I have been wondering a lot lately just why people become addicted to travel. In my memoir, which I call Bowing to Elephants, I identify myself as a “travel junkie,” I see the image of a lonely being like myself who simply must get that business class seat on a plane, that wonderful hotel room with a good view somewhere, and keep on going. But why?
Paul Theroux, renowned travel writer, explained that he led a traveling life so that he could know himself more fully. Seeing oneself in an alien context allows you to begin to grasp who you are, I think. You (we) are unique, this is true — for instance, I have an insatiable love for artichokes, James Joyce, zany shoes that never fit and hats I’ll never wear, and I’ve been known to down a pint of Guinness at an Irish pub, which is not exactly the manifestation of femininity in Ireland … And when I’m in Vietnam, Burma, or even Italy, and see myself as I am being seen, quirks and all, it often brings a smile to my face. A sense of o.k.-ness. Different, but o.k.
One of the things I know travel offers me is that reassuring sense that all humans are in the same family, whether we’re slurping Vietnamese Pho, Italian white truffles, burgers, or Indian curry. And because I grew up alienated and alone in an adult world, this being a part of a sprawling humanity means a lot to me. I think it’s called connection. I’ve always loved the idea that seemingly disparate elements are in fact related; I pursued a masters degree in Comparative Literature in my forties so I could explore my own comparative thinking, and I saw the wild parallels between the heroes of such ostensively different cultures as Greece, Russia, France, Ireland, and the United States (we do have the cowboy, after all!).
We need heroes, who, like spiritual leaders, are necessary to remind us to stay on the path that is righteous, treat one another humanely and not inflict harm. They exemplify our highest ideal. Their job is a difficult one, and it involves much traveling, meeting of challenges, and facing death. Some of my personal heroes: my grandmother, the Buddha, Christ (yes, and this from a former atheist), Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, JS Bach, William Shakespeare, Henri Matisse, the Dalai Lama, Robin Williams, Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama, and I could go on and on. My Golden Retriever Francesca who tended me and my heart for over 15 years would also make this list. And all my grandchildren who, like my current dog Peaches, show me how to be in the moment.
So we’re back to this — this “in the moment” thing that is so precious. Teachers are everywhere on the path – we don’t really need to go too far, do we? But, boy that zooming off into the night sky to land somewhere far away on an entirely different day is still a magnificent thrill. New doors opening all the time. New learning. And connection.