment, right in front of me.
It’s just about the time when I think I’ve wrapped my head around something, “got it,” as they say, that the world brings me to my knees. Compassion is like that. I was raised with compassion and saw it doled out in giant platefuls around dinner tables and roadside rescues throughout my childhood. An active mantra that we used to brainwash our own children when they were tiny elves was, “Love people, not things.”
But there is compassion, and then, there’s compassion. The layers of this lesson cut me to my core on an alarmingly regular basis. Hungry children, battered wives, land mine victims, survivors of genocides, a tiny blonde orphan girl, clinging to my leg, tears running down her face, looking up at me and crying, “Mama?”
Synonyms for compassion include: mercy, tolerance, kindness, and humanity. An antonym is indifference. If travel is anything, it’s the enemy of indifference. You can’t pretend “they” are not there. You can’t turn the TV channel when the images get too disturbing. You’re faced with a choice, one that will require action. That choice, for me, has been to push past my internal boundaries and my first world mindset and work to deepen compassion, which is to say, Love.
I got a really lovely email from an acquaintance recently. She’d responded to my call for folks to purchase some weavings, at fair trade prices, to help a Mayan friend of mine forward.
“We can’t travel,” she said to me, “And I know that there are all these problems out there in the world, but I never know what I can do to help, they all seem so big, and I’m so small, and I don’t have very much that I can give. That’s why I love that you shared this. I can do this. And it matters.”
Of course everyone, no matter where or how we live, has the opportunity to give and love daily. It’s a matter of focusing on it, and looking for it. Traveling has; however, expanded our opportunities. I’ve seen places and been exposed to needs I wouldn’t have by staying home. I’ve met people who I’d never have crossed paths with any other way. I’ve been inspired by their passions and the projects that move them.
Travel has made me a better Lover, because every day the world presents an opportunity to love. I’m not frustratingly limited to an annual donation to a big international charity that may or may not be allocating the money in a way I’d be proud of.
Travel has introduced me to individual needs that are within my power to meet, and micro-organizations of the highest ethical standard that, while they can’t necessarily provide the all important tax write off for the donation, make better use of my time and money than anyone could expect. If practice makes perfect, and opportunity is required for practice, go traveling if you want to grow in Love.
Introduced me to myself
Perhaps it isn’t the travel at all. Perhaps it’s just the natural evolution of life, and mine has just happened to occur on the road. I guess I’ll never know that for sure. What I do know is that as we’ve traveled I’ve discovered who I am, where I fit in this world, and what it means to love myself in a way that allows me to truly love others.
That took a while. I’m not a particularly quick study on some things and I’ve never been great about prioritizing myself. I’m improving. The road has hammered home that age old wisdom of, “You can’t give what you don’t have,” and “You can’t love others if you don’t love yourself.”
Boy howdy. That’s a challenging one to learn and relearn, isn’t it? I tattooed a reminder on my wrist last summer, in the language of a place I haven’t been to yet. That might seem funny, but it’s important, because the lesson is evolution, the unendingness of it, the celebration of beginnings and new beginnings, the acknowledgement that where I’ve been is not any more significant to my eventual self than where I have not been yet. Loving the process. Loving where I am in it. Loving those who join me in a particular moment, for a particular purpose, and yet holding it all loosely because the essence of the experience is continual change.
Love and gratitude are interconnected, don’t you think?
We are grateful for that which we love, and love grows out of a deepening gratitude. Travel makes me thankful, every single day. To my parents, for the gift of life and the amazing launch into it. For my first world privilege. For the choices I have that are borne out of that. For the simplest things like a bed with a mattress on it, clean water, a toilet that flushes, and soap.
I am grateful for people, too: friends, family, acquaintances, strangers. People who extend love and generosity first and worry about the details later. People who stick with me over the long haul, even though doing so almost always means inconvenience; I’m hard to keep hold of.
I’m grateful for health and good healthcare, adequate nutrition, education, and financial security. My knee jerk reaction to the increased gratitude that has resulted from the stark contrast in realities that surrounds us when we travel, is to love, to give, to share. Time, space, material goods, meals, opportunities, whatever is within reach. Gratitude for the immense wealth in my own life, even in our leanest times, has caused me to up my game where real love is concerned.
How could I do otherwise?
Got into my head
Perhaps the greatest effect travel has had on my capacity as a Lover, is in education. The world teaches you things, if you will let her. Beyond the passive lessons, there is so much more that can be understood if a person is willing to ask questions, dive deeper in a community, learn a language, read books, and seek to truly understand.
Rustik, my driver and guide in the Ukraine, taught me more in the hours we spent trapped in a car together, bumping along the abysmal roads between Kiev and Khmelnytskyi, than I’d ever learned glued to the TV set during the Chernobyl disaster, as a child.
First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung, introduced me to Cambodia. Stepping over bones and clothing fragments surfacing at the Killing Fields changed my view of the world forever. Becoming friends with a man who makes it his business to provide education and hope for kids who wouldn’t have it otherwise, because he, himself, was orphaned during Pol Pot’s reign of terror inspired me.
Sharing meals with people who live in hiding because their political choice puts them at risk was eye opening.
Understanding that every single adult person in my village right now lived, for my entire childhood, in abject fear of death or disappearance because the financial interests of easy access to bananas was more important than respect for the democratic process inspires me to love, every day.
Why? because it’s the least I can do, and the best gift I can give in the face of so many of the deep, harsh realities of this world.
Education is a powerful thing. It moves us beyond black and white. Beyond pat answers and simple solutions. It acknowledges complexity. It acknowledges humanity. It promotes understanding over generalization or propaganda.
For me, the more I learn, the more I am moved to love. I am regularly at a loss. Stuck between worlds. Frustrated by my own limitations and struggling with my own inner landscape. I’ve accepted that I cannot change the world in any grand way, but I am also faced, daily, with the reality that we are all changing the world with every single action and reaction. I’m responsible for those actions, and reactions, and the effect they have on the world. I think about that a lot.
The more I travel, the more I learn, the better Lover I become.