Four Ways that Travel Changes Us

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. 

Split
View of Split, Croatia, from Marjan Park in September, 2018.

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!

Perspectives on Budapest

Before visiting Budapest, I had no real expectations or idea about what I would see, feel, or do. I did take some time to learn a few bits of the Hungarian language, which allowed me to more easily connect with the locals. Once I opened the dialogue with their native words, they were accommodating and switched to English. The young people spoke nearly perfect English, and I learned about the recent history out of communism. Budapest felt like a very free city, and it wasn’t until my final trek to the bus station that I realized I hadn’t seen a single law enforcement officer or military personnel during my week there. I don’t know what daily life is like as a resident of Budapest, but I do believe that Americans have some growth opportunities to learn from the resourcefulness, creativity, and expression apparent in this city.

Szimpla Kert

Inside of Ruin Bar
A quick view inside Szimpla Kert, Budapest’s most famous romkocsma, or ruin pub. This particular ruin pub was constructed inside a closed factory that was scheduled to be torn down. The owners decided to turn it into somewhat of a community center instead. Now it offers a farmer’s market, a few places to eat and drink, and spaces that Hakim Bey might call, “temporary autonomous zones.” I think these ruin pubs could be positive inspiration for those of in the States who are tired of the empty big box retailer buildings and the unfilled strip malls. Szimpla Kert is filled with post-modern art, permaculture decor, quality food, electronic music, and life.

Szent Istvan Bazilika

Basilica
St. Stephen was Hungary’s first King, and his right had is supposedly stored and preserved inside the church. I didn’t take the tour, but this is where I arranged to meet a person from Couchsurfing who wanted to show me around the city.

Public Fountain in front of Gellert Thermal Bath

Public Mineral Water Fountain
The public water fountain offers anyone the opportunity to fill their bottles with the healing mineral water, famous in Budapest. The waters are said to help with pain relief, stomach and digestive issues, skin problems, and general stress and malaise. I sampled three different thermal baths, which I will write about in another entry. Gellert is located on the Buda side of the city. You can see Liberty Bridge connecting to Pest across the Danube in the background.

Szechenyi Lanchid

Crossing the Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge crosses the Danube River to connect the two cities of Buda and Pest, representing the link between the East and the West. This is considered one of the most popular tourist destinations in Budapest, and based on the long line of people walking across, I believe it. This is the Pest-facing view of Gresham Palace.

St. Ivan’s Cave

Castle in the Hillside
Also called Gellert Hill Caves, or Gellerthegyi-barlang, St. Ivan’s Cave is named after the monastic hermit who lived there and healed the sick from the mud and the thermal water that flows through the cave system. This cave was then used as a Nazi army hospital during WWII. Under communism, the cave was sealed and the space was closed. It opened again in the late 1980s, and was restored in the early 1990s. Today it is now used again as a sacred space for Catholic monks.

Pedestrian Side Street near Vaci utca

Pedestrian Street
Vaci utca is a huge pedestrian shopping district. It is lined with elegant cafes and upscale shopping. I’m not particularly in the market for Zara or Swarovski, but I walked through to take a look. In my opinion, these streets are much more aesthetically pleasing than the American inner-cities packed with traffic, homelessness, over flowing trash cans, and people plugged into headphones. The district was reminiscent of San Francisco, without the wealth gap and substance abuse.

Nagyvasarscarnok

Public Market
This is the Central Market Hall. The building had been badly damaged during the World Wars, and was restored in the 1990s. On the basement level is pickled vegetables and fish, on the second or ground level are spices and produce, and on the third level are crafts and eateries. I bought some grapes from a vendor, and the language barrier was a bit challenging. It was also very crowded. I didn’t stay long, but I left with a few bunches of grapes and 500ml of fresh squeezed grapefruit and orange juice.

 

 

Perspectives on the American West

Northern California

The Lake as Art (1)
Lassen National Park, glistening in late July snow and bubbling with mud pots.
Monitor Pass
California State Route 89 after passing the summit at Monitor Pass, heading toward Highway 395. At an elevation of 8,341 feet with a 9% grade from Markleeville, Rte. 89 and Monitor Pass is considered one of the most hazardous roads in California.

Southern California

Mojave Desert
Owens Valley, California, nestled within the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the White Mountains, and the Inyo Mountains, is one of the deepest in the United States. On the southern end of the valley is Owens Lake, which was drained in 1926 to give water to Los Angeles, and is now a dry endorheic alkali flat.

Utah

Utah's Dixie
Utah’s “Dixie” rests between St. George and the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Although the Virgin River Anasazi were the first residents, the area became home to the LDS Church cotton mission during the Civil War. Rumor says it was named the “Dixie” to commemorate the cotton production.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Dramatic shadows contrast upon unique sandstone rock formations within Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Idaho

Sawtooth Scenic Byway
Idaho’s Sawtooth Scenic Byway passes through fertile farmland and alongside vista points of lava and wind-blown sage.
Salmon River Scenic Byway
Idaho’s Salmon River Scenic Byway parallels the Salmon River from northeast of Sun Valley, until the Montana border. Few towns dot the landscape, but horses watch on as I take a break from the road and the cliffs.

Montana

Phillipsville, Montana
Phillipsville, Montana, is a surprising tourist village along Montana’s Highway 1. It’s well-kept historical downtown is quaint, and good for a quick break and walk.

