More than a decade ago, I went to East Africa. It was a remarkable three weeks in southern Kenya with a boy I loved. He spoke Swahili fluently, and I knew even then that I was experiencing a rare trip, a life-changing one I'd never forget.
In Nairobi, I ate sukuma and ugali (sauteed greens and corn meal mush) and roasted ears of maize sold from street vendors behind steaming carts. I drank cold Tuskers and shot pool. I scooped doro wat with doughy injera as an Ethiopian belly-dancer beguiled us.
On safari, I saw the Big 5. I visited an elephant orphanage and saw the wildebeest and flamingo migrations. Thousands of rickety-looking animals fording a river because instinct told them they must, even as crocs lay in wait. A whole lake turned pink by plumage. A black rhino and her darling baby. Great cats stretching and tending their young.
On the small island of Lamu, I devoured curry made from just-caught fish, vats of fresh "joo-eece" (juice) from the fruit vendor next to our inn, and chicken with fiery pili-pili sauce at a the home of a lovely Muslim woman, Hosna, the boy knew.
After lunch she invited me to try on one of her burqas before taking a stroll through the neighborhood. "Everyone knows you're white and foreign," she said, even though I was covered head to toe. "They look at your feet. Can you feel them staring?"
Was it strange? Yes. Was it a tremendous learning experience? Absolutely. Do travel and trying almost always enlarge our senses of the myriad possibilities and respect for differences in the world? Most definitely.
I remember being spat at while living in Amsterdam. An American friend (living in Amsterdam) and I were walking through a park, and a Dutch woman heard us speaking English. She spat and my friend retorted in angry Dutch, stunning the woman and relieving me.
I remember being stuck at the horrid Holešovice train station in Prague, waiting and waiting and waiting. I called it "Holese-shit" and Tom and I laughed for days. The baths in Budapest, the disappointing Sacher tort in Vienna offset completely by the magnificent Klimts at the eponymous museum and the Muchas at his museum too.
I can still taste the rhubarb pie at that diner somewhere by Woodstock, VT. I remember the post office in Quechee, not far from the gorge. The redwoods in Northern Cal, the lunar-like beaches north of San Diego.
I remember accidentally getting off to TGV train in Biarritz instead of San Sebastian. Shit. I spoke Spanish, not French. My friend was waiting for me so we could haul it to Bilbao to see the new Guggenheim museum there. I cobbled together a few phrases dredged from the depths of my mind, got to Spain, ate incredible tortilla and reveled in the opalescent undulations of Gehry's titanium masterpiece. The Rioja wasn't bad either.
It seems to me that as people age, they take one of two paths: the safe, familiar one, or the road less traveled. I plan to always take the latter, and I beseech you to do the same in all ways that you can. Do not close off, don't limit yourself. As best you can, speak to locals. Drive, walk, fly, train, in your own country and far beyond. Jump, ask, learn, try, be humbled and uncomfortable, enjoy something you didn't know you would. Keep growing!
Travel is a superb education, possibly the best. We leave tomorrow for Rome, and although I'm exhausted (so tired that I again forgot the correct documentation for the DMV which, naturally, I only realized once there. For the third time. I still don't have a license. I give up until we get back.), I can't wait to jump the border and fly toward a new adventure.
When in Rome...