New trip, new you? Travel and the opportunity for change

mind the gap

A paradox:  the thing that frightens me most in the world is flying.  The rumbling engines, buried somewhere in the gut of a monster whose insides I cannot see; the finality of the cabin door closing; the complete and total trust in two strangers in the pilot’s seat, not to mention the myriad more on the ground, making sure two planes don’t meet nose to nose at 500 miles per hour, making sure the runway is clear but not slick, the wings free of ice and the fuel tank full. The deceptively fluffy clouds and their turbulence filled interiors.  The 36,000 feet that separate me from the ground. And yet, my favorite place in the world is an airport.  Any airport will do, although some, of course, are better than others.  London’s Heathrow is a marvel.  San Francisco’s new terminal has free Google Chromebooks, an organic juice bar and a yoga room.  But it is not these things that make me love airports.  I’ve never known, in fact, what it is, knowing merely the likes that, while exemplary, fall short of explaining the love:  the antiseptic smell; the ten issues of Cosmo, all trumpeting sex tips in different languages; the permission to eat crappy food (because everyone, in an airport, gives themselves that permission).  I didn’t know where the love came from, though, until I was on a bus from Lisbon, in Portugal, to Seville, in Spain’s Andalucia.

“Zack,” I said to my boyfriend, who was nodding off in the seat next to me.  I poked him.  “Zack, I had an epiphany.”

He opened one eye.  “Yeah?”

I’d been thinking of the time we’d just spent in Lisbon, and the last time I’d been on a bus several days earlier, to Lisbon from Porto in the north.  As much as I enjoyed walking around the glowing white streets of Lisbon, sampling the tart cherry liquor and chocolate salami, the part where my head tingled, where my palms sweat slightly and I tapped my toes---that was earlier.  That was on the bus, and it was happening again.  To Zack, I said, “I don’t like traveling because of the places I go.  I like traveling because of the opportunity for change, because of the hope of transferring locales, of the possibility the unknown offers.   I like the places themselves, of course, but it’s more about the change---the possibility for it, and then, hopefully, the reality of it---that’s the part I love.”

I settled back into my seat, satisfied.  Airports, then, were the ultimate place of opportunity: hundreds and thousands of possibilities for changes, branching upward and outward into the endless sky from the terminal filled hub, in which I sat, and waited, and savored.

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin (if there can be such a thing), writes that, “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

While many people think of vacations as fulfilling the first element---what feels better, really, than laying on a beach with a cocktail in hand, or sampling gelatos on a stroll through Rome---I’ve always, without realizing, thought of it as accomplishing the last element: the atmosphere of growth.  Each place, with its different things to do, see, eat, smell, taste, hate, and love, offers the possibility of making me different, ever so slightly.  Each place offers me the opportunity to change---hopefully, to grow---as a person.

“Do you think that’s universally true?” Zack asked, having now awoken enough to engage.  “Does a trip to remote Africa offer the same potential for change as a cruise in the Bahamas?”

I pondered the question.  Do, as he asked, the trips of the “feeling good” variety provide the same atmosphere of growth that I so desired?  Did travel inherently offer opportunity for change, or is that potential limited to a certain kind of trip?

My best trips, the ones that I savor in memory for months and years after, are the ones that have been the hardest.  There were the two months I spent in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, where I burst into tears at least three chaotic, crowded border crossings, felt dirty constantly, and was 100% positive I was going to die at least five times (you may not want to trust my odds predictions).  I felt more changed at the end of it, but also simply more satisfied.  When I look back on it, the colors are brighter, the smells richer, the interactions more readily accessible in the banks of my mind (there is, of course, something else to be said for knowing, as with a place like Syria, that you went at a specific point in history; that it will be fundamentally changed should ever you return).

Does this mean that the trips that I primarily simply indulge in simple pleasures are less worthwhile?  I don’t think so.  There is something to be said for the change inspired by allowing yourself to just be, of acknowledging the value of pleasure, of saying, I have no where to go other than here, no one to indulge other than myself.  This kind of environment offers its own opportunity for change, for reflection, for growth---although sometimes, I think there is merit in not seeking growth at all.

And sometimes, it’s better to be in an airport: the great joy in being safe on the ground, and knowing that, soon enough, you’ll take flight.