Wyoming

Bighorn National Forest Tundra
The 1.12 million acres of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming includes two mountain peaks that rise over 13,000 feet, and both forest and tundra ecosystems. This gravel road through the tundra ends at the trail head to hike Medicine Mountain. The Lakota, Crow, and Cheyenne people all consider the Bighorn mountains to be sacred spaces.
Deer Family in Grassland Bighorn National Forest
After a chilly and exhausting night camping in the Bighorns, I stumbled upon this family of deer grazing in the meadow. Some sources suggest that the deer is a symbol of intuition, regeneration, and the ability to move gracefully through life’s obstacles.
Buffalo, Wyoming
Downtown Buffalo, Wyoming. Groups of bikers were passing through alongside me, heading eastward toward the annual rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Devil's Tower National Monument
According to the oral history of the Crow people, the grand monument now called Devil’s Tower grew from a rock that sprang into the sky to protect two young girls from becoming bear food. The deep groves on the side of the monument are bear claws. The Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota people all have versions of a legend as well, and the bear is a common thread between all the histories.

Nomad on the Move

It was a week ago to this day that I closed my position at the environmental justice non-profit in northern California, and said goodbye to friends, coworkers, and the life that had become familiar for two years. I felt no sadness, as my return to my own personal wilderness was manifest from a plan sketched in my mental notes a year earlier. It was closure and peace, and in the final months of my time, I visited old friends from grad school and connections from my Red Cross days, people I had not seen for years.

A comfortable awareness of transition eased the relationships along, and in each interaction, I felt profound gratitude that my life had shared space with these individuals for a moment in time. As I shook hands and said goodbye to the Executive Director at the non-profit where I had worked, he said, “thanks for stopping by,” and that went on to explain that’s how life is; we come into one place, meet people, gather experiences, and then continue onto somewhere else. Spoken like a true nomad.

The day after my job was done, I wasted no time getting on the road. I packed my car with what remained of my belongings, trimmed down to the essentials of camping gear, clothing, a single bin of household goods, and my dog, and crossed Monitor Pass south of Tahoe to pick up California’s legendary Highway 395.

Big Pine Creek Campground (1)
Camping in Big Pine.

I paid $5.00 per gallon for gasoline in Lee Vining beside the ancient Mono Lake, phoned a friend back east while borrowing WIFI signal in a McDonald’s parking lot, and camped beneath the distant roar of thunder in Big Pine. The next day, I detoured far south to Long Beach to relax at a friend’s house with her beautiful family, and she and I laughed together as my dog played tag with her three year old son. We planned our professional futures, discussed the class struggle, and noted the temporality of life itself.

Now with an expansive desert between myself and California, the moments feel antiquated, like they unfolded in another lifetime, and this body has already lifted itself from those roots. From where I sit on this outdoor patio at a vegan coffee shop in downtown Ogden, Utah, I see only the mountains before me, and their new challenges to overcome. It’s northward from here.

We all know, intellectually, that life is short, that time slips away, that unfulfilled dreams never die, and that in the end we will want more love and not really care much about money. Those truths are more difficult to grasp and build as tangible foundations on our earth in the chaos of economic volatility, global injustice, and the president or some other celebrity’s latest inflammatory tweet. Let’s slow down, find whatever gives us faith, and enter the wilderness. If we are afraid to cross the desert and the mountains, we will never know what’s waiting on the other side.

Lessons from Five Months with a Backpack in South America

A few years ago, I spent five months backpacking through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. I covered roughly 10,500 miles on the ground, traveling between sweltering below sea level jungles, to breathless high-elevation mountain tops. Although I stayed in hostels and showered if possible, it was difficult none-the-less to live out of a backpack for about 150 days and nights, especially when roaming through so many climate zones. While I learned plenty of tangible skills, the deepest lessons are philosophical, and I am still integrating them into my life years later.

imageedit_28_2271186035
Leaving Minca, Colombia.

Negotiate a balance between control and chaos.

Circumstance is an unknown variable in the formula of time. Although we might think we know our next three moves, elements beyond our scope of action could interfere. Reality is a shared manifestation between our own desires and the wishes of countless other factors. Keep the vision loose, and observe obstacles on the horizon. Outline contingencies and alternative paths when important outcomes are at stake; if nothing much is at stake, allow for cosmic alignment to guide the decision. On a day of abundance, flip a coin. On a day of scarcity, measure all possibilities and choose the most conservative option. Some things can be known, but the future is untold.

Release attachments.

Life is a temporary arrangement. We are accustomed to believe that a place is “ours,” that we have a home and it belongs to “us,” but even those people and those spaces that we inhabit once the adventure is closed will someday fade into the archives of our moment of time on this planet. We are all travelers, but some of us move more often and move faster than others. We are all nomads who haul our belongings behind us, but some of us drag a much smaller heap. The less baggage we carry, the easier to accept our own impermanence. No matter how beautiful the sunset over a canyon, the morning dew upon a meadow, the touch of a lover, the laughter in an impossible friendship, the moment will end. Appreciate what it is, a fleeting blessing. Accept it, and carry on.

Prioritize.

Choices between competing options are an inevitable consequence of the attempt to live fully, to dream grandly, and to grow abundantly. It is impossible to accomplish everything, to meet everyone, and to experience the destinations along all the paths through life. A full cup gives as much nourishment as one that overflows, without the waste. Decide what is most important to see, to do, to become, and travel fully in that direction. We can always look back, but that creates a risk of becoming stuck travelling one length of road over and over again. It is an expansive world. Try to focus.