Tuesday, March 22, 2016

TRAVEL: Meeting Places and Exploring People

When I was younger, around three or four years old, farther back than I can remember, my mother asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. My answer was that 'I wanted to travel the world and meet people.' I do remember being extremely fascinated by photos in my early geography books showing children dressed in indigenous costumes, walking alongside farm animals on muddy paths in an extremely rural part of some random country. From the point of view of a child that had never left the suburban neighborhood of South Florida, the images in those photos could have easily been from another planet.. and they seemed absolutely magical.
Aside from regular trips upstate to Disney World and to visit relatives in St. Augustine, my family never really had the opportunity or reason to leave Florida. At the age of 17 when I left for the Marine Corps, I had still never seen a mountain or even a hill any larger than a speed bump. Florida is quite flat, thanks to some meandering icebergs that bulldozed their way through the region many million years ago. I had never seen snow or felt an earthquake, and aside from the historical old-town in St. Augustine, I had not seen many buildings more than even 100 years old.
I am not saying anyone should deprive their kids of any opportunity for cultural experiences, but I strongly believe that the first two decades of my life, that I spent dreaming of mountains, castles, snow and foreign lands, instilled in me a passion for exploration and adventure that I will never be able to satiate. I absolutely love the fact that I have so much passion to see the world and to experience every type of culture, and I don't know if it would be the same if I had been overexposed to all of these experiences in my early youth.
When I left for the Marines, I got it guaranteed that I would travel as far as possible... and I couldn't think of anything farther away than Japan. Since then I have made so many mistakes and indulged myself with at least a decade's worth of self-destructive antics.. but the thing that always pulled me out the other side was realizing, once again each time, that there is a whole lot of the world I still need to see.. so I needed to get my act together.
Now, even though I have been actively traveling and living (sometimes barely) on several different continents since 2005, I still feel like I have barely gotten started. Last summer was a game changer though.
Last summer I left for a summer of hiking through Scotland, Spain .. and the rest was up in the air after that but I ended up attending a wedding and then hiking through Wales. For decades I envisioned this trip. Images in my mind of long, gorgeous walks through the the Highlands. Strolling down dirt paths with rays of light filtering through overhead leaves. Breathing the foreign air and enraptured in the mere fact that I was living out the adventures of my long-anticipated dreams.
In Scotland I saw some of the most magnificent mountains. Bigger and more majestic than I had even imagined. In Spain I walked over 600 miles, completely immersed in many centuries of medieval history and architecture. In Wales, I saw lots of sheep.
When I think back on these journeys now though, it seems all of the things I had been looking forward to the most.. the mountains and beautiful scenic views.. where only background settings for the real experiences I was living.
When I think of Scotland, the first three things I remember is (1) how much pain I was in the first three days, walking with a massively overpacked rucksack, through the rain, through the mountains (2) slipping and falling face first into knee-deep, black, Scottish Highland mud (3) by chance, sharing the common area of a Hostel with a group of middle-aged Scottish ladies that called themselves the 'Bad Girls Club.' They brought with them a vibe of a tupperware party crossed with an all-girl biker gang.. and before I knew it I was drinking shots of Malibu rum with them and laughing until I had to retreat.
When I think of Spain the ONLY thing that comes to mind is the ragtag group of 12 or so random people I met and formed a family with. One year later and we have spoken to each other every single day, through a Facebook chat group. Every single photo I have of that epic journey reminds me of these dear friends, if they are in them or not.
When I remember Wales, I absolutely remember the sheep.. but I also remember the mother and son that took me on a spur-of-the-moment canoe trip on a stunning reservoir lake; the mayor of a historical village that met me at a pub and spoke at length and with passion about about how much he loved his town and the people that lived there; and the family that found out it was my birthday and surprised me with a small cake and some hastily purchased Wales souvenir trinkets for gifts.
As I get ready to put on my rucksack once again for a 5-month journey this summer, I am excited to experience a handful of countries I have never been to before. I am spending quite a bit of time researching a route that will let see as much as possible. But, no matter how much research I do, I now know that there is no sight or attraction on my journey that will mean as much to me as the people I will meet along the way.
It does seem oddly fulfilling that what I am doing now is exactly the random thing I told my mother I wanted to do at such an early age. "I WANT TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND MEET PEOPLE." It really all just comes down to that.

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