We Accept the Unknown
When we travel, we communicate a message to the universe that we are open to new people and places, who carry with them new ideas and experiences. The more open we are and the more often we reinforce the behavior of someone who is open, the more fulfilled and enriched our lives are with growth, opportunity, and insight. Through travelling we accept whatever challenges, obstacles, difficulties, and longings we will encounter, and venture forth, knowing the journey may be treacherous, but acting in faith that whatever we experience will bring us closer to the truth that we are on this planet to learn.
A short story by Diane Johnson called Great Barrier Reef describes this transformative power of travel. The female narrator, an American from California, has agreed to accompany her Australian boyfriend on a five day journey to the Great Barrier Reef. Her shipmates repulse her, the food churns her stomach, and she is miserable in the meager accommodations. Furthermore, she encounters two other American passengers, a married man and woman, and she resents being trapped at sea with others of her kind.
To add to her frustrations, the ship stops at tiny islands where the passengers shop at tacky tourist stands. Unable to contain her resentment further, the narrator pulls her boyfriend into her misery:
Each morning, each afternoon we stopped at another island … The crew hands the heavy, sack-like people grunting down into rowboats, and hauls them out onto a sandy slope of beach. Up they trudge toward a souvenir shop. This one had large shells perched on legs, and small shells packed in designs on picture frames, and earrings made of shells, and plastic buckets, and plastic straw hats surrounded with fringe, and pictures of hula dancers.
“I don’t care, I do hate them,” I ranted passionately to J. “I’m right to hate them. They’re what’s the matter with the world, they’re ugly consumers, they can’t look at a shell unless it’s coated in plastic, they never look at the sea– why are they here?”
We Confront Our Own Inner Darkness
In her inner mind, the narrator feels guilty about her inability to enjoy her experience. She feels like a petty, small, and materialistic American who is ruining her good-natured boyfriend’s journey to see one of the Earth’s wonders before it is extinct and gone forever. I must admit that I have occupied the same small-minded and judgmental space. In every resort town I have traveled through, I have resented the wealthy Westerners who waddle slowly down the always narrow and cobblestone alleys, dragging their designer luggage behind them. On the local buses, I have cringed at the sound of American or Australian travelers speaking way too loudly, and have wondered, “Don’t they realize that everyone on the bus can hear their conversations?” Feeling superior during these times, I snuggled into my self-absorption and pretended that I was better, or at least not American.
As the five-day journey approaches day three, the narrator begins to learn about her fellow travelers. It is a small group, and she is not able to stay isolated inside her own dark ruminations the entire time. She learns that two of them are brother and sister, and the brother’s wife was recently passed. They were exploring the Great Barrier Reef together to aid the grieving process. A single man was recently retired, and he had saved for twenty years to take this journey. Seeing the Great Barrier Reef had been his lifelong dream. Four of the passengers were a group of friends who had lived freely for 40 years, caravanning around the planet, describing Split, Yugoslavia (Croatia) as, “the most beautiful place in the world.” Having been to Split myself and wandered the ancient hallways of Diocletian’s former palace, I must agree that it is on the top five list.
We Overcome Dangerous and Scary Situations
The narrator attempted to hold onto her chilly demeanor but as they approached the Reef, a massive storm threatened to swallow their relatively small ship. She realized that this was a legitimately dangerous situation, and as the ship dove through the waves, her thoughts turned toward blame. “All J’s [her boyfriend’s] fault. If I ever saw the children again, it would be a miracle, or else them saying in the after years, Our mother perished in the high seas somewhere off Australia. What would they remember of me?”
When the crew began to consider turning back, she was overcome with stubborn contempt that they would travel so far, that she had been trapped for days with her shipmates, and they would not arrive at their destination. She feared her struggle would not receive the simple reward she had sought. It this space of worry, she also felt the concern for the other travelers with her. They also had accepted the journey. They had their dreams and they too had eaten the tinned peas, and they too were thrown across the gulley with the waves and the water beating the side of the ship. At that moment, her thoughts were directed beyond her own misery, and it was in this space of compassion that she began to allow her journey to change her.
The storm subsided as quickly as it had arrived, and they did arrive at the reef. The narrator was shocked to witness the coral as a sighing and sucking sponge. She had imagined a wall of jagged and sharp fragments, not the “eyeless formations of cabbagey creatures … yearning toward tiny ponds of water lying on the pitted surface, pink, green, gray, viscous, silent.”
We Recognize a New Perspective
As she gazed completely still into this nearly alien life-form, she allowed the lessons of the journey to seep into her mind. She was careful not to step on the coral in fear of injuring it, and she was also aware of her toxic mind and her “bad-natured passions” seeping into the water at her feet. The Hindu concept of ahimsa entered her awareness. Ahimsa is the decision to not harm any living beings through action, word, or thought. She realized that she could heal her harmful and toxic behavior on the journey to the reef through a conscious action to do no more harm now, toward her fellow travelers, the coral, or herself. Leaving the reef to return to Australia, she felt “healed of a poisoned spirit.”
It is not the travel alone that transforms us; everything must originate in our own self first. But the acceptance of a difficult journey is the initiation into transformation. It communicates that we are willing to face the unknown, we are willing to confront fear and uncertainty, we are willing to risk our familiar routine for a chance to breakthrough into beauty. Let the adventure begin!