Despite long flights, natural disasters, expense, dangers and frustrations, travelers must travel. I realized this more than ever when I settled into the dreaded middle seat on a fourteen-hour flight from Hong Kong to Dallas next to a large woman traveling alone in her late sixties. Rarely do I meet a solo, retirement age, American woman in semi-poor health traveling in third world countries (the flight had just come from Cambodia). It begged the questions of where are you going, where have you been?
The woman simply had wanted to see Angkor Wat, and had spent thirty hours each way on planes and in airports to do so. She spent a mere two days in Cambodia after the flights, buses and vans required to get there, but she saw what she had come for. This scenario interests me because there will come a time in everyone’s travels when it is truly just an educational experience—not so fun, not so relaxing and definitely not easy. Traveling can be downright frustrating at times, but for the traveler, it is an essential part of life. The urge to learn what is around the corner can be so important for some that it forgoes the need for other life essentials like paying for food and rent. ‘No risk, no reward’, or ‘curiosity killed the cat’? You decide.
In a recent trip to the Philippines, my capacity for travel frustration was tested in almost every way. From all day van rides in a ten-person van packed with nineteen people and bald tires on a wet, curvy, one-lane mountain road, to feeling extremely vulnerable at the hands of another human in a potentially very dangerous situation, to the last third of the trip being completely compromised due to a super typhoon; I had to really search for the positive. I found it in the smiles and dancing of the ever-happy Filipinos, and in the amazing care that a recently made couchsurfing friend provided us in Manila. I found it in the friendly waves of children as we walked by, and in watching a fishing village work together to pull in a huge catch.
Frustration, danger, and natural disaster are not the only dilemmas a traveler may face. On a far less serious level, there will be times that one might get jaded with travel—as with anything that you do frequently or take for granted. Sometimes an ancient city is just another ancient city, a cathedral is just another cathedral, and a waterfall is just another waterfall. I myself had never felt this sentiment…until last year.
Three years ago a friend of ours mentioned that he was sick of waterfalls. He lived next to Yosemite National Park, CA, USA, home to one of the world’s greatest waterfalls. I didn’t understand it then, it seemed preposterous, but last December I found myself reflecting on my own feelings of preposterousness. Isaac and I had just spent ten days in Southern Spain, and were back in Innsbruck, Austria waiting for the snow to fall. Our ten days in Spain had not been awesome. Although neither of us wanted to admit it, we didn’t necessarily have the best time. Spain in the winter was beginning to be monotonous with one day wandering a city blending into the next, and one café seeming awfully reminiscent of the last. I would have liked to blame those feelings of unrest on the fact that we were preoccupied with the airlines who had lost all of our bags—thousands of dollars worth of skis and gear-- or maybe the fact that the USD was about 60% of the euro, rendering most activities too expensive for us, but in reality, I think I was jaded on gorgeous, awe-inspiring European cities. Yeah, I know. Weird. Preposterous one might say.
Back in Innsbruck and debating our next move, I felt annoyed with myself. I didn’t want to feel jaded; I wanted to feel the childish excitement that I normally feel. However, travel is only great when you don’t have expectations. We made the mistake of expecting to ski in mountains of endless powder, but with no snow in Alps, the fates had a different plan for us. We both just needed to accept the fact that we had to pack a light bag, leave the skis behind, put on some walking shoes and go with it—leave behind expectation, step into the unknown, and seriously enjoy where we were.
Somewhere along the way—sharing Orthodox Christmas with a family in Montenegro, perhaps on the craggy coast of the Adriatic, or maybe it was just a personal experience with a local barman in Slovenia—we were reminded of why we do this. I am sure that our friend who was sick of waterfalls has since then found a waterfall whose thunderous roar has made him smile, maybe even snap a photo. I again have loved to drink a coffee in a beautiful cobblestoned plaza, shadowed by a magnificent cathedral, and have enjoyed perusing the streets of an ancient European city. It did finally snow that winter and we did achieve those long awaited powder turns. In the meantime, once we let go of expectation, we were greeted with a world full of excitement and new experiences, fantastic people, and amazing scenery.
Traveling will constantly challenge you, but with an open mind and a smile, sitting for four hours in Manila traffic or being bed ridden to dengue fever will have an upside—even if that upside comes in the most simple form. There will be times when you ask, what is the point of all this? The answer? A traveler must travel to learn about the world.