By: Robin J. Engel
It is the year 2020. It is the time of Covid. I won’t be able to go to another country any time soon and I just got a new passport. I want a refund, or at least a few years added onto the 10 year renewal.
I’ve never really fit in anywhere. I’ve always been kind of an oddball and somewhat of a rebel. Sometimes, I sit with my legs up on the desk while I’m typing, I often don’t wear makeup, I can talk to anyone, and I’ll sing and dance at the top of my lungs almost anywhere. I go on marches for peace and women and science. I do things that are risky, but not reckless. I live life out loud.
Most of the people I know are acquaintances or just sometimes-friends. In high school, I was friends with a few people in each clique. I was friends with the intellectuals, the stoners, the rebels, the tennis players, and a few strays. They had their spot in the Commons area; it was well known what group they were, but I never confined myself. At my 20 year reunion, one of my old acquaintances told me that he thought I was aloof, actually unapproachable, because I was so cool (he clearly had a crush on me). I never imagined that I was the cool kid, and I told him that I thought the same about him. We laughed at the missed opportunity.
When I throw a party, I have a pretty eclectic group that gathers. There might be artists, musicians, intellectuals, teachers, lawyers, activists, entrepreneurs, Democrats and Republicans in the same room.
I guess that’s why I love to travel – the constant novelty. I’m never bored when I’m traveling. I’ve traveled in so many capacities. Backpacking, hostels, rooming with strangers, sleeping on a bedroll in the middle of nowhere, cruises, fancy resorts, staying with friends and family, alone, or with people, sunning myself for a week by the beach, Club Meds, hiking trips, free days at hotels (in exchange for listening to an hour of a spiel (I only bought a timeshare once), cabins in the woods, historical ruins, museums, camping, expensive day tours, and educational trips. I’ve traveled by bus, by plane, by ship, by car, by van, and by train (I’ve not yet traveled in an R.V.). I’ve been in 20 countries, 30 states, and 4 continents. Compared to some of my friends and family, though, I’m slacking.
When I was a kid, my grandparents took me out of school for 2 or 3 weeks every year to winter in Florida, and by that I mean luxuriating in Miami Beach at posh hotels. That was the place to be. Every evening for dinner, women wore their mink stoles and we ate in an enormous banquet room with enough food to feed a small village. There were huge, ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. After dinner, we would stroll down Lincoln Road on the promenade (no cars allowed) to enjoy the night air and walk off the calories. The best part was playing on the beach every day for hours, or hanging by the pool, listening to black men from the Caribbean play in steel drum bands under the canopies made from palm fronds, while the ladies played Mah jong, with an ocean breeze blowing their kerchiefs awry.
The travel bug really bit me when I was in sleep-away camp where I spent 2 months every summer. It was my last year after 7 wonderful summers, somewhere in the lush, green mountains of Pennsylvania with a mile wide lake between the girls and the boys’ bunks (cabins).
The owners had a cousin, Reuben, who had wanderlust; he’d been traveling around the world since he was 18 with his trusty companion, Trina, a sweet little dog who was never on a leash.
We loved Reuben. All the girls had a crush on the 30-something, confirmed hippie traveler with shoulder length brown hair, broad shoulders, and a perpetual tan. Of course, he only dated the counselors. We were, after all, only 15. But he smoked with us and let us snuggle up to him like a big brother. I asked him if he ever got lonely, always traveling, never really settling down and cementing relationships. He said that he loved everyone (by that I imagine he meant women around the world that fawned upon him) and that the world was his family. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, but yet that thought set something off in me that would never leave. ‘The world as your family.’
At 17 (I graduated a year early, having skipped 8th grade), my grandparents sent me to Europe for several months with a group called “Students Abroad”. I spent 6 weeks on a hill in Nice, France, in an estate that used to be privately owned, but was absorbed by the state after some war. Classical music students from around Europe came to the dorms there, studying at a nearby conservatory. My group was supposed to be learning French, but mostly, we stayed out late dancing with the sexy French men, pretending to be older than we were, and slept through the morning French classes, which made my brain swell anyway since they spoke no English. During the day, we laid on rocky, sandless beaches, then sipped cappuccinos at nearby cafes.
My fondest memory of that trip was when we got to Paris for a week. There was a small porcelain tub next to the toilet that had water running in it. We assumed that it was a footbath and enjoyed soaking our tired, touristy feet. Later that evening, our chaperone enlightened us. The footbath was actually a bidet, used to wash one’s bottom after using the toilet.
By this point, I was smitten with the idea of traveling and being in strange lands where I could be anonymous and reinvent myself. The novelty of new cultures, new smells and sights and languages has continued to intrigue me. I didn’t get out of the country again until I was 25. (Okay, I did get to Canada several times, but everyone from New York goes to Canada the way people in Arizona go to Mexico.)
Like many other young people around the world, especially everyone from Australia, I traveled for 3 months with a pack on my back, a traveler’s guide (in those days the popular ones were Frommers or Fodor’s), and very little money (there were no cell phones back in the day, so I had to call home on those pay phones in the booths that Clark Kent used to magically change into his Superman cape). When I heaved that backpack onto my body, not having practiced in advance, it was so heavy that I repacked, leaving out a few books and anything else that would lighten the load. In retrospect, I should have taken them since after a week, my muscles were conditioned and I could walk for miles without even noticing the weight.
Luckily, I left one of my favorite books by Ursula LeGuin in my pack and later met a man who was reading the same book. I met him at a hostel in Vienna, and we went to see the Moscow Symphony Orchestra together, standing room only. Then, we traveled together for a week, before parting ways. He was traveling through Europe, following his favorite composer, Gustav Mahler, making unedited audio tapes of concerts (that’s when I learned who Mahler was, a composer who wrote dark, brooding music).
When I met him, I had been traveling with a female friend that I met in Interlaken Switzerland, which really did look like something out of the movie Heidi – kelly green rolling hills, goats with bells on their necks that grazed on the grassy hillsides, and little chalet houses. It was there that I met one of my best friends for life. I made my way to the top of the Jungfrau mountain, taking a train, a tram, and a chairlift, having lunch in a revolving restaurant at the peak, giving onlookers a 360 degree view of the steep, towering snow-covered slopes. It was so cold that I spent money on an adorable, purplish tweed sweater that I would keep for years (backpackers rarely spend ridiculous amounts of money on things that typical tourists buy, but I was caught unawares of the cold). On my way back to the hostel, an American woman with a backpack and a New York accent asked me if I knew the way to the hostel. I responded in kind, with my own New York accent. We traveled together for a week and met up again, a month later, in the States where she lived 3 miles away. Eventually, we both serendipitously moved to Arizona; it was not planned. We are still BFFs.
There is a freedom in travel that cannot be surpassed. It gives you strength, because you have to be vigilant, you have to watch out for yourself, and yet, you have to trust that people will be kind to you, that they will take in the weary traveler and give them a spot of tea or a glass of wine, perhaps even a bed for the night. So, you have to trust people, but really, you have to trust your instincts. And the best part is The adventure. Not-knowing what is going to happen next. The possibilities! Living in the moment, which is frightfully cliche, yet one that is ultimately apropos.
I think everyone should visit another country, one very different from their own, so they can begin to understand that we are all human. I think there would be less violence in the world, more compassion and empathy, if everyone had the opportunity to see for themselves.
In these dark days of the pandemic, the economic downturn, riots in the streets highlighting racial injustice, political instability, and the hatred that seems to be mounting in the world – against immigrants, against the police, against anyone with a different political view, and the mounting racial and cultural animosity, I think the world would be a better place if everyone had to travel. If everyone could just go see that humans are the same everywhere, perhaps this would humble them. Perhaps they would experience empathy and open their hearts. Not only that, but perhaps visiting other people in the world would lay bare their gratitude, especially for people who live in rich countries. If they could see how people struggle, if they had to go to the toilet in places where people don’t have the proper sanitation…To quote John Lennon, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.”
I have never felt so free, so right, as when I am traveling. And now, of course, due to this pandemic, I have no idea when other countries will let us in again.
Still, I am a traveler. I wish that I belonged to some group that embraced me forever, or that my family was still in proximity. But none of this is true.
Traveling has been my greatest education. And so…I have come to think of myself as a traveler on this earth, always exploring, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of other humans. My life feels like it’s one giant metaphor. I can be sad, I can be lonely, I can yearn for more, or I can embrace the moment, this life, and just go with it. If nothing else, life has been one heck of a journey, so hand me a ticket for the next adventure. This time, as I get older and less nimble, I’m gonna take a backpack with a handle and wheels. Let me know if you want to come along for the ride.